WASHINGTON – House Democrats sought Thursday to pre-emptively dismantle President Donald Trump's core defenses in his impeachment trial, invoking his own words to argue that his pressure campaign on Ukraine was an abuse of power that warranted his removal.
On the second day of arguments in the third presidential impeachment trial in American history, Democrats sought to make the case that Trump's actions were an affront to the Constitution. And they worked to disprove his lawyers' claims that he was acting only in the nation's interests when he sought to enlist Ukraine to investigate political rivals.
In doing so, they took a calculated risk in talking at length about Trump's targets — former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden — and underscored the political backdrop of a trial that is unfolding only 10 months before the election and is likely to reverberate long after the verdict.
"You know you can't trust this president to do what's right for this country — you can trust he will do what's right for Donald Trump," Rep. Adam Schiff, the lead impeachment manager, said in an impassioned appeal as the clock ticked past 11 p.m. Central time. "This is why if you find him guilty, you must find that he should be removed. Because right matters. Right matters and the truth matters. Otherwise we are lost."
The team of seven Democratic impeachment managers repeatedly attacked the idea that when the president withheld military aid from Ukraine and sought to secure a promise to investigate Joe Biden, 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. Rep. Sylvia Garcia, D-Texas, spent nearly an hour debunking the claim, and said that, in fact, the opposite was true.
The prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, was "widely perceived as corrupt," she said, and Biden was acting in accordance with official American policy, as well as the policy of the European Union, the International Monetary Fund and other international organizations in calling for his removal.
Moreover, Shokin had already let the Burisma investigation "go dormant," Garcia said, so his ouster "would only increase the chance that Burisma would be investigated for possible corruption." She asserted that neither the elder Biden nor his son had done anything wrong, and that U.S. officials — and Trump — knew it.
"Every single witness who was asked about the allegations again said that Biden had nothing to do with it and it was false; they testified that he acted properly," Garcia said, adding, "There is simply no evidence, nothing, nada in the record to support this baseless allegation."
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 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."
Trump seemed to be paying attention. At a Republican National Committee event Thursday evening at the president's club in Doral, Florida, he told 400 people that the proceedings were "impeachment lite" compared with the trial of President Bill Clinton in 1999 and the case against President Richard Nixon in the 1970s.
In laying out their case against Trump, 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 re-election 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."
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said: "Impeachment is not punishment for a crime. Impeachment exists to address threats to the political system."
"Impeachment is the Constitution's final answer to a president who mistakes himself for a king," he added.
Democrats expect to wrap up their case 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.
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.