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Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Branding Trump a security threat, Democrats cap the case for his removal

Ending their three-day presentation in the Senate, the president’s Democratic prosecutors summoned the ghosts of the Cold War and the realities of geopolitical tensions with Russia to argue that Trump’s abuse of power had slowly shredded delicate foreign alliances to suit his own interests.

By: New York Times | Washington | Published: January 25, 2020 8:52:29 am
Branding Trump a security threat, Democrats cap the case for his removal Reps. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) other House impeachment managers meet in their ante room off the floor of the Senate before the start of the day’s proceedings in the Senate impeachment trial of President Donald Trump in Washington on Thursday. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times)

Written by Nicholas Fandos

House impeachment managers concluded their arguments against President Donald Trump on Friday by portraying his pressure campaign on Ukraine as part of a dangerous pattern of Russian appeasement that would continue to imperil the country’s security if he remained in office.

Ending their three-day presentation in the Senate, the president’s Democratic prosecutors summoned the ghosts of the Cold War and the realities of geopolitical tensions with Russia to argue that Trump’s abuse of power had slowly shredded delicate foreign alliances to suit his own interests.

“This is Trump first, not America first, not American ideals first,” said Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the lead House manager. “And the result has been, and will continue to be, grave harm to our nation if this chamber does not stand up and say this is wrong.”

Schiff and the six other managers prosecuting the president also tied up the facts of the second charge, obstruction of Congress, arguing that Trump’s attempts to shut down a congressional inquiry into his actions toward Ukraine was unprecedented and undermined the very ability of the government to correct itself.

“He is a dictator,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York. “This must not stand.”

But even as the managers pulled together their complex case, the Republican-controlled Senate appeared unmoved — not just on the question of whether to acquit Trump, which it expected to do, but also on the crucial question of compelling witnesses and documents that the president has suppressed.

“We have heard plenty,” said Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, the No. 3 Senate Republican.

He said that many in his party had quickly soured on the soaring appeals by House Democrats to repudiate Trump’s behavior. As day turned to evening on the fourth full day of the trial, many senators unaccustomed to long hours in the Capitol appeared to have simply been numbed by the House managers, and were anticipating the president’s defense, set to begin Saturday.

After three days of meticulous and often vivid narrative and painstaking legal arguments, the House managers appeared ready to rest their case that Trump sought foreign interference in the 2020 election on his own behalf, by pressuring Ukraine to investigate his political rivals, using vital military aid and a White House meeting as leverage. Yet the pool of moderate Republican senators that had expressed openness to joining Democrats in insisting on witnesses or new documents appeared to be dwindling, not growing.

Comments by Sens. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska suggested they may have cooled to the idea, although Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Mitt Romney of Utah gave no indication that they had shifted.

“Schiff was phenomenal,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Senate Democrat, “but I’m skeptical he moved any votes.”

Inside and outside the chamber, the House managers and Democratic senators worked in tandem Friday to appeal to their consciences, hinting strongly at the political stakes if they failed to press for a more thorough airing of the charges against the president.

“We’ve made the argument forcefully, the American people have made the argument forcefully that they want the truth,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader. “Will four Republican senators — just four — rise to the occasion, do their duty to the Constitution, to their country to seek the truth?”

They got an unexpected lift early in the day when a 2018 recording surfaced of Trump appearing to order the firing of Marie L. Yovanovitch, then the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. The recording was first reported by ABC News and later handed over to the House by Lev Parnas, an associate of Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer.

The recording appeared to confirm earlier claims by Parnas that he had told Trump about rumors that Yovanovitch was not loyal to him. The House’s impeachment inquiry concluded that the ambassador was ultimately removed in 2019 as part of Trump’s attempt to strong-arm Ukraine to announce investigations of his political adversaries.

“Get rid of her,” Trump can be heard to say, according to ABC. “Get her out tomorrow. I don’t care.”

Without an agreement to take new testimony or subpoena documents relevant to the case, Trump may be headed toward a historically speedy acquittal in as little as a week from now, before the Iowa caucus or his planned State of the Union address. That would make the third impeachment trial of a president in American history the shortest.

Trump’s defense team plans to open its arguments on Saturday, though senators were only expected to meet for an abbreviated, two- to three-hour session before adjourning the trial until Monday afternoon.

