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Democrats use words of Trump's staunchest allies to make their case in his impeachment trial

Democrats spent much of Thursday working to dismantle Donald Trump's long-standing allegation that Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden acted improperly toward Ukraine while vice-president.

Impeachment managers say Trump abused his power in attempt to sully rival Joe Biden

US President Donald Trump joins a news conference at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020. Trump's two-day stay in Davos is a test of his ability to balance anger over being impeached with a desire to project leadership on the world stage. (Evan Vucci/The Associated Press)

Democrats on Thursday pressed their case for removing U.S. President Donald Trump from office by using the words of his own allies against him to make the point that his actions were impeachable. 

And they worked methodically to dismantle his long-standing allegation that Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden acted improperly toward Ukraine while vice-president.

However, Trump's fellow Republicans, serving as the jury in his Senate impeachment trial, showed no signs of turning against him. 

On the second day of their arguments for Trump's removal from office, Democratic House of Representatives members acting as prosecutors argued that Biden was carrying out official U.S. policy when he pressured Ukraine to fire its top prosecutor, Victor Shokin, because of corruption concerns.

Trump and his allies maintain that Biden wanted Shokin out in order to head off an investigation into a natural gas company, Burisma, where his son Hunter served as a director. Democrats said no evidence supported that allegation.

Former U.S. vice-president Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden in 2010. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Democrats argued, instead, that Trump pushed the Ukrainian government to probe Biden and his son because he was worried about facing the former vice-president in November's election. Biden is a front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination.

"If we allow this gross abuse of power to continue, this president would have free rein — free rein — to abuse his control of U.S. foreign policy for personal interest, and so would any other future president," Rep. Sylvia Garcia said on the Senate floor. "And then this president, and all presidents, become above the law."

Garcia argued Trump did not pressure Ukraine to investigate corruption and had supported sending military aid to the country until Biden announced his presidential bid in early 2019.

She pointed out that in the months before Trump asked Ukraine to investigate the Bidens, polls had been showing that Biden would beat Trump in a presidential match-up. In May, she said a Fox News poll showed Biden beating Trump by 11 points. "This clearly did not go unnoticed," she said.

Trump's lawyers quickly argued that by bringing up the Bidens, Democrats had made their conduct a relevant subject for the rest of the trial.

"They opened the door. They opened the door and it's now relevant," Jay Sekulow, a personal lawyer for the president and a member of his defence team, told reporters at the Capitol. "So we will address the appropriate issues as defence lawyers would."

Added Republican Senator Ted Cruz: "Hunter Biden is not only relevant, he is now critical."

But Sekulow said Trump's team was not yet focused on whether new witnesses will be called, a matter the Senate will take up after senators have a chance to submit questions to both sides next week.

Using Trump's defenders against him

The Democrats are presenting arguments that Trump should be convicted of two articles of impeachment passed by the House last month — abuse of power and obstruction of Congress — for pressuring Ukraine to investigate Democratic rival Joe Biden last year, and impeding a congressional inquiry into the matter.

The U.S. Constitution sets out the impeachment process for removing a president who commits "high crimes and misdemeanours." Trump's legal team argues the House charges are invalid because impeachable offences must represent a specific violation of criminal law.

"Impeachment is not a punishment for crimes," Democratic Rep. Jerrold Nadler told the assembled senators. "Impeachment exists to address threats to the political system, applies only to political officials and responds not by imprisonment or fines but only by stripping political power."

Nadler played a video clip of one of Trump's most prominent defenders, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, arguing during the 1999 impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton that presidents can be impeached even if the conduct in question was not a statutory criminal violation.

Nadler also played a video clip from 1998 of Alan Dershowitz, a member of Trump's legal team, in which he recognizes that abuse of power is impeachable. Finally, Nadler cited a memo written by Attorney General William Barr, a Trump appointee, that made the same point.

