WASHINGTON — The House Democratic impeachment managers began formal arguments in the Senate trial on Wednesday, presenting a meticulous and scathing case for convicting President Donald Trump and removing him from office on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.
Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the lead House prosecutor, took the lectern in the chamber as senators sat silently preparing to weigh Trump’s fate. Speaking in an even, measured manner, he accused the president of a corrupt scheme to pressure Ukraine for help “to cheat” in the 2020 presidential election.
Invoking the nation’s founders and their fears that a self-interested leader might subvert democracy for his own personal gain, Schiff argued that the president’s conduct was precisely what the framers of the Constitution had in mind when they devised the remedy of impeachment, one he said was “as powerful as the evil it was meant to combat.”
“If not remedied by his conviction in the Senate, and removal from office, President Trump’s abuse of his office and obstruction of Congress will permanently alter the balance of power among the branches of government,” Schiff said in his opening remarks. “The president has shown that he believes that he’s above the law and scornful of constraint.”
The Senate proceeding, the third impeachment trial of a president in the nation’s history, was fraught with partisan rancor and political consequence both for Trump and for the two parties grappling over his future.
In a series of speeches, Schiff and the six other impeachment managers asserted that the president pressured Ukraine to announce an investigation of former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden, while withholding as leverage nearly $400 million in security aid for Kyiv and a White House meeting for its president. When he was caught, they said, Trump ordered a cover-up, blocking witnesses and denying Congress the evidence that could corroborate his scheme.
“President Trump withheld hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to a strategic partner at war with Russia to secure foreign help with his reelection,” Schiff declared. “In other words, to cheat.”
As the Democrats laid out their now-familiar case, there was little doubt about the outcome of the trial, which is all but certain to end in Trump’s acquittal in the Senate, where it would take 67 votes to convict and remove him. But the contours of the trial remained up in the air, as Republicans and Democrats continued to feud over whether to consider additional evidence, including witnesses Trump has forbade from cooperating with the inquiry.
Trump — impatient for his legal team to have a chance to mount a vigorous defense of his behavior — seethed from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, hurling insults at the impeachment managers and telling reporters he would like to personally attend the Senate trial in order to “sit right in the front row and stare into their corrupt faces.”
At a news conference in Davos, Switzerland, where he was attending the World Economic Forum, Trump said that John Bolton, the former White House national security adviser, could not be allowed to testify because he “knows my thoughts on certain people and other governments, war and peace and different things — that’s a national security problem.”
Schiff insisted in his opening arguments that fairness demanded hearing from Bolton, who has pledged to testify if the Senate subpoenas him, and other White House officials. Democrats angrily rejected the suggestion that they might agree to call Hunter Biden in exchange for Bolton’s appearance.
“This isn’t like some fantasy football trade,” Schiff said before the trial commenced Wednesday. “Trials aren’t trades for witnesses.”
Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, told reporters the idea was “off the table.”
A set of closed-door negotiations among senators appears likely to soon intensify as Democrats plot their strategy for winning a vote on witnesses, which would require the votes of a handful of centrist Republican senators who have signaled they are open to the idea. Votes on the matter are likely next week, after the House managers and White House lawyers complete their arguments, and senators have the chance to submit questions about the case.
On the first day of oral arguments scheduled to last into next week, Schiff opened with a plea for patience, telling senators that “we have some very long days yet to come.” But senators already seemed restless; many passed notes to each other, and as the hours wore on, a handful of seats were frequently empty as senators from both parties slipped out of the chamber for brief respites from the weighty — and often very tedious — arguments.
A protester in the Senate gallery briefly interrupted arguments from Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, shouting epithets about a Democratic senator and yelling that Democrats support abortion before being dragged out by Capitol Hill police officers.
On the floor, the managers sought to place Trump’s Ukraine pressure campaign in the context of what they called a broader impulse by the president to cede America’s foreign policy to Russia. It was no coincidence, Schiff argued, that Trump had asked the president of Ukraine for investigations into his rivals just one day after Robert Mueller, the special counsel who investigated Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, issued his report.
“President Trump, believing he had escaped accountability for Russia meddling in the first election, and welcoming of it, asked the Ukrainian president to help him undermine the special counsel’s conclusion and help him smear a political opponent,” Schiff said.
For now, the president’s legal team must sit silently in the chamber as the president’s House accusers have exclusive access to the microphone. Under the rules of the trial adopted Tuesday, the House managers have 24 hours over three days to present their case, leaving White House lawyers to take in their searingly argued case about Trump’s actions, with no opportunity for immediate rebuttal.
The president vented his spleen about the process on Twitter, firing off so many posts that he set a record for any single day in his presidency.
As of 7:30 p.m., as the Senate’s trial session stretched into its seventh hour, Trump had posted or reposted 142 messages on Twitter, surpassing the previous record of 123 set in December. Most of the messages were retweets of messages from allies and supporters assailing Schiff and others prosecuting the case.
During a dinner break Wednesday, Sekulow raced to face reporters, vowing to eventually respond “to what the House managers have put forward, and we are going to make an affirmative case defending the president.”
The tables will turn later this week, likely on Saturday, when the defense team will be given the same 24 hours of uninterrupted time to play to the cameras from the Senate floor, with House Democrats sidelined. The defense of the president could continue into early next week after a break Sunday.
The oral arguments Wednesday began just hours after the conclusion of a lengthy fight over witnesses and documents that stretched into the wee hours of the day and cleaved the Senate along party lines. It was dominated by bitter exchanges between the Democratic House managers and the president’s legal defense team that grew so personal and hostile after midnight that they drew a reprimand from Chief Justice John Roberts, who is presiding over the trial.
Several senators said they were particularly piqued by the managers’ repeated insistence — put most bluntly by Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, who at one point accused Republican senators of “treacherous” behavior — that the Senate was abetting a cover-up of Trump’s misconduct and preparing to hold a sham trial by rejecting Democrats’ demands for witnesses and documents.
“What Chairman Nadler said and how he conducted himself was outrageous and an insult to the Senate,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. “We don’t need to continue the clown circus that started over in the House.”
The tenor of the House Democrats’ presentation Tuesday also bothered some Democratic senators, who took issue with what they characterized as an overly accusatory tone by the impeachment managers. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., told reporters that Nadler “could have chosen better words.”
Even as the House managers began laying out their case, newly released emails revealed additional evidence of friction between the Defense Department and the White House over a freeze sought by the president on military assistance to Ukraine. The emails, released just before midnight Tuesday as a result of a Freedom of Information lawsuit, underscored the confusion and surprise among lawmakers, including some prominent Republicans, learned that the military assistance to Ukraine had been held up.
Arguing for the prosecution, Schiff delved deeply into the details of the Ukraine pressure campaign, citing specific dates and meetings. But he also sought to pull back the lens, telling senators that they must act to remove Trump or “we will write the history of our decline with our own hand.”
Nadler described the effort to smear campaign against Marie Yovanovitch, the former ambassador to Ukraine. Rep. Jason Crow of Colorado discussed the national security implications of withholding security aid from Ukraine. Rep. Val Demings of Florida told senators about the effort to withhold a White House meeting that Ukraine wanted until the country announced investigations into the Bidens.
Trump had at one point embraced the idea of pushing for a quick dismissal of the case against him, but his lawyers chose not to take that opportunity Wednesday. Republican leaders discouraged the defense team from seeking a vote this week that would almost certainly have failed, dividing Republicans and dealing Trump an early symbolic defeat.
A motion to dismiss the case could still be offered later in the trial.