Democrats press case for Trump cover-up in impeachment trial

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Democrats serving as prosecutors in U.S. President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial argued on Friday he improperly impeded a probe by Congress into suspicions he coerced Ukraine’s government to dig up dirt on Joe Biden, a political rival.

In their third and final day of opening arguments, Democratic lawmakers tried to show that the Republican president was guilty of obstructing Congress by barring key witnesses and withholding documents from the investigation.

The Democratic-led House of Representatives impeached Trump last month on the obstruction charge and a separate charge of abusing power by pressuring Ukraine to investigate Biden, a former U.S. vice president and a contender for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.

The impeachment trial in the Republican-controlled Senate, the third such proceeding in U.S. history, will determine whether Trump is ousted from power less than 10 months before a November election when he is seeking a second term.

“President Trump tried to cheat, he got caught and then he worked hard to cover it up,” Democratic Representative Hakeem Jeffries, one of the House managers, said in his opening argument on Friday.

Trump denies any wrongdoing, while his Republican allies have argued his conduct does not rise to the level of an impeachable offense. The U.S. Constitution sets out the impeachment process for removing a president who commits “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

Democrats this week have meticulously outlined their charges that Trump only grew interested in corruption in Ukraine when it appeared that Biden could become a serious political threat.

In a July 25 phone call, Trump pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate Biden and his son Hunter, who served on the board of Ukrainian energy company Burisma. Trump temporarily withheld $391 million in U.S. military aid to Ukraine, which Democrats say was leverage for his demands.

ABC News said on Friday it had heard an audio recording from April 2018 in which Trump is heard to say he wants the U.S. ambassador in Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, fired.

“Get rid of her!” Trump said in the recording, according to ABC News. “Get her out tomorrow. I don’t care. Get her out tomorrow. Take her out. Okay? Do it.”

If true, that would bolster Democrats’ argument that Trump associates spent nearly a year trying to oust her from the post because they saw her as an obstacle in their efforts to pressure Ukraine.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell arrives for the fourth day of the Senate impeachment trial of U.S. President Donald Trump at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., January 24, 2020. REUTERS/Erin Scott

Trump has said he had the right to fire Yovanovitch, which he did in May 2019.

“Every President in our history has had the right to place people who support his agenda and his policies within his Administration,” said White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham.


The president is expected to be acquitted in the Senate, where a two-thirds vote is required to convict and remove a president from office. No Republican senator has voiced any support for his ouster.

Senator Rick Scott told reporters on Friday the House managers prosecuting the case had “done a poor job,” while his Republican colleague Senator Mike Braun said Democrats were trying to build a circumstantial case that was a “tough sell.”

Trump and other Republicans also accused the Democrats of wasting time with repetitive and partisan arguments.

“The Do Nothing Democrats just keep repeating and repeating, over and over again, the same old ‘stuff’ on the Impeachment Hoax. They want to use up ALL of their time, even though it is the wrong thing to do. They ought to go back to work for our great American people!” the president tweeted.

Once Democrats conclude their opening arguments, Trump’s legal team will have up to 24 hours over three days to mount a defense. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Saturday’s session would begin at 10 a.m. ET (1500 GMT) and run for several hours.

Democrats have focused their attention on a small group of Republican moderates they believe might support their efforts to bolster their case against Trump with the inclusion of new witness testimony and additional evidence.

“This is a heavy moment. And you don’t know how this sense of constitutional and historical responsibility weighs on the shoulders,” Senator Chuck Schumer, the top Democrat in the chamber, said before the resumption of the trial.

“We know we’ll never get Trump,” he added. “But four Republican senators can step forward and say that we need witnesses and documents. And there are 12 or 13 who have never said a bad word about witnesses and documents.”

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Key administration officials who refused to comply with subpoenas in the probe included Vice President Mike Pence, White House acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Former national security adviser John Bolton refused a request by the House to testify.

Democrats sought to have Bolton testify in the trial, but senators voted along party lines on Tuesday against all Democrats’ proposed witnesses.

Reporting by Richard Cowan, Susan Cornwell, David Morgan, Doina Chiacu and Susan Heavey in Washington and Karen Freifeld in New York; Writing by Paul Simao; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Howard Goller

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