Trump was not pleased about the schedule, writing on Twitter Friday morning that his team had been “forced” to start on a Saturday, a time “called Death Valley in T.V.” He also turned around Democrats’ accusation, declaring that “the Impeachment Hoax is interfering with the 2020 Election,” not him.

Jay Sekulow, one of Trump’s lawyers, said his team would treat the weekend session like a “trailer,” providing an overview of their case for acquittal while holding back until Monday the president’s more television-friendly attorneys, former independent counsel Ken Starr and Alan Dershowitz. Dershowitz, a well-known defense lawyer, plans to argue that the House charges against the president do not constitute impeachable offenses.

Democrats were on track to use every one of the 24 hours afforded to them by senators to make their case, determined to persuade American voters watching at home who will cast ballots in just 10 months, if not senators.

On Wednesday, Schiff and each of the managers took turns introducing the facts of the case in narrative form, unfolding the tale of Trump’s alleged misconduct chapter by chapter. Beginning with the abrupt removal of Yovanovitch, they said that Trump empowered first Giuliani and then U.S. officials to push Ukraine to announce investigations of former Vice President Joe Biden and other Democrats, before himself asking that country’s leader to “do us a favor.”

When the Ukrainians resisted, they added, he withheld a coveted White House meeting and almost $400 million in military aid the fledgling democracy badly needed to fend off a menacing Russia. And when Congress found out, he undertook an across-the-board campaign to block officials from testifying or producing records that would reveal the scheme.

On Thursday, Nadler lectured extensively on the constitutional and historical standards for impeachment, setting the stage for the managers to methodically argue that Trump’s actions toward Ukraine constituted an impeachable abuse of power that warrants his removal from office.

Schiff completed that case Friday, directly engaging the national security implications of Trump’s actions as he argued that the president was a serial offender in seeking foreign help for his own political benefit, allowing himself to be used as a tool of Moscow’s agenda in the process. As a candidate, Trump welcomed Russia’s interference in the 2016 election to help him win the White House, Schiff noted, and then as president, he repeatedly cast doubt on the conclusions of U.S. intelligence agencies about that interference. Later, Trump said outright that he would welcome foreign campaign assistance again.

The California Democrat played a video of the news conference in Helsinki, where Trump stood next to President Vladimir Putin of Russia and accepted his denial that Moscow meddled in the 2016 election.

“That’s one hell of a Russian intelligence coup,” Schiff said, “They got the president of the United States to provide cover for their own interference with our election.”

At another point, Schiff showed a clip of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who was an outspoken champion of Ukraine and Russia hawk, promoting the benefits of bipartisan American support for Kyiv to contain Russia and its anti-democratic agenda.

The move appeared to be a subtle effort to appeal to Republican senators, many of whom respected McCain and share his strongly anti-Russia stance, to place those values above their loyalty to the president.

Trump’s actions not only served the ambitions of Russia, which hopes to pull Ukraine back into its orbit, but helped advance the cover story it has put forward to distract from its 2016 interference campaign, Schiff said. He noted that Trump had asked not only for an investigation of Biden but also for one into a Russian-promulgated theory that Ukraine, not Moscow, had actually meddled in the last American presidential election.

“If we’re going to condition the strength of our alliance on whether they’ll help us cheat in an election, we’re not going to have a single ally left,” he said.

As the managers moved on to the obstruction of Congress charge, they contended that Trump’s blockade of evidence was far more pernicious than the kind of partisan squabbles that are typical between Congress and the White House.

Even Presidents Bill Clinton and Richard M. Nixon, they said, had produced documents to the investigations that would threaten them with impeachment. Trump’s administration had not handed over a single page, declaring for the first time an across-the-board objection to House subpoenas.

Attempting to head off Trump’s defense team, which argues that the president was lawfully protecting the interests of the executive branch from a politically motivated House, the managers pointed out that he never actually invoked executive privilege, the legal mechanism afforded to presidents.

“Only one person in the world has the power to issue an order to the entire executive branch,” said Rep. Val B. Demings, D-Fla. “And President Trump used that power not to faithfully execute the law, but to order agencies and employees of the executive branch to conceal evidence of his misconduct.”

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