Wednesday, the House Democrats began formal arguments in the Senate impeachment trial of President Donald Trump.
A number of people involved made not-quite-accurate claims over everything from Trump’s phone call July 25 with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to the Obama administration’s aid to Ukraine.
Democrats focus on delaying aid, after Trump claims Ukraine got funds ‘long before schedule’
As Democratic House managers wrapped up their presentation about the first article of impeachment alleging abuse of power, Manager Jason Crow, D-Colo. said President Donald Trump’s defenders might argue that the suspension of $391 million in military aid to Ukraine wasn’t important because it was short-lived and the money was eventually released.
“This defense would be laughable if this issue wasn’t so serious,” said Crow, a former Army Ranger. “No, the delay wasn’t meaningless. Just ask the Ukrainians sitting in trenches now.”
Ukraine needed the funding because it had been invaded by Russia and was fighting for its territorial integrity. Crow played a video of Jennifer Williams, a State Department aide assigned to Vice President Mike Pence’s office, who attended a Sept. 1 meeting between Pence and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky.
“President Zelensky explained that equally with the financial and fiscal value, that it was the symbolic nature of that assistance that really was the show of U.S. support for Ukraine and for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Williams said, in her testimony during the House inquiry. “He was stressing that to the vice president, to really underscore the need for the security assistance to be released.”
Crow argued that Trump only released the money to use it as leverage to pressure Ukraine into investigating his political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden.
“The scheme was unraveling,” Crow said. “He only released it after he got caught.”
Earlier this week, Trump said while speaking at a news conference in Davos, Switzerland that Ukraine got the “money long before schedule.”
USA TODAY and the AP both point to the fact that the hold was lifted by the Trump administration after a complaint was submitted by a whistleblower. And FactCheck.org writes that the White House was “under pressure from members of Congress and administration officials” when the money was released.
Furthermore, FactCheck.org points out that Congress had to grant an extension to make sure the aid could be spent past the deadline originally set by Capitol Hill, adding that a Pentagon official said earlier this week the Defense Department had “‘executed 99.8% of the funds’ for Ukraine and was ‘working to obligate the remainder.’”
Finally, a government watchdog agency recently concluded that the Trump administration violated federal law when it withheld the funds intended to help Ukraine. “Faithful execution of the law does not permit the president to substitute his own policy priorities for those that Congress has enacted into law,” the report by the Government Accountability Office says. “OMB withheld funds for a policy reason, which is not permitted” under the law.
A spokesperson for the Office of Management and Budget disagreed with the GAO’s conclusion.
– Martina Stewart and Bart Jansen
The Bidens, Burisma, a Ukraine prosecutor and a debunked theory
One of the managers, Rep. Sylvia Garcia, D-Texas, spent her presentation Thursday outlining allegations of potential corruption by former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, were false. Garcia argued that President Donald Trump urged Ukraine to investigate Biden based on a debunked theory and at a time in 2019 when Biden was leading polls as the Democratic contender to challenge Trump.
“The entire premise of the investigation that the president wanted Ukraine to pursue was false,” Garcia said. “There is simply no evidence – nothing, nada – in the record to support this baseless allegation.”
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Garcia recited the history that Hunter Biden joined the board of Burisma Holdings in 2014, at a time when the Ukraine gas company was under investigation because of its oligarch owner. Viktor Shokin became Ukraine’s prosecutor general in 2015 and he allowed the investigation to go dormant, Garcia said.
In late 2015, Joe Biden called for the removal of Shokin because he was widely perceived as ineffective and corrupt, Garcia said. Shokin’s removal was also sought by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, Garcia said. A bipartisan group of U.S. senators sent a letter Feb. 12, 2016, urging Shokin’s removal. Shokin was fired a month later. George Kent, who was the second-in-command at the U.S. embassy in Ukraine, testified that Shokin routinely lived more lavishly than his government salary would allow and covered up crimes.
“Biden called for removal of the prosecutor at the direction of U.S. policy because the prosecutor was widely perceived as corrupt,” Garcia said.
But in a phone call July 25, 2019, Trump urged Ukraine’s new President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate the Bidens and Burisma because he had heard “horrible” things about potential corruption in Ukraine. The call came after Trump hadn’t pursued anti-corruption efforts in Ukraine in 2017 and 2018, but at a time when Biden was leading in polls to challenge Trump, Garcia said.
“He pushed for an investigation in 2019 because that is when it would be valuable to him, President Trump,” Garcia said. “He had good reason to be concerned.”
As USA TODAY has explained, Biden pushed for Shokin’s ouster because the prosecutor wasn’t pursuing corruption by Ukrainian politicians.
Furthermore, USA TODAY spent a week in Ukraine and reported “the message from two dozen government officials and anti-corruption investigators quickly became clear: The allegations against the Bidens are entirely lacking in evidence.”
And, the notion that it was Ukraine — rather than Russia — who interfered in the 2016 presidential election, is a debunked theory, one of a handful of debunked theories Trump has espoused, USA TODAY has reported.
