House Managers Adam Schiff (C) and Jerry Nadler (C R) speak to reporters on the fourth day of the Senate impeachment trial of US President Donald Trump in Washington, DC on January 24, 2019.
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds | AFP | Getty Images
Democratic House impeachment managers laid out their arguments Friday that President Donald Trump obstructed Congress — the final prong of their case for Trump’s conviction and removal from office.
The seven House managers spent the bulk of their three days of opening statements focused on the first of two articles of impeachment against Trump, charging him with abusing his power through his efforts to have Ukraine launch probes into his political rivals.
But with about a quarter of their 24 cumulative hours remaining, the managers, led by House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., pivoted to the obstruction charge, detailing Trump’s categorical refusal to cooperate with the House impeachment inquiry.
As the Democrats wrapped up their arguments, Trump’s team of lawyers looked ahead to Saturday, when they will get the same amount of time to state their defense. It’s unclear if Trump’s team plans to use the entirety of that available time.
The Democrat-led House voted to impeach Trump on the two articles on Dec. 18. It’s considered highly unlikely that two thirds of the majority-Republican Senate will vote to remove a Republican president from office.
Here are today’s highlights from the Senate impeachment trial:
Obstruction charge takes center stage
The House managers devoted the final hours of their opening statements to Trump’s obstruction charge.
The White House had flatly refused to cooperate with the House impeachment inquiry. In an October letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., White House counsel Pat Cipollone claimed that the proceedings amount to “baseless, unconstitutional efforts to overturn the democratic process.”
House committee members ultimately heard testimony from numerous current and former administration officials in public hearings and in closed-door sessions, but many potential witnesses were pressured not to comply with the Democrats.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has pushed hard for the Senate to issue subpoenas for documents and witnesses before the trial proceedings began in earnest. But the 11 amendments to the trial rules that he proposed were all shot down in party line votes.
Rep. Sylvia Garcia, D-Texas, hammered home the extent of the Trump administration’s non-compliance in her remarks on the Senate floor on Friday.
“Let’s recap: No documents. Zero. Goose egg. Nada. In response to over 70 requests — 70 requests — and five subpoenas. No attempt to negotiate. No general attempt to accommodate. Categorical and indiscriminate and unprecedented stonewalling,” Garcia said.
“Never in my time as a lawyer or as a judge have I seen this kind of total disrespect and defiance of a lawfully issued subpoena — and all on President Trump’s orders,” she said. “And it could continue because this obstruction of Congress is real and is beyond comparison.”
Schiff to GOP: Trump would do it to you, too
The opening statements from the House managers often felt appeals to the American people as much as they were a plea to the Senate.
But at times, the Democrats explicitly addressed the GOP-majority chamber.
On Friday, Schiff sent a stark warning to Trump’s allies on Capitol Hill: This president could investigate you, too, if he thought it would benefit him.
“The next time, it just may be you. It just may be you,” Schiff said.
“Do you think for a moment that any of you, no matter what your relationship to this president, no matter how close you are to this president, do you think for a moment that if he felt it was in his interest, he wouldn’t ask you to be investigated?” Schiff asked rhetorically.
“Do you think for a moment that he wouldn’t? And if somewhere deep, down below you realize that he would, you cannot leave a man like that in office when he has violated the Constitution.”
Schiff has played to the senators’ sensibilities before. On Thursday, Schiff appealed the lawmakers’ distrust of Russia as he built the case that Trump’s demand for Ukraine to announce a probe into 2016 election interference was based on a false Kremlin backed conspiracy, and designed simply to damage Democrats.
“This theory was brought to you by the Kremlin,” Schiff said then. “So we’re not talking about generic interference … what Donald Trump wanted investigated or announced was this completely bogus, Kremlin-pushed conspiracy theory.”
“Well, you gotta give Donald Trump credit for this. He has made a religious man out of Vladimir Putin,” Schiff said, generating a ripple of laughter from senators.
Leaked tape of Trump raises questions about new evidence
A newly surfaced recording Friday appeared to contain audio of Trump demanding that former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch be fired, ABC News reported.
“Get rid of her!” Trump reportedly said of Yovanovitch, during a small dinner in April 2018 that was attended by Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, two associates of Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, who were deeply involved in the covert campaign to remove the ambassador from her post.
“Get her out tomorrow. I don’t care. Get her out tomorrow. Take her out. Okay? Do it,” Trump can reportedly be heard saying on the tape. CNBC has not heard the tape.
Trump did not deny that he spoke those words, and later said he was likely addressing Giuliani.
But the tape underscores one of the biggest still-unresolved issues in Trump’s impeachment trial — Whether or not senators will be permitted to ask the two respective legal teams questions about new evidence that has come to light since December, when the House impeachment probe formally ended.
Under the Senate rules, the only evidence admitted into the trial was the trove of documents produced during the House investigation, which includes records, testimony transcripts and correspondence.
Once the president’s lawyers are finished presenting their arguments in his defense, senators will have 16 hours, likely spread over two days, to submit questions to the legal teams. The questions will be read aloud by Chief Justice John Roberts, who is presiding over the trial.
But if those questions contain references to evidence that’s not part of the House trove, how will Roberts react? Will he ask the questions? Will he ask for a vote?
This was unresolved as of Friday, and could greatly impact a key phase of the president’s trial.
Trump’s defense to begin with “coming attractions”
The president’s defense team will begin their opening arguments on Saturday at 10 a.m., and go for a three hour block of time after which the Senate will adjourn for the weekend. Many senators are expected to return home, and the five Democrats running for president are expected to hit the campaign trail.
Trump’s legal team will use their three hours to present what attorney Jay Sekulow described Friday as a preview of their defense, but an “affirmative case.” But he said they plan to wait until Monday to launch a full defense.
“I guess I would call it a trailer, kind of a coming attractions would be the best way to say it,” Sekulow told reporters in the Capitol. “Obviously we have three hours to put it out, so we’ll take whatever time is appropriate during those three hours.”
Sekulow later noted, “we were prepared to go as long as they wanted us to go tomorrow.
The compressed format left the president’s lawyers in an awkward position, forced to begin their opening arguments at a time when few Americans are watching television.
But Sekulow made it clear that the president’s defense team plans to argue that the investigations Trump asked Ukraine’s president to launch as “a favor” were not motivated by 2020 election politics, but instead by legitimate concerns.
One of these requested probes concerned a discredited conspiracy theory that Sekulow repeated on Friday. It’s not entirely clear how far Trump’s lawyers intend to push the conspiracy theory, which claims that Ukraine, and not Russia, interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election on behalf of Trump’s rival, Democrat Hillary Clinton.
American intelligence officials have described the theory as Kremlin-backed propaganda. And given that Russia is deeply unpopular with senators of both parties, this argument could pose a risk for Trump’s lawyers.