The Senate impeachment trial of President Trump could be exceedingly brief if legal scholar Alan Dershowitz has his way.
Mr. Dershowitz, the Harvard Law School professor emeritus serving on the Trump legal team, plans to kick off the Trump administration’s defense by arguing that neither of the two articles passed by the House constitutes an impeachable offense.
“I’m making what could be the most important argument on the floor of the Senate: namely, that even if everything that is alleged by the House managers is proven or taken as true, they would not rise to the level of an impeachable offense,” Mr. Dershowitz said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Democrats promptly rejected Mr. Dershowitz’s gambit. They argued that “abuse of power is at the center of what the framers intended an impeachable offense to be,” said Rep. Adam B. Schiff, California Democrat, chairman of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and one of the 10 House impeachment managers.
“The logic of that absurdist position that’s being now adopted by the president is he could give away the state of Alaska, he could withhold execution of sanctions on Russia for interfering in the last election, to induce or coerce Russia to interfere in the next one,” Mr. Schiff said on ABC’s “This Week.”
The White House and Democrats, trading charges before the Senate begins the trial Tuesday, are trying to win legal style points from an electorate in an impeachment proceeding whose outcome is all but assured before it begins.
House Democrats issued a 60-page legal brief Saturday calling Mr. Trump’s conduct “the Framers’ worst nightmare.” They said the president sought to squeeze a foreign government for political gain with his July 25 phone call with the Ukrainian president.
The White House countered the same day by blasting the “brazen and unlawful attempt to overturn the results of the 2016 election and interfere with the 2020 election, now just months away.”
“This highly partisan and reckless obsession with impeaching the president began even before his election and continues to this day,” said the White House brief. “President Trump categorically and unequivocally denies each and every allegation in both articles of impeachment.”
Mr. Dershowitz countered by citing an argument by Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Curtis during the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson in 1868.
“[Curtis] argued, very successfully, winning the case, that you needed proof of an actual crime,” Mr. Dershowitz said. “It needn’t be a statutory crime, but it has to be criminal behavior, criminal in nature. And the allegations in the Johnson case were much akin to the allegations here — abusive conduct, obstructive conduct — and that lost.”
Former prosecutor Robert Ray, who recently joined Mr. Trump’s legal team, said abuse of power allegations “have been tried on for size before, but they have not fared well.”
“The core of the impeachment parameters allege that crimes have been committed, treason, bribery and things like that — in other words, other high crimes and misdemeanors,” Mr. Ray said on Fox’s “Sunday Morning Futures.”
If that argument prevails, it essentially becomes “an argument against witnesses,” said CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin, which would render moot the question of whether Democrats, Republicans or both should be able to introduce additional testimony during the Senate trial.
House Democrats have sought to introduce new testimony and documents. Senate Republicans have balked, with the stipulation that if the Democrats somehow force the calling of new witnesses, then Republicans should be able to call such witnesses, too.
For Democrats, the problem is that the Republicans would undoubtedly seek to call Hunter Biden. The son of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden received a high-paying post on a Ukrainian energy company’s board, despite having no experience in the industry, while his father was the point man on Ukraine policy in the Obama administration.
Sen. Sherrod Brown, Ohio Democrat, said Sunday he would be “fine” with that.
“We take the position that we want to hear from witnesses. I don’t know what Hunter Biden has to do with the phone call that was made,” Mr. Brown said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Strongly in favor of testimony from Hunter Biden was Donald Trump Jr., who said he hoped Senate Republicans would press for testimony from both Bidens. The former vice president is a front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination this year.
“I’d like to personally hear from everyone, hear from Hunter Biden. I’d like to hear from Joe Biden because, frankly, these are the reasons we’re even having these discussions right now,” Donald Trump Jr. said.
At the same time, he said, he worried that “weaker Republicans” would attempt to squelch the effort.
“If some of those guys don’t want to hear from the witnesses that we’d want to hear from but will hear from the others, I want to know about it because they don’t deserve to be in office,” Mr. Trump said. “Hearing from everyone is totally fair.”
At the top of the Democratic witness wish list would be former National Security Adviser John R. Bolton.
Would Democrats accept a Bolton-for-Biden testimony deal? Rep. Hakeem S. Jeffries, a New York Democrat and House impeachment manager, said it would be up to the Senate, but he clearly wasn’t thrilled with the idea.
“The standard that should apply is relevance as it relates to the central allegation in this case of the president pressuring the Ukrainian government for his own personal political gain,” Mr. Jeffries said on “Fox News Sunday.”
• Dave Boyer, S.A. Miller and Alex Swoyer contributed to this report.