Behind Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the leading impeachment manager, the Democrats will press their case that Trump violated his office in withholding military aid to Ukraine to coerce that country’s leaders to find dirt on his political opponents.
House Democrats last month had passed two resolutions charging Trump with abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, making him just the third president in the country’s history to be impeached. Now they’ve brought those allegations before the Senate, which must decide if Trump’s actions merit his removal.
The launch of opening statements comes a day after House impeachment managers and Trump’s defense team clashed for hours on the Senate floor over the rules that will govern the trial phase.
Democrats maintain that the new evidence is crucial to the case and should be presented immediately, before opening statements and the senators’ questioning phase. Schiff, in a break from typical Senate decorum, said the idea of hearing new material evidence only at the end of the trial is “ass-backwards.”
“What does a fair trial look like in the context of impeachment?” he asked. “The short answer is it looks like every other trial.”
Trump and his Republican allies, led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), have rejected that argument, maintaining that there may well be new evidence related to the case, but it was the responsibility of the House — not the Senate — to dig it up before voting on their impeachment articles.
“It’s not the Senate’s job to finish the House’s work,” Patrick Philbin, deputy counsel to the president, said during Tuesday’s debate. “If they haven’t done their investigation, then they’re not going to be able to support their case.”
Democrats have countered that they sought thousands of documents, which the White House refused to turn over, as well as testimony from at least a dozen witnesses who refused to cooperate.
“It’s not like we didn’t try,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), another of the impeachment mangers. “The White House refused to give them to us.”
In one heated clash late Tuesday evening, House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) accused Republicans of being “afraid” to hear from one witness in particular — John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser — because “they know he knows too much.”
That charge led White House legal counsel Pat Cipollone to respond in kind moments later, bashing Nadler for making “false allegations.”
“You don’t deserve and we don’t deserve what just happened,” Cipollone said.
Under the resolution, Democrats will have up to 24 hours to make their opening statements — over a maximum of three days — and Trump’s defense team will then have the same window to offer its defense.
That timeline represents a capitulation on the part of McConnell, who had sought to condense the opening statements into a total of four days, rather than six — a formula which would have necessarily extended the public debate into the earliest hours of the morning, when most TV viewers would be sleeping.
Faced with pushback from some moderate Republicans, McConnell altered the rules at the last minute to extend the number of days for both sides, though it remains unclear if either will use all of its allotted time.
Despite the White House stonewalling, Democratic impeachment investigators last year secured testimony from 17 diplomats and national security officials with a window into Trump’s Ukraine campaign, many of whom delivered damning accounts of a shadow foreign policy in Kyiv — led by Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani — that threatened U.S.-Ukraine relations and efforts to repel Russian aggression in the region.
Schiff and the other Democrats prosecuting the case had leaned heavily on that testimony during Tuesday’s rules debate, utilizing a specially installed multi-media system in the Senate chamber to broadcast video clips of the most trenchant comments from the impeachment hearings — a strategy that’s likely to continue as the opening arguments progress.
If Democrats use all of their allotted time, Trump’s defense team will begin its formal counter-arguments on Saturday. Led by Trump’s lawyers, Cipollone and Jay Sekulow, the White House has argued that the president could not have abused his powers for personal gain since the military aid in question was ultimately released without Ukraine opening the probes Trump sought.
Furthermore, they argue, even if Trump did abuse his power, that’s not an impeachable offense because it violates no specific criminal statute.
“The articles of impeachment violate the Constitution,” Sekulow and Cipollone argued in their formal response to the impeachment charges. “They are defective in their entirety.”