WASHINGTON ― Democrats opened their arguments in the Senate impeachment trial of Donald Trump on Wednesday by laying out a crucial part of the charges against the president: that he put his own interest above the national interest by freezing aid to Ukraine in order to aid his reelection.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the lead House impeachment manager, described a brazen scheme personally directed by Trump and aided by his personal lawyer and top administration officials to pressure the Ukrainian government to open an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden, the leading Democratic front-runner in the 2020 presidential race.
“The U.S. aids Ukraine and its people so they can fight Russia over there and we don’t have to fight them here,” Schiff explained, arguing that Trump’s dealings with Ukraine hindered the United States’ ability to check the Kremlin’s influence and aggression across the globe.
“If this conduct is not impeachable, then nothing is,” Schiff added. “The president was the key player in the scheme. Everyone was in the loop.”
As part of their presentation on the Senate floor, the House managers made extensive use of video, including footage of Trump’s many statements that he wanted Ukraine and China to investigate Biden and his son Hunter.
Wednesday is the first of as many as three days of Democratic arguments, to be followed by up to three days of counterarguments by the president’s lawyers. Senators will then get to ask questions of both sides, and after that the Senate will vote on whether to have witnesses. If the Senate decides not to call witnesses, the trial could be over as soon as next week.
Democrats said they were impressed by Schiff’s presentation, giving him high marks for the way he connected the large body of evidence — including witness testimony, text messages, emails and videos — into a singular narrative of a president hellbent on abusing the powers of his office for personal benefit.
“Adam Schiff’s speech was one of the most compelling I have ever heard. It was a tour de force. ... I thought it was an amazing two and a half hours,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters afterward.
But most Republicans didn’t seem impressed, dismissing the speech as old news.
“I think the fact that they are using visual aids and thinking that you can just take the same information and if you throw it out there enough, it’ll change anyone’s point of view, I don’t think that’s going to work,” Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) told HuffPost.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) dodged questions about whether he found any of the president’s behavior inappropriate by noting that senators are being asked to weigh only the impeachment articles.
“That’s really not the question,” Cornyn said.
During her presentation on Wednesday, impeachment manager Rep. Sylvia Garcia (D-Texas) quoted Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal attorney and point man on his Ukraine pressure campaign, who said early last year that his efforts to get Ukraine to dig up dirt on the Bidens would be “very, very helpful to my client.”
“That’s it, right there,” Garcia said. “Giuliani admitting he was asking Ukraine to work on investigations that would be ‘very, very helpful’ to the president. He was not doing foreign-policy. He was not doing this on behalf of the government. He was doing this for [the] personal interest of his client, Donald J. Trump.”
Expanding the scope of the trial will likely hinge on Democrats’ ability to subpoena witnesses and other documents blocked by the White House.
To convict Trump and remove him from office, Democrats would need to convince 20 Republicans to break rank. Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) said he was “not optimistic” about getting even the four Republicans that Democrats would need in order to win a witness vote because of how Republicans unanimously opposed Democratic motions to subpoena testimony during a marathon session Tuesday night. Only two GOP senators have said they are likely to support calling witnesses after opening arguments: Susan Collins of Maine and Mitt Romney of Utah.
“Being in the room last night was not even in the slightest encouraging because the lockstep vote after vote after vote” by Republicans against the Democratic amendments, Coons said.
Hearing from witnesses like John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser, could be difficult even if enough Republicans defect and vote to subpoena his testimony. Trump on Tuesday claimed that allowing Bolton to testify would be a “national security problem” ― suggesting he may assert executive privilege to block him from doing so. Resolving the dispute over privilege would likely require taking the matter to court and possibly take weeks.
During a caucus lunch on Wednesday before the trial began, Senate Republicans heard from former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, who served under George W. Bush, about “the importance of executive privilege to a president,” according to NBC’s Leigh Ann Caldwell.
Asked about a potential witness deal between the two sides, ensuring that both Bolton and Hunter Biden are called to testify, Schumer said the idea had no merit.
“This isn’t some fantasy football trade,” he told reporters on Wednesday.
The House managers are expected to end the presentation of evidence against Trump by Friday.
Schiff opened and closed his presentation by quoting the authors of the Constitution, saying they gave Congress the power of impeachment specifically for a president like Trump.
“They feared that a president could subvert our democracy by abusing the awesome power of his office for his own personal or political gain,” Schiff said.