WASHINGTON, (AFP): Democrats began laying out a detailed case on Wednesday for the removal of President Donald Trump, accusing him at his historic Senate impeachment trial of seeking to cheat to ensure re-election in November.
Adam Schiff, the head of the prosecution team from the House of Representatives, took the floor of the Senate for opening arguments after lawmakers were told by the sergeant-at-arms to remain silent “on pain of imprisonment.”
“President Trump solicited foreign interference in our democratic elections, abusing the powers of his office to seek help from abroad to improve his re-election prospects at home,” the California lawmaker told a hushed chamber.
“And when he was caught, he used the powers of that office to obstruct the investigation into his own misconduct,” said Schiff, who headed the probe that led to Trump’s December 18 impeachment by the Democratic-controlled House.
Schiff shrugged off Republican arguments that American voters — and not the Senate — should decide whether Trump should remain in the White House.
“The president’s misconduct cannot be decided at the ballot box for we cannot be assured that the vote will be fairly won,” Schiff said. “The president has shown that he believes he is above the law.”
Trump is accused of withholding military aid from Ukraine to pressure his Ukrainian counterpart to announce an investigation into Democrat Joe Biden.
“It was a smear tactic against a political opponent President Trump apparently feared,” Schiff said at the nationally televised Senate trial.
“President Trump withheld hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to a strategic partner at war with Russia to secure foreign help with his re-election,” he said. “In other words, to cheat.
“If this conduct is not impeachable, then nothing is.”
Interspersing his remarks with videos and graphics and references to the Constitution, Schiff appealed to the members of the Senate to put aside partisanship in deciding Trump’s fate.
“These are politically charged times,” he acknowledged. “Tempers can run high, particularly where this president is concerned.”
But, Schiff said, “the Constitution entrusts to you the responsibility of acting as impartial jurors.”
– ‘Fairly quickly’ –
Republicans, who hold a 53 to 47 edge in the Senate, have shown little inclination, however, to break ranks with a president who has a history of lashing out ferociously at his perceived enemies.
A two-thirds majority — or 67 senators — is needed to remove Trump from office and a series of votes on the ground rules for the trial on Tuesday followed strict party lines.
Republicans shot down repeated efforts by Democrats to introduce White House witnesses and documents at the start of just the third impeachment trial in US history.
Trump, who was attending the World Economic Forum in Davos as the historic trial got underway on Tuesday, blasted the proceedings as a “witchhunt” and a “hoax” and said he expected the Senate to clear him “fairly quickly.”
The president defended the Republicans’ rejection of Democratic efforts to force former national security advisor John Bolton and others to testify at his trial saying of Bolton, for example, that it would present a “national security problem.”
“John, he knows some of my thoughts,” Trump said. “He knows what I think about leaders. What happens if he reveals what I think about a certain leader and it’s not very positive?”
House impeachment managers have 24 hours over three days to make their case that Trump is guilty of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.
White House lawyers then have 24 hours to present their defense.
Senators will then have an opportunity to ask written questions to be read out aloud by US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, who is presiding over the trial.
Roberts’ role is mostly ceremonial but he did warn both sides during heated exchanges on Tuesday to watch their decorum.
“Those addressing the Senate should remember where they are,” Roberts said.
– ‘Quit obsessing’ –
Trump’s personal attorney, Jay Sekulow, said the White House will “challenge aggressively the case that they’re putting forward.”
“There’s a lot of things to rebut and we’ll do it in an orderly and systematic fashion,” he told CNN.
The next few days are likely to be an endurance test for members of the Senate, some of whom are in their 80s.
Senators are barred from having their cellphones and computers at their desks and they have been spending their time chatting quietly or scribbling on notepads when not listening intently.
The four Democratic senators seeking to challenge Trump for the White House have been forced to take time off from campaigning ahead of the first state caucuses to choose their party’s nominee in Iowa on February 3.
Reaction to the impeachment trial has been mixed among voters.
“The general consensus I feel I hear from people is ‘Why don’t they just freaking do their jobs and quit obsessing over this?'” said Rick D’Agostino, the owner of the Sheffield Lanes bowling lanes in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania.
Flavio Quintela, a Washington businessman, said he thought the impeachment trial was “more theatrical now than anything.”
“Because, you know, the Senate is most likely not approving it,” Quintela said. “It really looks like some electoral move, which I don’t think is going to work.”
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