House Democrats on Thursday used the second day of opening arguments in the Senate impeachment trial to paint a dark portrait of a president who put his own interests above those of the country — and betrayed his office in the process.
During hours of fastidious arguments, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and his team of Democratic impeachment prosecutors laid out what they described as a self-serving campaign on the part of the President Trump to press Ukrainian leaders to launch investigations that would help Trump politically, even at the expense of national security.
“President Trump abused his authority as commander-in-chief and chief diplomat to benefit himself,” Schiff said. “And he betrayed the interests of the American people when he did so.”
Exhibit A in their recounting was a July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in which Trump asked Zelensky for “a favor” related to the release of U.S. military aid. Specifically, Trump wanted Ukraine to announce investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden, a 2020 presidential hopeful, and the Ukrainian energy company on whose board Biden’s son previously sat. Within hours, the administration would put a hold on almost $400 million in military aid Congress had earmarked for Ukraine.
It was that phone call that prompted allegations from a government whistleblower that Trump had abused his powers in enlisting a foreign leader to interfere in a U.S. election. That, in turn, caused Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to launch the impeachment investigation, which ultimately led to the House passage of two articles of impeachment last month.
On Thursday, the Democratic impeachment managers urged the Senate to take the next step — one much more drastic — and remove Trump from office.
“The Constitution is not a suicide pact,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. “It does not leave us stuck with presidents who abuse their power in unforeseen ways that threaten our security and democracy.”
Thursday’s proceedings marked the second of three days of the Democrats’ opening arguments in the Senate trial, as they make the public case — for the ears of senators, but also voters — for Trump’s conviction and removal. The day’s topic centered on the first of the two impeachment articles adopted by the House, abuse of power, to be followed Friday with arguments relating largely to the second charge: obstruction of Congress.
Beginning Saturday, Trump’s legal team will have up to 24 hours — spread over three days — to stage his defense.
Similar to the proceedings the day before, the Democrats’ arguments on Thursday leaned heavily on the testimony, obtained during the House impeachment investigation, from a host of previously obscure State Department and Pentagon officials with insights into Trump’s pressure campaign in Ukraine. Those officials occupied different realms within the administration — some in Washington, others in Kyiv — but many voiced similar warnings of a shadow foreign policy that threatened both U.S.-Ukrainian relations and efforts to repel Russian aggression in the region.
At numerous points in the proceedings, Democrats would flash key parts of that testimony on the large video screen installed in the chamber for the trial.
Democrats also used their time on the Senate floor to preemptively combat the line of attack the White House defense counsel may seek to take: that Trump was not attacking the Bidens, specifically, but was merely seeking to root out corruption generally, in order to protect U.S. taxpayer dollars.
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said addressing the expected arguments from Trump’s team is crucial, since the president’s lawyers will have the last word.
“They are preempting the president’s lawyers, who we know will make false arguments, and they are meeting those arguments before the president’s lawyers get their chance because they won’t be rebutted,” Schumer said.
As part of that effort, the Democratic prosecutors also highlighted Trump’s attempts to lend credibility to unfounded claims that Ukraine, not Russia, had interfered in the 2016 election. Trump lost the popular vote in winning the White House and has sought to downplay Russia’s role in the process.
Yet the U.S. intelligence community has rejected the theory of Ukrainian interference, and several of the witnesses in the impeachment investigation warned that it promoted a “fictional narrative” pushed by Moscow — another message promoted by Democrats.
Perhaps one of the points they hammered hardest was their legal argument that there doesn’t have to be an underlying crime in order for Trump to be impeached for abuse of power — as Trump’s legal team is claiming — and using the voices of the president’s own allies to do it.
Nadler aired a video of Alan Dershowitz, a member of the Trump defense team, claiming in the 1998 Clinton impeachment process that there didn’t need to be a “technical crime” to impeach a president for abuse of power.
More pointedly: Nadler also played a clip from 1999 in which Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), then a House impeachment manager, made a similar argument about an underlying crime.
“What’s a high crime? How about if an important person hurts somebody of low means,” Graham said at the time.
“It’s not very scholarly, but I think it’s the truth,” Graham continued. “I think that’s what [the Framers of the Constitution] meant by high crimes. It doesn’t even have to be a crime. It’s just when you start using your office and you’re acting in a way that hurts people, you’ve committed a high crime.”
But Republicans said that if that is the game Democrats want to play, they will also have clips of Democrats arguing just the opposite during the Clinton impeachment process.
“That is the irony of being here a long time,” Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) told reporters Thursday afternoon. “I don’t know that you can hold that against Lindsey [Graham] because I think you can hold it against almost every Democrat that is currently here today that was there 20 years ago.”
Jay Sekulow, a White House defense lawyer, argued that their legal team also plans to bring in a group of lawyers to make arguments counter to those of the Democrats: that a crime must underlie the abuse of power charge.
“We’ve got lawyers … that represent multiple schools of thought on what is and is not an impeachable offense,” Sekulow told reporters Thursday. “But they have one thing in common: that the actions alleged and the actions of the president do not reach that level, no matter what school of thought you’re on.”
“And we’re not afraid to put out both of those schools of thought, because our position is you still have to meet basic fundamental constitutional obligations, and they haven’t,” he added.
Democrats roundly rejected that argument, maintaining that not only did Trump commit an impeachable offense in asking for foreign help in an election, but he’s since suggested he’d do it again. That, Democrats say, makes him an ongoing threat to the country’s very democracy.
“Impeachment is not for petty offenses,” Nadler said. “Impeachable offenses involve wrongdoing that reveal the president as a continuing threat if he is allowed to remain in office.”