WASHINGTON - U.S. House Democrats accused President Donald Trump on Wednesday of designing "a corrupt scheme" to press Ukraine to investigate a political rival, former Democratic Vice President Joe Biden, for one reason, "to cheat" to win re-election this year.
Congressman Adam Schiff told the 100 U.S. senators acting as jurors in the president's trial on two articles of impeachment, "The president has shown he believes he's above the law and scornful of restraints."
Schiff, speaking at the start of three days of Democratic arguments aimed at the conviction of Trump, a Republican, and removal from office, said that the country's 45th president sought "help from abroad to help himself politically at home."
At the center of the case, Schiff, the lead House manager prosecuting the case against Trump, said the president withheld $391 million in congressionally approved military aid for Ukraine, "a country at war with Russia," while pressing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to open the investigation of Biden, his son Hunter Biden's work at at Ukrainian natural gas company, and a debunked theory that Ukraine meddled in the 2016 U.S. election to undermine Trump's campaign.
"He used state powers only available to him," Schiff said, contending that Trump's actions "violated his sacred oath of office."
Schiff said Trump's overture to Zelenskiy amounted to asking a foreign leader "to do his political dirty work," as he faces next November's national election, possibly against Biden, who leads national polls of Democratic voters for the party's presidential nomination.
During 13 hours of debate extending into early Wednesday, the House managers prosecuting the case lost vote after vote to the majority Senate Republicans to subpoena documents and witnesses about Trump's efforts to get Ukraine to investigate the Bidens.
But early Wednesday afternoon, the Democrats had the floor to themselves in the first of three eight-hour sessions where they were laying out details about Trump's overtures to Ukraine.
"There are no serious disputes about the underlying facts," Schiff said, adding that instead, White House lawyers defending Trump will simply argue that he can't be removed from office for abusing the power of the presidency
Before speaking to the Senate, Schiff told reporters, "The facts are damning, and we're going to lay them out in great detail."
By Saturday, Trump's lawyers will start presenting their defense over three days. Trump faces two articles of impeachment: abuse of power and obstructing congressional efforts to investigate his Ukraine-related actions.
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The Democrats contend that Trump had no interest in a broad effort to fight corruption in Ukraine, as some Republicans have claimed, just that Zelenskiy announce the investigation of the Bidens.
After a 55-day delay, Trump released the military assistance in September without Zelenskiy launching the probes, which Republicans say is proof Trump did not engage in a reciprocal quid pro quo deal - the politically tinged investigations in exchange for the defense aid.
Trump's lawyers say he was carrying out legitimate foreign relations with the eastern European country, did nothing wrong and should be quickly acquitted. They claim the House of Representatives rushed to impeach Trump in a flawed process in which the president was not treated fairly.
Even as the trial moves to the center of the allegations against Trump, he remains all but certain to be exonerated. A two-thirds vote in the 100-member Senate would be needed to convict Trump and remove him from office. But Republicans hold a 53-47 majority in the chamber, and no Republican has called for his ouster.
In the marathon Tuesday debate, Republicans used their control of the Senate to reject all Democratic efforts to subpoena White House, State Department and Defense Department documents related to Trump's Ukraine actions, and such key witnesses as former national security adviser John Bolton and acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney. Republicans won all of the votes along party line tallies of 53-47, except for one that went 52-48 in their favor.
Before the Wednesday session, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said the Republican votes against subpoenas for documents and witnesses shows Republican lawmakers "don't want a fair trial. It was a dark day and a dark night for the Senate."
He contended that the House managers prosecuting Trump had made a "very clear and convincing case" about his guilt, while Trump's White House lawyers were "unprepared, confused and totally unconvincing."
Under the trial rules laid out by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, votes on subpoenaing documents and witnesses could occur again after the two sides present their cases and senators have a chance to ask questions of the House managers and Trump lawyers. Democrats would need four Republican senators to go against McConnell's wishes and vote with them to call the Trump administration officials for sworn testimony.
Trump has almost daily ridiculed the Democratic impeachment effort targeting him and did again from Davos, Switzerland, where he attended the World Economic Forum.
"Their case was so 'overwhelming' in the House that they need & demand Witnesses in the Senate!" Trump said on Twitter.
Asked about the Democrats' quest for Ukraine documents, Trump boasted, "Honestly, we have all the material. They don't have the material."
He told the Fox Business Network his Democratic accusers "are crazy. They have gone totally nuts." He called Schiff "a fraud" and "a corrupt politician."
When asked about whether witness testimony should be part of the trial, Trump gave conflicting answers, saying it is up to the Senate to decide. He expressed a preference for Bolton and former Energy Secretary Rick Perry to testify, along with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, but said their appearances would represent a "national security problem."
An initial set of trial rules proposed by McConnell would have limited the opening presentations by both the House impeachment managers and Trump's lawyers to 24 hours each, spread over no more than two days. But the majority leader, facing opposition to the lengthy sessions from within his own Republican caucus, agreed to the 24 hours of arguments being spread over three days.
The original set of rules also left open the question of whether the Senate would admit into evidence the materials submitted by the House from its various committee investigations. Those materials were accepted, with the stipulation that each side has the ability to make motions during the trial to try to remove certain pieces of information.
Trump's chief lawyer, White House counsel Pat Cipollone, on Tuesday called McConnell's trial rules "a fair way to proceed," and one that will result in the president's acquittal on both articles of impeachment because he has "done absolutely nothing wrong."
Schiff said that not voting on witnesses or subpoenaing documents at the trial's outset would make a "mockery" of the proceeding.
With no witnesses or new White House documents, Schiff said, "It's not a fair trial, or even a trial at all. Why should this trial be different than any other trial?"
McConnell, who is working with Trump's lawyers on trial strategy in an effort to acquit him quickly, rebuffed claims his trial parameters are not fair, saying, "Here in the Senate, the president's lawyers will finally receive a level playing field with the House Democrats, and will finally be able to present the president's case."
Two other U.S. presidents - Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998 - were impeached by the House but acquitted in Senate trials, and remained in office.
U.S. President Richard Nixon faced almost certain impeachment in 1974 in the Watergate scandal, but resigned before the House acted.