The U.S. Senate has begun the third presidential impeachment trial in American history, weighing accusations that Donald Trump violated the Constitution by orchestrating a campaign to push Ukraine to interfere in this year’s election.
Hours before proceedings got under way in the Capitol on Thursday, a congressional watchdog concluded that the White House broke the law by withholding military aid to Kyiv to crank up the pressure.
Ukraine, for its part, announced it would open an investigation into new allegations that a congressional candidate working with Mr. Trump’s emissaries conducted a surveillance campaign of a U.S. diplomat in the country who they believed was getting in the way of the pressure campaign.
The contours of the trial – such as whether it will hear from witnesses and how long it will take – remained up in the air.
In the early afternoon, Adam Schiff led a group of seven Democratic members of the House of Representatives who will serve as de facto prosecutors to the Senate to formally deliver the articles of impeachment.
“President Trump … has demonstrated that he will remain a threat to the Constitution if allowed to remain in office, and has acted in a manner grossly incompatible with self-governance and the rule of law,” Mr. Schiff told the chamber.
Chief Justice John Roberts crossed the street from the Supreme Court to the Capitol to take his place presiding over the trial. He swore in the senators as jurors – with an oath to “do impartial justice” in the case – before proceedings adjourned until Tuesday.
The next step will be for the House Democrats to present their case, Mr. Trump’s lawyers to offer a defence and both sides to undergo questioning by senators.
The Democratic-controlled House impeached Mr. Trump last month on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.
The President tried to get Kyiv to tarnish Joe Biden, one of his presidential rivals, by investigating him and his son Hunter Biden over the latter’s Ukrainian business dealings. Mr. Trump made the demand directly in a telephone call to his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky, as well as through a series of intermediaries. U.S. diplomats told a House committee that Mr. Trump also froze nearly US$400-million in military aid to Ukraine to cajole Mr. Zelensky.
On Thursday, the Government Accountability Office, an arm’s-length auditing office established by Congress, determined that Mr. Trump’s Office of Management and Budget broke the Impoundment Control Act by freezing the aid. The funds had already been allocated by Congress, but the President had the OMB stop them from being delivered.
“Faithful execution of the law does not permit the President to substitute his own policy priorities for those that Congress has enacted into law,” the accountability office wrote in its decision.
In the Oval Office Thursday, Mr. Trump repeatedly railed against impeachment, which he referred to as a “witch-hunt hoax,” and lamented that it would push other stories about his administration further down in the news cycle. “I JUST GOT IMPEACHED FOR MAKING A PERFECT PHONE CALL!” he later tweeted.
The Republican-majority Senate would have to vote two-thirds to convict Mr. Trump for him to be kicked out of office.
Mitch McConnell, the Republican caucus chief, has said he would work with the White House to make sure Mr. Trump remains in office.
“I’m not an impartial juror,” he told reporters last month. “Impeachment is a political decision.”
The White House this week has indicated that it wants a speedy trial that would end within two weeks. Such a process would involve voting immediately after the two sides have presented their cases.
Democrats, however, want to call witnesses in the case. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi refused for more than three weeks to send the articles of impeachment to the Senate, in an unsuccessful bid to push Mr. McConnell into an agreement on the rules of the trial. As it stands, the Democrats would have to persuade four Republicans to vote with them to call witnesses.
The two previous presidential impeachment trials in the Senate – of Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton – both lasted several weeks and included witnesses. In Mr. Clinton’s case, the witnesses gave testimony in videotaped depositions that were then shown to the senators. The Senate did not convict either president, and both remained in office.
One possible witness in Mr. Trump’s case is former national security adviser John Bolton, who other officials have testified became enraged when he learned that Mr. Trump had frozen military aid to Ukraine.
Another is Lev Parnas, who helped Rudolph Giuliani, Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, search for dirt in Ukraine on Mr. Biden. Mr. Parnas, who is charged with breaking campaign finance laws, has turned over a trove of documents to Congress.
These include a WhatsApp exchange this spring with Robert Hyde, a Republican congressional candidate in Connecticut, in which Mr. Hyde suggested he had the U.S.’s then-ambassador to Ukraine under surveillance. In the messages, Mr. Hyde described Marie Yovanovitch’s location, travel plans and communications.
In a Facebook post, Mr. Hyde said he had drunkenly sent the messages as a joke.
Ms. Yovanovitch has previously described a successful campaign by Mr. Giuliani to have her fired by the Trump administration because he believed she stood in the way of his efforts to get Ukraine to investigate Mr. Biden.
Ukraine’s Ministry of Internal Affairs announced Thursday it would investigate Mr. Hyde’s claims to be tracking Ms. Yovanovitch.
Mr. Parnas also revealed a letter Mr. Giuliani wrote to Mr. Zelensky before his inauguration, requesting a meeting. And in a series of interviews this week, Mr. Parnas has said Mr. Trump signed off on what he and Mr. Giuliani were doing.
Mr. Trump on Thursday said he had no dealings with Mr. Parnas aside from having taken a photograph with him at a fundraising event, and was unaware of Mr. Giuliani’s letter but did not think it was a problem.
“No, I don’t know him. Perhaps he’s a fine man. Perhaps not,” Mr. Trump said. “I didn’t know about his specific letter, but if he wrote a letter, it wouldn’t have been a big deal.”