Watch that part of Nadler's presentation: 

Democratic Rep. Jerrold Nadler uses past statements of staunch Donald Trump supporters to argue a president can be impeached even if he doesn't commit a crime. 1:45

"As our recital of the facts indicated, the articles are overwhelmingly supported by the evidence amassed by the House, notwithstanding the president's complete stonewalling, his attempt to block all witnesses and all documents from the United States Congress," Nadler said.

"His conduct is not America first. It is Donald Trump first."

Blocked so far in their drive to persuade the Republican-led Senate to let them call new witnesses, Democrats are using their time instead to outline an extensive narrative, complete with video clips, based on the testimony presented during hearings in the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives.

The top Senate Democrat, Chuck Schumer, made a fresh appeal on Thursday for Republican senators to join with Democrats in voting to allow witnesses and new evidence to be presented in the trial. Republicans control the 100-seat Senate. Four of the Senate's 53 Republicans would have to join the Democrats in order to win a simple majority vote.

"The issue of relevant evidence, documents and witnesses is going to come back up. And Senate Republicans will have the power to bring that evidence into the trial," Schumer told reporters.

"Republican senators — four of them, it's in their hands — can make this trial more fair, if they want to," he said.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer addresses a news conference prior to the resumption of opening arguments in the impeachment trial of Trump on Thursday. (Mary F. Calvert/Reuters)

The case focuses on Trump's request that Ukraine investigate political rival Joe Biden, a top contender for the Democratic nomination to face Trump in the Nov. 3 presidential election, and Biden's son on unsubstantiated corruption allegations.

Trump also asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate a discredited theory beneficial to Russia that Ukraine was somehow linked to the hacking of the Democratic National Committee server during the 2016 U.S. election. Last year, Trump temporarily withheld $391 million in U.S. military aid to Ukraine, which Democrats say was leverage for his demands.

Trump's own intelligence agencies repeatedly debunked the theory, but Trump's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, continued to push it and pursue it.

Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff talked about the fact many people blamed Giuliani for the theory, but suggested it demonstrates how Trump poses a grave danger to the United States. 

Watch that moment from today's proceedings:

Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff says it may be easy to blame Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani for pushing the Ukraine conspiracy theory with the president, but it also exposes a danger to the country. 1:33

During the evening arguments, Rep. Zoe Lofgren continued to walk the Senate through Trump's holding of the aid, at one point, producing an email that suggested Trump was clearly behind the hold, and that it was being concealed.

Watch that part of her argument: 

Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren offers as evidence an email that was only released under Freedom of Information, and was originally redacted. 1:15

Trump is almost certain to be acquitted by the Senate, where a two-thirds majority is needed to remove him from office.

Even if finding Trump guilty seems to be a long shot for Democrats, the trial presents an opportunity to inflict political damage on Trump ahead of the November election, with millions of Americans watching the televised proceedings.

Trump, who arrived back in Washington on Wednesday night from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, condemned the proceedings as "unfair & corrupt" in a Twitter post on Thursday.

Restlessness

Signs emerged on the second day of arguments that the Democratic case was losing some of the public's attention. There were empty seats in the gallery overlooking the Senate floor.

Television ratings were down. About 8.9 million viewers watched the first day of arguments on Wednesday, falling short of the roughly 11 million who watched on Monday, according to Nielsen ratings data.

Senators also showed increasing signs of restlessness, with many wandering to the rear of the chamber where they could check their phones and make calls.

While it remains a long shot for Democrats to secure Trump's removal through impeachment, the trial gives them a venue to inflict political damage on him ahead of the November election, with millions of Americans watching the televised proceedings.

Before Thursday's arguments began, some Republican senators said they had heard nothing new in the presentation made by the Democratic managers and had already decided to vote for acquittal.

Focus on the law

The Senate's schedule means Trump's defence team, a group of White House lawyers and outside counsel who will be given three days for rebuttal to the Democratic opening arguments, would likely start to present their case on Saturday.

Sekulow said it was unclear whether the Trump defence would need all three days.

"We will make a determination on our presentation based on what we are responding to and based on our affirmative case," Sekulow said. "I don't know if it will take 10 hours, 14 hours, 24 hours or six hours."

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