The House opening arguments in the impeachment trial of President Trump mark the first time lawmakers have explicitly presented the entirety of their evidence about Trump’s handling of Ukraine aid — and thus far, they’ve been nothing short of damning.
While the House Intelligence and Judiciary Committees have compiled comprehensive reports about what they’ve found during the impeachment inquiry, the trial provided a platform and format they simply haven’t had yet. Over seven hours of painstaking arguments that featured video clips of witness testimony, screen captures of text messages, and excerpts of additional documents, Democratic impeachment managers detailed the facts they had obtained on Wednesday.
The story built to one clear takeaway: Trump conditioned $400 million in military aid to Ukraine, along with a White House meeting, on the announcement of investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden and alleged election interference.
“We have the evidence to prove President Trump ordered the aid withheld. He did so to coerce Ukraine to help his reelection campaign,” impeachment manager Adam Schiff emphasized. “We can and will prove Trump guilty of this conduct and of obstructing this investigation into his misconduct.”
Schiff, along with the rest of the impeachment managers, assembled this case witness by witness, month by month — providing a “factual chronology” of how the “plot unfolded.”
In June, Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani was actively pushing Ukrainian officials for investigations into Joe Biden and alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election. At this point, Trump also reportedly heard that the Defense Department was planning to send military aid to Ukraine, and White House officials began discussing a hold. In July, the call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky took place. And in September, Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland told Ukraine adviser Andriy Yermak that the military aid relied on the announcement of the investigations.
Democrats’ comprehensive description of this timeline and repeated references to testimony by multiple witnesses established an exhaustive pattern of information pointing to Trump’s actions.
Democrats also emphasized the role that additional documents could play in shedding light on several meetings and phone calls that focused on the Ukraine aid, as they implored Senate Republicans to vote for the admission of more evidence. Acting Ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor had taken notes about a call he had with Sondland, for example, but those are being held by the State Department.
“You have a very important obligation, and that is ultimately to decide whether the president made impeachable offenses,” said impeachment manager Zoe Lofgren. “In order to make that judgment, you have to have all the facts.”
The effectiveness of the House presentation, while it may not sway the final votes of any Senate Republicans, was significant. Although much of the evidence had already been laid out in various House hearings, it was powerful to see the narrative pulled together in this way. And as Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) told reporters, these arguments marked the first time many of the lawmakers present were hearing any of these facts.
“If you poll the senators, nine out of 10 will tell you they have not read the transcript of the House hearings, and the 10th is lying to you,” he said.
By and large, Democrats said they found the opening arguments very compelling.
“When you hear the presentation by the House managers yesterday … you can see the power of this case and how disturbing it is,” Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) told reporters on Thursday. “The House managers gave a powerful presentation of the factual basis of why the House voted to impeach this president,” Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) added.
Though Republicans were less moved by the arguments, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) acknowledged that they were well done.
Schiff is “well spoken,” Graham said Thursday. “He did a good job of creating a tapestry, taking bits and pieces of evidence and emails and giving a rhetorical flourish. Making the email come alive. Sometimes effectively, sometimes a little over the top.” At the conclusion of Wednesday’s remarks, Graham went so far as to tell Schiff “good job.” He’s seen, however, as one of the senators who’s least likely to break with the president.
Ultimately, these arguments have multiple audiences: The House managers are attempting to persuade Senate Republicans to consider both the case and the inclusion of more evidence. Additionally, they’re explaining the findings of the impeachment trial to the American people, in an effort to shape public opinion and set the tone for the coming election.
The Democratic case against the president
The House impeachment managers’ point is straightforward: They argue that the president abused his office in order to obtain political favors for himself, and that he did so at the cost of the country’s well-being. What’s more, they note, they have overwhelming evidence to prove it.
The House this December voted to charge Trump with two articles of impeachment: one focused on his alleged abuse of power, and his efforts to use the presidential office to interfere in the 2020 election, and the other on his alleged obstruction of Congress as lawmakers sought to uncover his plans.
“If we don’t stand up to this peril today, we will write the history of our decline with our own hand,” Schiff said. “If President Trump is not held to account, we send the message to future presidents, future Congresses and generations of Americans, that the personal interests of the president can fairly take precedence over that of the nation.”
Using what Politico estimated to be around 50 video clips — which featured everyone from National Security Council official Fiona Hill to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to Trump himself — along with countless documents, Democrats highlighted exactly how Trump pursued the investigation announcement he wanted from Ukraine.
Among the evidence that was offered was a letter from Giuliani to Zelensky that had been provided by Giuliani’s associate Lev Parnas, which showed that Trump’s attorney was acting on behalf of his personal interests. A text from Taylor to Sondland reemerged on Thursday as well, and captured Democrats’ case in a nutshell: “As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.”
Throughout all this, Democrats reiterated the central contradiction in Trump’s actions: Even as he was helping himself, he was hurting the US. “Most critically, the military aid we provide Ukraine helps to protect and advance American national security interests in the region and beyond,” Schiff said.
None of this is expected to matter to Republicans
Schiff, in his statements, also pointedly acknowledged the political realities of the Senate.
In his closing on Wednesday, he alluded to the massive risks that officials like former US ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch and Taylor were taking in testifying about their knowledge of the president’s misconduct. He noted, too, that Senate Republicans would be taking a risk as they weigh whether to convict the president — and he urged them to do so.
“They risked everything, their careers,” Schiff said. “And yes, I know what you’re asked to decide may risk yours too. If they can show the courage, so can we.”
Republicans, especially those facing reelection this year, have long been reluctant to break with the president, on anything from his push for the border wall to xenophobic comments he’s made targeting members of the House. This is in large part because of how popular he remains with a large segment of the Republican base. According to a Gallup poll, 88 percent of Republicans approve of the job he’s doing as president.
GOP reactions to this week’s arguments underscored this reluctance. “I think much of what we’re hearing is really interesting testimony,” Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) said. “I think digesting the facts has been very illuminating to me … but I wonder if the president’s team will not use some of the exact same incidents to prove the opposite point.”
On Thursday and Friday, the House managers will continue to make their case for how Trump’s offenses meet the impeachment threshold of “high crimes and misdemeanors,” as defined by the Constitution. If these arguments are anything like those made on the first day, it’s clear Senate Republicans, who are overwhelmingly expected to acquit the president, have some serious reckoning to do.