Allowing Donald Trump to remain in office would lead to tyranny by removing checks on executive power, and put the United States in danger of further foreign interference in future elections, congressional Democrats warned in a fiery opening to their case against the President at his Senate trial.
Congressman Adam Schiff, the de facto lead prosecutor in the case, described Mr. Trump as “a man who would be a king,” accused him of “cheating in an election” and warned Republican senators that they would take “a step on the road towards tyranny” if they align with the President.
“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 our branches of government,” Mr. Schiff said on the Senate floor Wednesday, “inviting future presidents to operate as if they, too, are also beyond the reach of accountability, congressional oversight and the law.”
The Democrat-controlled House of Representatives impeached Mr. Trump last month for withholding nearly US$400-million in military aid to Ukraine to press Kyiv into investigating Joe Biden, a potential presidential rival, and stonewalling a congressional investigation into the matter.
Mr. Trump is on trial before the Republican-majority Senate, which would need a two-thirds vote in favour of conviction to remove him from office.
The President on Wednesday did not reject any of the details of the case, but lashed out at the Democrats in an impromptu news conference before leaving the World Economic Forum in Davos. Mr. Trump derided Mr. Schiff and his fellow trial managers as “major sleazebags” and said he might attend the proceedings to “sit right in the front row and stare at their corrupt faces.”
“They have nothing. They don’t even have a crime,” he said.
As he flew home on Air Force One, Mr. Trump tweeted or retweeted about the trial more than 100 times.
One of Mr. Trump’s own lawyers promptly shot down his suggestion he might sit in on the trial. “That’s not the way it works. I mean, presidents don’t do that,” Jay Sekulow said in an interview with ABC.
Under the rules of the proceedings, the seven House Democrats presenting the case have three days to make their arguments, followed by three days for Mr. Trump’s legal team to give its defence. After that, senators will question both sides.
Mr. Schiff opened with an overview of Mr. Trump’s actions, before laying out their consequences and the constitutional arguments for his removal. Pushing Ukraine to tarnish a political opponent constituted a solicitation of foreign election interference, he argued, and that withholding military aid meant to help Ukraine fight Russian-backed militias endangered U.S. national security. If Mr. Trump is not removed from the White House now, Mr. Schiff contended, the President might try again to push another country to help him win this year’s election, and set a precedent for future presidents that such actions are acceptable.
Citing U.S. Founding Father Alexander Hamilton’s warning that a future leader might deliberately sow chaos to amass power for himself, Mr. Schiff argued that Mr. Trump’s conduct was what the Constitution’s framers had in mind when they created the impeachment process.
“If this conduct is not impeachable, then nothing is,” Mr. Schiff said.
Several of Mr. Schiff’s fellow Democrats then detailed evidence collected against Mr. Trump in the House investigation. Jerry Nadler outlined how the President co-ordinated the pressure campaign on Kyiv. Jason Crow, a war veteran, explained the consequences to Ukraine’s poorly equipped army of not receiving U.S. military aid. “We help our partner fight Russia over there so we don’t have to fight Russia here,” he said.
The Senate chamber was hushed throughout the proceedings, with legislators prohibited from speaking or using any electronic devices under the trial’s strict rules of decorum.
Outside the room, Republican Senator Ted Cruz said Mr. Trump was justified in demanding Ukraine go after Mr. Biden and his son, Hunter Biden, who sat on the board of Ukrainian gas company Burisma.
“Any president, any administration, is justified in investigating corruption,” Mr. Cruz said.
There has been no evidence that Mr. Biden did anything wrong in Ukraine.
Mr. Biden shot down speculation about a deal in which he would agree to testify if Republicans allow the testimony of White House officials. The Republicans used their majority on Tuesday to block several Democratic attempts to call witnesses and subpoena documents for the trial.
“The reason I would not make the deal, the bottom line, is this is a constitutional issue,” Mr. Biden said at an event in Iowa on Wednesday, The Washington Post reported. “We’re not going to turn it into a farce or political theatre.”
Jennifer Rodgers, a former federal prosecutor, gave Mr. Schiff’s opening high marks for clearly summarizing a complicated case while reinforcing the gravity of Mr. Trump’s behaviour.
“He was able to tell the story of what happened here, but also why this matters, because there really is no dispute over the facts. Schiff was able to explain why it’s not okay, why it’s not the President’s prerogative to do anything he wants, why it’s dangerous when there’s meddling in the election,” she said.
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.