Democratic and Republican lawyers presented competing arguments to the House Judiciary Committee about President Trump's dealings with Ukraine.
House Democrats delivered a scathing summation of their impeachment case against President Donald Trump on Monday, arguing that the president's conduct posed a "clear and present danger" to the 2020 election and national security.
In a contentious hearing before the House Judiciary Committee, Democratic lawyers told lawmakers drafting impeachment articles that the evidence against Trump was overwhelming and urgent. Summarising the findings of a two-month investigation by the Intelligence Committee, they asserted that the president had put his personal political interests above those of the nation in soliciting re election help from Ukraine and then tried to conceal his actions from Congress.
"President Trump's persistent and continuing effort to coerce a foreign country to help him cheat to win an election is a clear and present danger to our free and fair elections and to our national security," Daniel S. Goldman, an Intelligence Committee lawyer who led the Ukraine inquiry, testified as he presented the evidence gathered against the president.
The presentations by Goldman and a Democratic lawyer for the Judiciary Committee will form the basis for a debate in the committee, expected to begin as soon as Wednesday, over articles of impeachment charging a president with high crimes and misdemeanours for only the fourth time in American history.
They suggested that despite Republican objections, the panel could charge Trump with abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. But they also offered hints about the kinds of charges that Democrats might avoid.
Democrats, for instance, did not use the term bribery, an offense explicitly mentioned in the Constitution as impeachable. And they did not discuss instances of potential obstruction of justice by Trump when he tried to thwart the Robert Mueller's investigation of possible links between his campaign and Russian election interference.
Instead, they used slickly excerpted video clips of testimony from senior diplomats and White House officials to accuse Trump of pressuring President Volodymyr Zelenskiy of Ukraine to announce investigations of former Vice President Joe Biden and an unsupported claim that Democrats conspired with Ukraine to interfere in the 2016 election. At the same time, they said, the president withheld as leverage a White House meeting and nearly US$400 million in security assistance the country needed to hold off Russian aggression.
"This is a big deal," said Barry H. Berke, the Judiciary Committee Democrats' counsel, appealing to the deeply divided panel of lawmakers sitting before him. "President Trump did what a president of our nation is not allowed to do."
The hearing, which unfolded in the stately House Ways and Means Committee Room near the Capitol, featured bitter rounds of partisan sparring between Democrats and Republicans and testy cross-examinations of lawyers from both parties. Republicans arrived primed to challenge the Democrats' case and condemn the process they have used to assemble it. They repeatedly interrupted the Democrats' public presentation, and their own counsel used two separate addresses to try to dismantle it.
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"Very simply, the evidence in the Democrats' impeachment inquiry does not support the Democrats' conclusion that President Trump abused his power for his own personal, political benefit," said Stephen R. Castor, a lawyer representing Republicans on both the Judiciary and Intelligence committees.
Castor said there was "simply no clear evidence" that Trump had "malicious intent in withholding a meeting or security assistance," and ample evidence that the president had legitimate concerns about corruption in Ukraine. And he accused Democrats of having gone "searching for a set of facts on which to impeach the president," essentially manufacturing a scandal where there was none.
The White House once again refused to participate in the day's proceedings, despite appeals by Democrats to come to the table before it was too late. Trump and his allies, though, have now publicly turned their attention toward a trial in the Republican-controlled Senate, where they believe they will have an easier time mounting a defense.
But that did not stop Trump himself from participating — at least via social media.
After posting or reposting nearly 100 messages on Twitter on Sunday, most of them complaining about the impeachment effort and assailing Democrats, the president fired off more Monday as the hearing progressed.
"The Do Nothing Democrats are a disgrace!" Trump tweeted.
For now, Democrats have elected to press ahead without the White House's cooperation. The committee could unveil articles of impeachment as early as Tuesday, and is likely to debate and vote on them by week's end, likely along party lines, recommending their adoption by the full House. That would set up a vote before Christmas to impeach Trump and a likely Senate trial early in the new year.
As the impeachment inquiry marched forward, another investigation consumed Washington on Monday. The Justice Department's internal watchdog released a long-awaited report sharply criticising the FBI for its handling of a wiretap application in the early stages of its Russia investigation. But the report also undercut Trump's claims that former FBI leaders tried to sabotage him for political reasons. Both Trump and his critics claimed vindication.
But it was competing written reports on the Ukraine matter submitted by Democrats and Republicans last week that preoccupied the House. Though the facts recited on Capitol Hill on Monday have become well known over the course of the past two months, including through public testimony from a dozen witnesses, the hearing provided the clearest account yet of the respective cases.
During his 45-minute presentation, Goldman described "a months long scheme" by the president "to solicit foreign help in his 2020 re election campaign, withholding official acts from the government of Ukraine in order to coerce and secure political interference in our domestic affairs."
Goldman said that Trump continued to try to distort next year's election with false allegations, pointing to his weekend statements to reporters that Rudy Giuliani, his personal lawyer, would make a report to the Justice Department about Democrats.
"The scheme by President Trump was so brazen, so clear — supported by documents, actions, sworn testimony, uncontradicted contemporaneous records — that it's hard to imagine that anybody could dispute those acts, let alone argue that that conduct does not constitute an impeachable offense or offenses," said Berke, the Judiciary Committee lawyer.
Both lawyers also noted that the White House had systematically tried to obstruct their inquiry. A dozen witnesses, including senior White House officials who could shed light on key events, were blocked from testifying, and the Trump administration did not provide a single document to investigators despite several subpoenas.
Castor lamented that the Democrat who led the inquiry, Rep. Adam B. Schiff of California, chairman of the Intelligence Committee, would not testify himself about the report. And he suggested that the memories and accounts of several witnesses had been coloured by an anonymous CIA whistleblower complaint about the Ukraine matter that helped start the inquiry.
Republican lawmakers bitterly complained when Berke, who appeared at a witness table at the start of the hearing to deliver his argument against Trump, later climbed onto the dais and led the cross-examination of Castor. It is highly unusual both for House lawyers to testify in hearings, and for one lawyer to question another in that way, but Democrats left themselves latitude under the rules of the process to do so.
"He's badgering the witness," Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., said as Berke pressed Castor.
"He is not," Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., the committee's chairman, fired back.
As the hearing went on, Republicans seized on a small subset of evidence in the report to accuse Democrats of what Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, called "a gratuitous drive-by" targeting a conservative journalist and a Republican lawmaker.
At issue were a half-dozen subpoenas issued by Democrats that turned up call records between the journalist, John Solomon of The Hill; Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., the top Republican on the Intelligence Committee; and subjects of the investigation, including Giuliani, Trump's private lawyer. Collins said he had no problem with the subpoenas but demanded to know who decided to name Nunes and Solomon in the report.
Goldman declined to discuss investigative decisions but said such identifications were typical when examining phone records in an inquiry like this. The calls noted in the report all took place around key events under scrutiny.
"We did not seek to do any investigation on a member of Congress or a staff member," Goldman said. "It just happened to be they were in communication with a member of the president's scheme."
Written by: Nicholas Fandos
Photographs by: Anna Moneymaker and Doug Mills
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