The proceedings come on the heels of Wednesday’s arguments, in which Democrats laid out a broad, if detailed, chronology of Trump’s pressure campaign on Ukrainian leaders last year.
Led by Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the lead impeachment manager, the Democrats say they’ll use Thursday’s stage to build on that broader base — to “apply the facts to the law as it pertains to the president’s abuse of power,” in Schiff’s words — as they press for Trump’s conviction and removal.
Wednesday’s arguments mark the second of what are expected to be three eight-hour days of opening statements by the Democrats. Trump’s legal team will then have the same window to present his defense.
If Wednesday is any indication of the day ahead, Schiff and his impeachment team are likely to take turns making their case starting after 1 p.m. and running well into the night, taking limited breaks where reporters rush to receive reactions from all parties involved.
The PR battle has been a central part of the process, as parties race to the cameras that effectively serve as post-debate spin rooms, with both sides touting their performances throughout the proceeding.
House Democrats, who impeached Trump largely along party lines last month, allege that he wielded the the power of his office to pressure Ukrainian leaders into opening a corruption investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden, a 2020 political foe, in an attempt to boost Trump’s reelection prospects.
As part of the “scheme,” they allege he dangled the possibility of a White House meeting and nearly $400 million in U.S. aid — key funding for Ukraine in its fight against pro-Russian separatists — as leverage for two politically motivated investigations.
In particular, Democrats warn Trump is a lawless president who will cross the line again if he is not removed from office. This, they warn, poses a general threat not only to the nation’s best interests, but also the integrity of the upcoming 2020 presidential election.
“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, in other words, to cheat,” Schiff charged on Wednesday.
On the other hand, Trump’s legal team has argued a dual-track defense: First, his lawyers contend, Trump could not have abused his power since the military aid in question was ultimately delivered to Ukraine without the country’s leaders announcing the investigations Trump had sought.
And second, his defense maintains that even if Trump did abuse the power of the presidency for personal gain, such conduct is not impeachable because it violates no specific criminal law.
Writing their formal response to the articles, the leaders of Trump’s legal team, Jay Sekulow and Pat Cipollone, warned that Democrats, by building their case on a charge outside the criminal code, “would do lasting damage to the separation of powers under the Constitution.”
“The first Article fails on its face to state an impeachable offense. It alleges no crimes at all, let alone ‘high Crimes and Misdemeanors,’ as required by the Constitution,” they wrote last weekend. “In fact, it alleges no violation of law whatsoever.”
That argument is widely disputed by legal experts and historians, who note the near absence of a federal criminal code at the time of the Constitution’s drafting. Rather, they argue, impeachment was created for precisely a situation in which a self-serving public official defied the public trust — legal violation or none.
George Conway, a conservative lawyer who helped drive President Clinton’s impeachment, characterized the White House defense as “bogus.”
“Legal scholars and historians agree no statutory crime is required by the Constitution for impeachment and that abuse of power is in fact the essence of impeachability,” Conway, the husband of Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway, wrote recently in The Washington Post.
“The English parliamentary history upon which the Framers adopted impeachment makes clear that a public official’s breach of duty to put the public interest first constitutes an impeachable, removable offense.”
The president’s critics have found ammunition from Alexander Hamilton, who wrote in his Federalist essays that impeachment is the appropriate response for “those offenses which proceed from the misconduct of public men, or, in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust.”
Schiff, in his opening statement Wednesday, mentioned Hamilton no fewer than six times.
Even some members of Trump’s legal team have argued that the nation’s Framers never intended impeachment to be limited to criminal violations.
Alan Dershowitz had argued during the 1999 trial of President Clinton that “you don’t need a technical crime” to remove a president “if you have somebody who completely corrupts the office of president and who abuses trust.” Dershowitz has recently said he’s changed his position.
“To the extent there are inconsistencies between my current position and what I said 22 years ago, I am correct today,” he tweeted.
After Thursday’s trial proceedings, Democrats will have one more day to make their case. Friday’s arguments are expected to focus on their second impeachment article, which alleges that Trump obstructed Congress by blocking witness testimony and subpoenaed documents as part of the House impeachment inquiry.
It remains unclear whether the Democrats’ arguments are having any effect on Republican senators in the GOP-controlled upper chamber, which is widely expected to acquit the president on both charges. If day one was any indication, they have a long way to go.
“I think we’re going to hear another 2 1/2 days of arguments from the House Democrats, but the longer they talk at this point, the weaker their case is getting.” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said Wednesday.