Adam Schiff, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, began making the Democrats’ case against Donald Trump by describing how the president allegedly took part in a shakedown of Ukraine’s government for his own political and personal gain.
The California Democrat led off for the seven house managers who will have up to 24 hours, spread over the next three days, to convince 67 senators that he deserves to be removed from office for his actions towards Ukraine. Democrats impeached him last month on two counts, including one that he abused his office. They alleged he pressured the eastern European country’s new president to investigate his domestic political foes and used congressionally-approved US taxpayer dollars to do it.
“President Trump withheld hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid ... to secure foreign help with his re-election,” Mr Schiff said on the chamber floor as senators sat silent at their desks. “In other words, to cheat.”
He then, for the first of several such instances during Democrats’ opening few hours of their case, used a word intended to paint the president as the centre of a push to get the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to do what Mr Schiff dubbed “his dirty work.”
“His scheme was undertaken for a simple but corrupt reason: to help him win re-election,” Mr Schiff said.
The intelligence committee chair, who spearheaded the house Democrats’ impeachment probe, repeatedly said Mr Trump “circumvented” career diplomats and national security officials when he froze nearly $400m in military aid congress approved to help it counter Russia through an “advanced scheme”.
Mr Schiff spoke about an “unprecedented effort” led by the president himself to “obstruct” the house Democrats’ investigation and to “hide it” from the American public.
“That cover-up continues today,” Mr Schiff said before saying he suspects those are “efforts the president is no doubt proud of”.
The Democrats will lay out what Mr Schiff called an “overwhelming and damning picture of the president trying to obtain foreign help for his re-election campaign” via a “scheme and cover-up”. He described a “months-long scheme” by Mr Trump and his personal attorney, former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, to press Mr Zelensky to announce investigations into former vice president Joe Biden and son Hunter Biden; at the time, the former VP was the 2020 Democratic frontrunner.
If Mr Trump’s “conduct is not impeachable”, Mr Schiff said, “then nothing is”.
At the heart of Mr Schiff’s presentation was a contention that the president overstepped his powers by using congressionally approved funds to try to garner a personal political advantage.
“The reason such manoeuvres are so constitutionally damaging, the reason they are precisely the sort of high crime that the framers made the basis for impeachment – like bribery and treason – is that they strike at the heart of government under constitutional law,” according to Philip Bobbitt, a former member of the CIA’s external advisory board who now directs the Centre on National Security at Columbia Law School.
“In this case it is the constitutional law of congressional appropriations, which is more fundamental to the integrity of the US constitutional system than seems to be widely appreciated,” he added. “The central bargain of representative government is that the taxing and spending powers are placed in the hands of elected officials who are accountable to the voters every two years. When the president refuses to disburse funds, or finances US government operations out of private funds, he commits the gravest of constitutional offences.”
During a press conference as he departed the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Mr Trump referred to Mr Schiff as a “corrupt politician”. He labelled another impeachment manager, the house judiciary chair Jerrold Nadler, a “sleazebag”, deploying some Big Apple-speak for his fellow New Yorker.
Mr Trump acknowledged he was able to watch parts of the trial’s opening session in-between meetings and events in Davos. He appeared to be watching Mr Schiff’s presentation on Air Force One as he flew back to Washington, tweeting “NO PRESSURE” as he pushed back on the allegations he and his team pressed Mr Zelensky to announce the investigations.
Back in Washington, congressman Mark Meadows, a North Carolina Republican and close Trump ally, said the president is on board with Senate majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s plans for as speedy a trial as possible. For now, that means no witnesses; no GOP senators voted with Democrats on minority leader Chuck Schumer’s multiple motions calling for current and former Trump administration officials to testify during the trial.
“Yeah, I think he’s willing to see this trial end very quickly. I think he would prefer that we just dismiss it and get on to lowering prescription drug prices, working on roads and bridges, you know, keeping the economy going,” said Mr Meadows, who is not seeking re-election and is often mentioned by Washington insiders as a candidate to become Mr Trump’s fourth White House chief of staff.
“That being said, if there’s going to be witnesses, there certainly would have to be a number of witnesses that house members have asked for for a long time, whistleblowers, you know, the Bidens, and even ... some that were outside the whistleblower’s direct line of communication in terms of the complaint,” Mr Meadows added, referring to an intelligence officer’s alarms raised in a report to a top government inspector general that prompted the impeachment probe.
On the Senate floor, Mr Schiff previewed just how the house Democrats intend to make their case. Their first stage will focus on a “narrative” about just what they contend Mr Trump did and why it is worthy of impeachment and removal; the second and third parts of their pitch to senators will feature what he called a “factual chronology” followed by a description of the “constitutional framework of impeachment”.