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Sunday, February 23, 2020

Democrats, seeking to pre-empt Trump’s defense, delve into Biden

Trump, back at the White House after a trip to Davos, Switzerland, for the World Economic Forum, appeared to take note that the trial had started again, issuing an angry tweet about “Shifty Schiff” — his name for Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the lead impeachment manager — and “many other Democrat disasters.”

By: New York Times | Washington | Published: January 24, 2020 7:58:48 am
US president Donald Trump, Trump impeachment, Joe Biden, trump-Biden, world news 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, Jan. 23, 2020. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times)

Written by Sheryl Gay Stolberg

House Democrats sought on Thursday to preemptively dismantle President Donald Trump’s core defenses in his impeachment trial, invoking the words of the nation’s founders, Trump’s allies and the president himself to argue that his pressure campaign on Ukraine was an abuse of power that warranted his removal.

On the second day of opening arguments in the third presidential impeachment trial in American history, Democrats turned to the task of arguing that Trump’s actions were an affront to the Constitution, and they worked to disprove his lawyers’ claims that he was acting in the nation’s interests, not his own, when he sought to enlist Ukraine to investigate his political rivals.

In doing so, they waded deeply into the most politically delicate aspects of their case, taking a calculated risk in talking at length about Trump’s targets: former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden. The oral arguments underscored the political backdrop of the trial, unfolding only 10 months before the election, and how, regardless of the outcome — almost certain to be Trump’s acquittal — it is likely to reverberate long after the verdict is reached.

“Impeachment is the Constitution’s final answer to a president who mistakes himself for a king,” Rep. Jerrold Nadler, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, told a restless and sharply divided Senate, adding: “Impeachment is not punishment for a crime. Impeachment exists to address threats to the political system.”

Nadler’s words were intended to rebut a central tenet of the president’s legal defense, that he cannot be impeached if he is not accused of a specific crime. On the contrary, Nadler said, his conduct was precisely the kind that impeachment was meant to address.

Trump, back at the White House after a trip to Davos, Switzerland, for the World Economic Forum, appeared to take note that the trial had started again, issuing an angry tweet about “Shifty Schiff” — his name for Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the lead impeachment manager — and “many other Democrat disasters.”

In presentations that stretched from early afternoon into the night, the team of seven Democratic impeachment managers attacked the argument that Trump’s legal defense team has signaled will be a main piece of their case: that when the president withheld military aid from Ukraine and sought to secure a promise to investigate Joe Biden, a leading political opponent, he was merely making a foreign policy decision to root out corruption in Ukraine.

Trump has consistently suggested, without any evidence, that Biden pushed to remove a Ukrainian prosecutor who was investigating Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company with a long history of corruption that employed Hunter Biden on its board. But in a detailed presentation, Rep. Sylvia Garcia, D-Texas, spent nearly an hour debunking the claim.

Garcia pointed out that the Ukrainian prosecutor Biden wanted to see ousted was widely regarded as corrupt, and that it was American policy at the time that he should be removed. She asserted that neither the elder Biden nor his son had done anything wrong, and that American officials — and Trump — knew it.

“In short, President Trump asked for the investigation into Biden based on a made-up theory that no one agreed with,” Garcia said. “No one.”

It was, in effect, a defense of one of the Democrats’ leading 2020 presidential candidates and a potential challenger to the president. Schiff later volunteered that neither he nor his colleagues had a position on the Democratic presidential primary.

Schiff also brought Trump into the chamber — at least on video — to use the president’s own words against him, with a clip in which the president called both Bidens “corrupt” and called for Ukraine to start a “major investigation” into them.

“The president has confirmed what he wanted in his own words,” Schiff said. “He has made it clear he didn’t care about corruption, he cared only about himself. Now it is up to us to do something about it, to make sure that a president, that this president, cannot pursue an objective that places himself above our country.”

But in focusing on the Bidens, Democrats took a strategic risk. Some Republicans have already threatened to call the Bidens as witnesses, even suggesting that they would insist on hearing from them as a condition of agreeing to subpoena John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser.

