Senate Opens Trump Impeachment Trial as New Ukraine Revelations Emerge

WASHINGTON — The Senate formally opened the impeachment trial of President Trump on Thursday, bracing for a deeply divisive debate over his fate as senators swore to deliver “impartial justice” and installed Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. to preside over the proceeding.

In a somber ceremony that initiated only the third presidential impeachment trial in the nation’s history, Chief Justice Roberts vowed to act “according to the Constitution and the laws.” He then administered the same, 222-year-old oath of impartiality to the senators, setting in motion the final stage of a process that has roiled Congress and could shape the outcome of the 2020 elections, along with Mr. Trump’s legacy.

Even as the ritual unfolded in the chamber, with senators signing their names one by one in an oath book near the marble Senate rostrum, new evidence was emerging about Mr. Trump’s pressure campaign on Ukraine that is at the heart of the charges against him.

A trove of texts, voice mail messages, calendar entries and other records handed over by Lev Parnas, an associate of the president’s personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani, offered additional detail about the scheme. And the Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan federal watchdog, found that Mr. Trump’s decision to withhold military aid from Ukraine, which the House charges was part of his pressure campaign, was a violation of the law.

In Ukraine, officials announced Thursday that they had opened a criminal investigation into “possible violations of Ukrainian law and of the Vienna Convention” by allies of Mr. Trump’s after documents from Mr. Parnas suggested that his associates had conducted surveillance on a United States ambassador while she was stationed in Kyiv.

While Thursday’s ceremony was dictated by tradition and senatorial courtesy, Mr. Trump’s trial promises to be an unpredictable affair, as Democrats press their case for removing a Republican president they argue abused his power and obstructed Congress.

Mr. Trump is almost certain to be acquitted in the Republican-controlled chamber, but even the president’s allies were divided on Thursday about how best to defend him in a trial with heavy political stakes, some pushing for a quick dismissal and others staying open to calling witnesses who could offer new information.

At the White House, Mr. Trump sought to distance himself from Mr. Parnas and raged about the trial, telling school prayer advocates that impeachment was a “hoax” fabricated by his enemies. The president called Representative Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California and the lead House impeachment manager, a “corrupt person.”

His comments came hours after Mr. Schiff strode across the Capitol, flanked by the six other House prosectors, to present the articles of impeachment to a Senate chamber hushed by the sergeant-at-arms, who shouted, “Hear ye, hear ye, hear ye,” to bring the trial to order.

Mr. Schiff read aloud the charges against Mr. Trump, accusing the president of a scheme to solicit foreign interference in the 2020 election for his own benefit by pressuring Ukraine to announce investigations into his political rivals, withholding $391 million in military aid and a White House meeting as leverage, and then by trying to conceal his actions from Congress.

“President Trump,” Mr. Schiff said, “warrants impeachment and trial, removal from office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any office of honor, trust, or profit under the United States.”

Later, the president used Twitter to express his outrage.

“I JUST GOT IMPEACHED FOR MAKING A PERFECT PHONE CALL!” he wrote, apparently referring to the July phone call in which he asked President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine to “do us a favor” and investigate former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and his son Hunter Biden.

As the public debate intensifies, the arcane rules of impeachment trials require the senators to remain virtually silent throughout the proceedings — on “punishment of imprisonment,” according to the text — for hours on end, six days a week, as the world watches.

The televised trial will play out against the backdrop of the president’s re-election campaign and in the shadow of the Democratic Party’s nominating contest, scheduled to begin with the Iowa caucuses in less than three weeks. Never in modern history has a president been the subject of an impeachment trial in an election year, adding to a sense of uncertainty in both parties.

Four Democratic candidates for president — Senators Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Michael Bennet of Colorado — sat quietly in their seats on Thursday for the start of a trial that is likely to keep them off the campaign trail for much of the time before the Feb. 3 caucuses.

