Trump was ‘calling the shots’ on Ukraine coercion, Democrats say

Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff says Trump’s decision to withhold aid to Ukraine was risky. (AP pic)

WASHINGTON: House managers in a final day of arguments sought to tie Donald Trump directly to pressure on Ukraine to probe the president’s leading 2020 rival, pointing to White House lawyers’ decision to hide a summary of a pivotal phone call as key evidence of a “cover-up”.

Impeachment managers focused on the July 25 call with Ukraine’s president that Trump has repeatedly characterised as “perfect”.

They played video clips of two White House aides’ testimony that they told lawyers Trump had asked Ukraine’s leader for an inappropriate “favour” during the call.

After that point there was no question that Trump, not his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, was in charge, the Democrats said.

“After July 25, there can be no mistake the president of the United States was undoubtedly calling the shots,” said Representative Hakeem Jeffries, one of the seven impeachment managers.

He said White House lawyers’ decision to save a memo on the call in a highly secure server showed “they tried to bury the call summary”.

Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff said his team will complete its case and offer “some concluding thoughts” later Friday, which are likely to focus on Democrats’ bid to subpoena witnesses and documents blocked by the administration.

The 100 senators have been sitting through hours of presentations on the two articles of impeachment brought by the House.

Trump’s lawyers will begin their defence in a Saturday session that will start at 10am Washington time and run for several hours, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said.

The president lamented on Twitter Friday morning that Saturdays are the “Death Valley” of television.

Schiff is leading the other House managers in pulling together what had been a disjointed collection of testimony into a timeline they said shows Trump took a sudden interest in Ukrainian corruption only after former Vice President Joe Biden entered the presidential race.

Trump then withheld almost US$400 million in military aid and a White House meeting sought by recently-elected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, while seeking an investigation of Biden and his son, Hunter, Democrats say.

“The question for you is whether it’s OK for the president to withhold taxpayer money, aid for our ally and friend at war, for a personal benefit,” House manager Jason Crow of Colorado told the senators Friday.

“Whether it’s OK for the president to sacrifice our national security for his own election. It’s not OK to me, it’s certainly not OK with the American people, and should not be OK with you.”

They argued the only explanation for Trump’s decision to hold up almost US$400 million in aid to Ukraine was to pressure the new government to announce an investigation of Biden and his son, who had served on the board of a Ukrainian energy company, to bolster the president’s re-election campaign.

The aid had been appropriated by Congress.

”You know you can’t trust this president to do what’s right for this country. You can trust he will do what’s right for Donald Trump,” Schiff said as he closed out Thursday’s arguments. “This is why, if you find him guilty, you must find that he should be removed.”

In his arguments, Jeffries pointed to testimony during the House investigation from two National Security Council aides – Timothy Morrison and Alexander Vindman – who were on the call between Trump and Zelenskiy.

Morrison and Vindman said they were dismayed when they heard Trump stray from prepared talking points and request a probe of the Bidens as a “favour,” and reported that to the NSC’s legal counsel.

That lawyer, in turn, responded by moving the record of the call to a secure server where the public would never see it, Jeffries said.

Schiff pointed to testimony by William Taylor, the former acting US ambassador to Ukraine, about the importance of clear public US support for Ukraine to help quell Russian hostilities.

Trump’s decision to withhold the aid was devastating and risky, Schiff said, and could cause other allies to lose faith in the US.

“This is how alliances wither and die, and how Russia wins,” he said.

Impeachment light

Trump, speaking Thursday night at a Republican National Committee meeting at his Doral resort in Miami, derided the case being argued by Democrats as “impeachment light,” according to three people who heard his remarks.

He told the crowd that Democrats had been planning an impeachment trial since he won election.

Trump’s defence lawyers will have as many as 24 hours over three days to present their case, although they haven’t said whether they will use all their time. Trump attorney Jay Sekulow said Friday his team plans to showcase allegations against Joe Biden.

Sekulow said that the House Democrats in their argument opened a “wide” door to discussions of Hunter Biden’s work for Ukranian gas company Burisma Holdings, at a time when Biden served as vice president and worked on corruption issues in Ukraine, in their presentation.

“I guess they felt that was their way of getting ahead of it,” Sekulow said. “We will address it.”

Question of motive

Impeachment manager Sylvia Garcia on Thursday discussed why Trump would want Ukraine to announce an investigation that would entangle the Bidens.

The answer, she said, was that the former vice president had entered the Democratic presidential race, and polls showed he would be Trump’s strongest challenger in the 2020 election.

“It wasn’t until Biden began beating him in polls that he called for the investigation,” said Garcia, a Texas Democrat. “He had the motive, he had the opportunity and the means to commit this abuse of power.”

The mere announcement of an investigation would have tarnished the vice president’s reputation, she said, benefiting Trump’s re-election prospects.

“President Trump solicited foreign interference in the US election for one particular objective – to benefit his own re-election,” Schiff said. “To seek help in cheating in a US election, he requested, effectively demanded, a personal political favour.”

The Bidens may come into play if at least four Republicans join with Democrats to provide 51 votes to subpoena witnesses blocked by Trump from testifying in the House impeachment inquiry.

Among those Democrats want to call are acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and former Trump National Security Adviser John Bolton.

4 Republicans

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on Friday pushed back on the notion that calling new witnesses would lead to an extended court fight over executive privilege.

If the Senate issued subpoenas they would be considered bipartisan and would bear the signature of Chief Justice John Roberts, he said, making an expedited court review likely.

“We know they’ll pressure Republican senators, but four Republican senators can step forward and say that we need witnesses and documents,” Schumer said at a news conference.

“And there are 12 or 13 who have never said a bad word about witnesses and documents.”

Once Trump’s defence team is finished, senators have as many as 16 hours to ask questions of both sides before the showdown vote on witnesses.

If the door is opened to new witnesses sought by Democrats, 51 Republicans could join to call their own slate. Several GOP senators have said one or both Bidens should be on that list.

But Senate Republican leaders are expressing growing confidence that the Senate will reject a vote on whether to seek more evidence.

A staunch Trump ally, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, told reporters Friday, “I don’t want to call Hunter Biden, I don’t want to call Joe Biden. I want someone to look at this when this is done.”