Democrats have refused to consider the idea, and Biden has said he would not take part in any such swap. And on Thursday, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said he would not “give in to that pressure” from some of his colleagues to do so.

But Trump’s legal team said the Bidens were now fair game in the trial.

“They have opened the door,” said Jay Sekulow. “It’s now relevant.”

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., said the Democrats’ arguments had made testimony from the Bidens vital.

“If we’re going to call witnesses,” he said, “it’s now clear we absolutely must call Hunter Biden, and we probably need to call Joe Biden.”

In laying out their case against Trump, the Democrats focused tightly on the first of two charges against him: that he abused his power by trying to compel a foreign power to help him win reelection in 2020 and withheld two official acts — the provision of $391 million in military aid and a White House meeting with Ukraine’s president — in an effort to advance his illicit scheme.

“President Trump exploited our ally, Ukraine, for his own political benefit to the detriment of American national security,” said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y. “Is that conduct impeachable? The answer is categorically yes. The Senate must hold this president accountable for his abuse-of-power crimes against our Constitution.”

Democrats expect to wrap up their case on Friday with presentations aimed at proving the second charge: that Trump obstructed Congress by withholding documents and witnesses and otherwise working to conceal his behavior. On Saturday, Trump’s defense team is expected to lay out its case.

On Thursday, Nadler drew on quotes from Alexander Hamilton; from George Washington’s farewell address; and from a 1792 letter to Thomas Jefferson from John Adams that warned of “foreign intrigue and influence” in arguing that Trump warranted impeachment and removal from office — regardless of whether he committed a crime.

“No president has ever used his office to compel a foreign nation to help him cheat in our elections,” Nadler said, adding, “It puts even President Nixon to shame.”

Nadler also turned to Trump allies — including Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard Law professor who is assisting in the president’s defense, and Graham — to make his case, using video clips of their comments from the 1999 impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton to undercut Trump’s defense.

In one clip, a youthful-looking and unusually soft-spoken Graham, an impeachment manager during the Clinton trial, explained why a “high crime” — one of the criteria the Constitution sets forth for the impeachment and removal of a president — does not necessarily require breaking a law.

“What’s a high crime? How about if an important person hurt somebody of low means?” Graham said at the time, adding: “It doesn’t have to be a crime. It’s just when you start using your office and you’re acting in a way that hurts people, you’ve committed a high crime.”

Even before Thursday’s session got underway, it was clear that Schiff, Nadler and the other managers had not changed the minds of many Republicans. Senate Democrats were privately expressing concern that they may not get the four Republican votes they would need to bring witnesses and documents into the trial.

If they do not, the case could be over by the end of next week. Publicly, though, Democrats were putting on a good face.

“I am more hopeful than ever that four conscientious, brave Republicans will come forward and tell Mitch McConnell you can’t shut this down without witnesses, you can’t shut this down without documents,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, referring to his Republican counterpart.

Schumer said there were “lots of conversations going on,” but denied reports that any deal with Republicans was imminent.

The rules of the trial require senators to “keep silent, on pain of imprisonment,” and after two lengthy days of first voting on motions on Tuesday and hearing oral arguments on Wednesday, Republicans were growing weary.

Some complained that Democrats were simply reciting the same facts time and time again, more for the television viewing audience than for the audience in the chamber. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., handed out fidget spinner toys to his colleagues, ostensibly to ease the boredom — and to deliver a not-too-subtle dig at Democrats.

“They spent a lot of time, they’re well prepared — I just don’t think they have much to work with,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. “They’ve got about a one-hour presentation that they gave six hours on Tuesday and eight hours yesterday, so they ought to be getting pretty good at it by now.”

But Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said the Democrats had good reason to be repetitive: Many senators — not to mention the public — did not pay close attention to the House inquiry and needed to be brought up to speed.

One Republican, Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana, told reporters as much on Wednesday. “Senators didn’t know the case,” he said. “They really didn’t. We didn’t stay glued to the television. We haven’t read the transcripts.”

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