“I would rather be in Iowa today,” Mr. Sanders said, noting the coming caucuses and the contests soon to follow in New Hampshire and Nevada. “But I swore a constitutional oath as a United States senator to do my job and I’m here to do my job, and I think the people of the United States understand that.”

Less than an hour before the impeachment charges were read, the Senate performed one last bit of legislative business, giving final approval to Mr. Trump’s revised North American trade deal. The vote sent the overwhelmingly bipartisan trade pact to the president’s desk for his signature, handing Mr. Trump a victory as the trial began.

Only hours later, in its first official action as a presidential impeachment court, the Senate issued a summons formally notifying Mr. Trump that he was on trial for high crimes and misdemeanors, and giving him and his legal team until Saturday evening to respond in writing. Senators gave the president’s lawyers and the House managers who will prosecute the case the weekend to file trial briefs laying out their arguments for and against conviction.

Then Chief Justice Roberts adjourned the trial until Tuesday, banging the Senate’s small ivory gavel and clearing the way for arguments to begin next week.

Behind the scenes, Republicans were divided over how to proceed, with moderates and conservatives at odds over whether to try to dismiss the case altogether, as Mr. Trump has suggested he would like and some of his staunchest allies are eager to do.

Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, was drafting trial rules that would not guarantee a vote to do so, rankling some conservatives but potentially sparing moderates a politically risky move. And in another bow to centrists who have insisted on it, Mr. McConnell was planning to allow votes on whether to call witnesses after opening arguments from both sides and questions by senators.

Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, said Thursday that she would be inclined to vote in favor of new testimony at that point.

“While I need to hear the case argued and the questions answered, I tend to believe having additional information would be helpful,” she said in a statement. “It is likely that I would support a motion to call witnesses at that point in the trial, just as I did in 1999.”

The issue will be hotly debated when the trial resumes Tuesday, and the Senate is scheduled to vote on the rules for the proceeding.

Senator Chuck Schumer, the minority leader, said he would immediately call for a vote to subpoena witnesses and documents that could provide new information about Mr. Trump’s actions. Democrats have said the new evidence from Mr. Parnas proves that the Senate should press for documents that the administration refused to provide during the House investigation.

The evidence provided by Mr. Parnas adds significant detail to the public record about how the pressure campaign played out and new political peril for Mr. Trump as his lawyers seek to exonerate him. On Wednesday, Mr. Parnas told The New York Times that he believed the president knew about the efforts to dig up dirt on his political rivals.

Representative Val B. Demings, Democrat of Florida and one of the seven impeachment managers, tweeted Thursday that the assertions by Mr. Parnas confirmed that Mr. Giuliani and others were “working on the presidents orders.”

Democrats have also demanded that the senators hear from John R. Bolton, Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser; Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff; Robert Blair, a top aide to Mr. Mulvaney; and Michael Duffey, a top budget official.

But Mr. Schumer’s motion is all but certain to fail. Mr. McConnell has said he has the votes to open the trial without promising witnesses, and will take up the matter later.

Stephanie Grisham, the press secretary, said the White House expected Mr. Trump’s formal response to the impeachment charges would prove he did nothing wrong, and she dismissed the stream of new details emerging about the Ukraine pressure campaign.

Aides said Mr. Trump was not watching the pomp and circumstance happening at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, although the White House postponed the event he had scheduled with school prayer advocates until after the televised oath-taking was over.

If he had tuned in, Mr. Trump would have seen an elaborate ritual that fulfilled one of the few constitutional requirements for an impeachment trial, that senators and the chief justice of the United States take a special oath that dates to 1798.

On Thursday, it was administered to Chief Justice Roberts by Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the longest-serving Republican.

“Do you solemnly swear that in all things appertaining to the trial of the impeachment of Donald John Trump, president of the United States, now pending, you will do impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws, so help you God?” Mr. Grassley read.

“I do,” the chief justice replied before delivering the same oath to the senators.

Source: The New York Times

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