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Democrats begin laying out their case in Trump Senate impeachment trial

The lead Democratic prosecutor accuses U.S. President Donald Trump at his impeachment trial in the U.S. Senate of setting up a corrupt scheme to pressure Ukraine to help him win re-election in November.

Trial is expected to last until the end of January

U.S. President Donald Trump was at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland as his impeachment trial got underway. (Evan Vucci/The Associated Press)

Democrats accused U.S. President Donald Trump at the start of his impeachment trial on Wednesday of a corrupt scheme to pressure Ukraine to help him get re-elected and warned that America's global prestige will suffer if the U.S. Senate acquits him.

Trump, in Davos, Switzerland for the World Economic Forum, sounded a defiant note, telling reporters the Democrats did not have enough evidence to find him guilty and remove him from office.

In a two-hour opening argument for the prosecution after days of procedural wrangling, Rep. Adam Schiff said Trump had pushed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate former vice-president Joe Biden and his son on unsubstantiated corruption charges last year.

Trump solicited interference from Ukraine to improve his chances in this November's U.S. presidential election, Schiff said, laying out the main Democratic argument for why Trump should be found guilty of abusing his power

"To implement this corrupt scheme President Trump pressured the president of Ukraine to publicly announce investigations into two discredited allegations that would benefit President Trump's 2020 presidential campaign," Schiff said.

Democrats argue that Trump was trying to find dirt on Biden, a contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, and his son Hunter, who had served on the board of a Ukrainian gas company, to help the Republican president win a second term.

Watch | Schiff lays out some of what Democrats will present during the trial: 

Impeachment manager Rep. Adam Schiff says a fair trial hinges on hearing from witnesses, some of whom he calls 'courageous.' 1:25

Trump was impeached last month by the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress for his dealings with Ukraine and impeding the inquiry into the matter.

A Reuters-Ipsos poll conducted Jan. 17-22 and released on Wednesday found a bipartisan majority of Americans wanting to see new witnesses testify in the impeachment trial.

It said about 72 per cent agreed that the trial "should allow witnesses with firsthand knowledge of the impeachment charges to testify," including 84 per cent of Democrats and 69 per cent of Republicans.

The president denies any wrongdoing and his fellow Republicans in the Senate say his behaviour does not fit the description of "high crimes and misdemeanours" outlined in the U.S. Constitution as a reason to oust a U.S. president.

Rep. Val Demings, one of the House Democrats' prosecution team of "managers," tweeted that Trump was bragging today to reporters in Davos about how his team was winning, because it has "all the material."

But a senior administration official, asked to explain what Trump was referring to, said: "What he's clearly saying is we have all the facts on our side, and those facts prove he's done nothing wrong."

Trump is almost certain to be acquitted by the Republican-controlled 100-member Senate, where a two-thirds majority is needed to remove him from office. But the trial's effect on Trump's November re-election bid is unclear.

"We believe without question that the president will be acquitted," Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow told reporters at the end of Wednesday's session.

Democrats have two more days to make their case. Trump's defence team will have three days after that for rebuttal, and the trial that could potentially conclude next week.

The case against him is focused on a July 25 telephone call in which he asked Zelensky to open a corruption investigation into the Bidens as well as a discredited theory that Ukraine, not Russia, meddled in the 2016 U.S. election.

"Nothing could be more dangerous to a democracy than a commander in chief who believed that he could operate with impunity, free from accountability. Nothing, that is, except a Congress that is willing to let it be so," said Schiff, who is leading the prosecution team of Democratic "managers" from the 435-seat House of Representatives.

Watch | Schiff says the Ukrainians knew exactly what Trump wanted:

Ukraine knew exactly what U.S. President Donald Trump was asking them to do, Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff tells senators, saying, 'They're not stupid!' 1:34

Making references to 18th century U.S. founding father Alexander Hamilton and the late Republican president Ronald Reagan, Schiff said the world was watching.

"For how can any country trust the United States as a model of governance if it's one that sanctions precisely the political corruption and invitation to foreign meddling that we have long sought to eradicate in burgeoning democracies around the world?"

Schiff said senators will "also undermine our global standing" if they do not oust Trump three years into his tumultuous presidency.

'Corrupt objective'

Current and former U.S. officials testified at the impeachment inquiry last year that Trump's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, carried out a shadow foreign policy in Ukraine and that it became clear to them that a White House meeting between Zelensky and Trump and a phone call between the two leaders was contingent on Ukraine carrying out Trump's wishes.

Schiff said there was clearly a "corrupt objective." 

"The president of Ukraine can't get in the door of the Oval Office. And who are they going to? Are they going to the security council? No. Are they going to the State Department? No. They tried all that. They're going to the president's personal lawyer. Does that sound like official policy to try to fight corruption?" 

Watch | Schiff describes Giuliani's role:

Rep. Adam. Schiff uses a text message from Ukraine special envoy Kurt Volker to Trump's personal lawyer to show that Rudy Giuliani had a 'corrupt objective' in facilitating a White House visit for the Ukrainian president. 1:27

Democrats have up to three days to make their case. Trump's defence team will have three days after that for rebuttal in a trial that could potentially conclude next week.

No witness trade

The Trump administration has not complied with subpoenas for documents and has urged officials like former national security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo not to participate in the impeachment investigation.

Republican senators have not ruled out the possibility of further testimony and evidence at some point later in the trial, but they held firm with Trump to block Democratic requests Tuesday for witnesses and evidence.

Trump said allowing Bolton to testify at the trial would present national security concerns.

"He knows some of my thoughts, 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?" Trump said.

Bolton, a foreign policy hawk who was fired by Trump last year, has disdainfully described the Ukraine pressure campaign as a "drug deal" and testimony from him could be awkward for the president.

Watch | Democratic. Rep. Val Demings makes the case for hearing testimony from John Bolton:

Democratic Rep. Val Demings argues former national security adviser John Bolton must testify to explain why he called the pressure campaign around withholding aid from Ukraine 'a drug deal.' 1:44

During a break from proceedings Wednesday, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer ruled out a so-called witness trade in which Republicans call witnesses Democrats want in exchange for Biden's son Hunter Biden testifying.

"I think that's off the table. First of all the Republicans have the right to bring in any witness they want. They haven't wanted to and that trade is not on the table," Schumer told reporters.

Schumer said earlier that only witnesses with direct knowledge of Trump's actions related to Ukraine should testify. 

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