'Danger! Danger! Danger!' Is Trump's team alarmed about their own case?

David Smith in Washington
Photograph: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

“Danger. Danger! DANGER!” Jay Sekulow, a lawyer defending Donald Trump at his impeachment trial in the US Senate, turned himself into a human klaxon on Tuesday, repeating the word “danger” 15 times.

By his lights, Sekulow was warning Democrats of the danger of a partisan, politically motivated impeachment that would lower the bar for imposing the ultimate sanction – the political equivalent of the death penalty – on future presidents.

But another interpretation would be that the combative attorney and talkshow host was warning Republicans of the danger allowing of John Bolton, the former national security adviser, to testify at the trial, potentially causing the president’s entire defence to unravel.

Sekulow’s argument went something like this. Look, what Bolton says isn’t true. But even if it was true, it’s still not impeachable. Not that it is true, you understand. It really isn’t. But let’s just say, for the sake of argument, it was true. You still can’t impeach for that. Got it? Am I clear?

Related: What are the articles of impeachment against Donald Trump?

The trial had been going so well for the White House until the New York Times’ weekend revelation that Bolton, in an upcoming book, writes that Trump did indeed make military aid to Ukraine conditional on the Ukrainian government announcing an investigation into his potential election rival, Joe Biden.

Now there is a Capitol Hill clamour for Bolton to testify. The defence spent most of Monday avoiding the mustachioed elephant in the room until Alan Dershowitz – whose past clients include OJ Simpson, Jeffrey Epstein, Roman Polanski, Mike Tyson and Harvey Weinstein – finally uttered his name.

Sekulow took up the cause on day seven of the trial. Standing at the lectern, with blue tie and blue pocket handkerchief, he began: “What we are involved in here, as we conclude, is perhaps the most solemn of duties under our constitutional framework: the trial of the leader of the free world and the duly elected president of the United States.

“It is not a game of leaks and unsourced manuscripts. That’s politics, unfortunately, and [Alexander] Hamilton,” – yes, him again – “put impeachment in the hands of this body, the Senate, precisely and specifically to be above that fray. This is the greatest deliberative body on Earth.”

He added: “In our presentation so far, you’ve now heard from legal scholars from a variety of schools of thought, from a variety of political backgrounds. But they do have a common theme with a dire warning: danger, danger, danger!

“To lower the bar of impeachment based on these articles of impeachment would impact the functioning of our constitutional republic and the framework of that constitution for generations.”

It was a point he made over and over again. This attempt to take the moral high ground was pretty rich coming from a team that has pushed bogus conspiracy theories about Biden.

Related: Five fantasies Trump is pushing about the Ukraine scandal – and the truth

Sekulow also repeatedly entreated senators to put themselves in Trump’s shoes. Brimming with indignation, he ran through a parade of Fox News villains: the Steele dossier, FBI agents Lisa Page and Peter Strzok, Fisa warrants, former FBI director James Comey and special counsel Robert Mueller. The unspoken message was that Trump is the victim of deep state conspiracy.

What, you may ask, did all this have to do with coercing Ukraine? Sekulow insisted: “You can’t view this case in a vacuum. You are being asked to remove a duly elected president of the United States and you’re being asked to do it in an election year.”

Indeed, Democrats would agree this is not occurring in a vacuum. During their presentation, House managers carefully explained how Trump’s bullying of Ukraine, which is in constant peril from Russia, goes hand in hand with his peculiar affection for Vladimir Putin. Trump’s phone call to Ukraine’s president came a day after Mueller’s congressional testimony.

The Senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer, had his words from the Clinton impeachment quoted back at him. Photograph: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Inevitably, Sekulow griped about the backlash against his team’s criticism of Biden and his son Hunter, who was on the board of a Ukrainian gas company. “Do we have, like, a Biden-free zone?” he demanded. “You can impeach a president for asking a question?”

Then he returned to the Bolton imbroglio. Sekulow dismissed “an unpublished manuscript that maybe some reporters have an idea of maybe what it says ... I don’t know what you’d call that. I’d call it inadmissible, but that’s what it is … You cannot impeach a president on an unsourced allegation.”

Sekulow quoted Trump and Mike Pence’s office denying Bolton’s allegation. He warned against an impeachment based on policy differences. Democrats looked underwhelmed. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota whispered behind her hand to Chris Coons of Delaware, who smiled.

Again that cry of “Danger, danger, danger!”

Klobuchar sighed.

Meanwhile, Senator Mitt Romney, among those who may well vote to call Bolton and other witnesses, was reportedly told off for breaking Senate rules by bringing in a bottle of chocolate milk. He later came back with it in a glass instead.

In what may come to look like wild overconfidence, the defence rested its case after using less than half its allotted 24 hours. Clips of Democrats warning against the Bill Clinton impeachment two decades ago were played, culminating with Chuck Schumer, now Senate minority leader, saying: “My fear is that when a Republican wins the White House, Democrats will demand payback.”

The White House counsel, Pat Cipollone, looked at Schumer and said: “You were right.” The senator’s face remained a mask frozen with a bemused smile.

But this could not be described as a barnstorming finish. Cipollone claimed they had made a “compelling case” and pleaded for senators to “respect and defend the sacred right of every American to vote and to choose their president” a few months from now.

There was an outbreak of muttering among Democrats. It was as if, collectively, they were saying: is that all you got?

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