But one of the lawyers representing Trump in the trial said Thursday evening that the House managers’ focus on Joe Biden throughout their hours of presentations earlier in the day “opened the door” for Trump’s team to concentrate on the former vice president in their rebuttal on behalf of the president.
“For the last five hours, it’s been a lot about Joe Biden and Burisma,” Jay Sekulow said, “They kind of opened the door for that response so we’ll determine as a defense team the appropriate way to do it.”
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, agreed, arguing that the House managers’ decision to focus on Biden and Burisma had several consequences, including making Hunter Biden, the vice president’s son, “not only relevant. He is now critical.”
And, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said when Democrats claim that allegations against the Bidens have been debunked, he isn’t so sure. Graham thinks more questions should be asked about why Hunter Biden was hired by Burisma and why he was hired after then-Vice President Joe Biden was put in charge of the government’s portfolio dealing with Ukraine.
“I don’t know. Doesn’t pass the smell test to me,” Graham told reporters Thursday.
Graham said he wasn’t accusing Joe Biden of corruption, but saying that more questions about the activities of both Bidens in Ukraine are warranted. “I don’t know anything about the Biden connection to the Ukraine,” Graham said. “So when the managers tell me this has been looked at and debunked, by who?”
– Bart Jansen, Christal Hayes, Nicholas Wu, and Martina Stewart
Must an impeachable offense involve a statutory crime?
During the trial Thursday, House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., challenged the argument from President Trump’s defenders that impeachment must allege a violation of statutory law.
To make his point, Nadler played a 1999 video of Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who was a manager 21 years ago in the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton. The Constitution allows impeachment for “high crimes and misdemeanors,” a term that has been debated during the Trump investigation.
“What’s a high crime?” Graham asked in the well of the Senate in 1999. “How about an important person hurting somebody of low means? It’s not very scholarly, but I think it’s the truth. I think that’s what they meant by high crimes. Doesn’t even have to be a crime. It’s just when you start using your office and you’re acting in a way that hurts people, you’ve committed a high crime.”
Republicans have challenged the accusations of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress as vague and not grounded in established law.
For example, during the Dec. 18 debate by the full House on the articles of impeachment, Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., who was a manager during President Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial said: “the Constitution says that any civil officer, including the President, may be impeached for treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors. Unlike the Nixon and Clinton cases, there are no allegations that the President has committed a crime. We have had almost 3 years of nonstop investigations. We have had the Mueller report, we have had the Schiff investigation, we have had the Nadler investigation, and at no time has there been any evidence that indicates that Donald J. Trump violated any criminal statute of the United States.”
“This view is completely wrong,” Nadler said Thursday of the Republican argument. “It has no support in constitutional text and structure, original meaning, congressional precedents, common sense or the consensus of credible experts. In other words, it conflicts with every relevant consideration.”
Nadler quoted two constitutional scholars who testified at a Dec. 4 hearing in the impeachment inquiry.
Michael Gerhardt, a law professor at the University of North Carolina, said the Constitution “plainly does not” require a violation of law for impeachment.
“Everything that we know about the history of impeachment reinforces the conclusion that impeachable offenses do not have to be crimes,” Gerhardt said. “We look, again, at the context and gravity of the misconduct.”
Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University, submitted written testimony that said: “it is possible to establish a case for impeachment based on a non-criminal allegation of abuse of power.”
During a break Thursday, Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, said she would like to hear a rebuttal from Trump’s legal team that goes beyond saying abuse of power isn’t an impeachable offense.
“I am not particularly interested in legal arguments such as abuse of power is not impeachable because that has been rebutted by real constitutional scholars,” Hirono told reporters.
– Bart Jansen
Trump switches up dates of Schiff’s version of Zelensky phone call
President Donald Trump repeated one of his frequent factual errors Wednesday about Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff’s exaggerated version of the phone call between Trump and Zelensky.
The president said the White House released its partial transcript of the call in response to Schiff’s rendition, but it was released the day before, on Sept. 25. Speaking during an Intelligence Committee hearing on Sept. 26, Schiff did a “parody” of Trump’s words on the call, and the president reacted by accusing him of treason.
“I’d watch his lies,” Trump said in a Fox Business interview Wednesday. “I watch where they’ve actually played a rerun, which they shouldn’t even do, it was so bad, where he goes before Congress, and he makes a statement that I made, and it was a total fraud. I never made it.
“That’s why I released the conversation, because if I didn’t release it, people would have said that I made the statement that he made. This guy is a fraud,” Trump said.
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The president made a similar claim during a news conference in Davos, Switzerland, on Wednesday. “When we released that conversation, all hell broke out with the Democrats, because they say, ‘Wait a minute. This is much different than Shifty Schiff told us.’ “
Trump is correct that Schiff’s version was not totally accurate, relative to the summary of the call released by the White House, but the administration could not have released the call summary in response to Schiff. Rather, Schiff’s version was based on the White House’s summary.
Schiff gave “an embellished rendition of the White House memo of the July phone call,” FactCheck.org said. “As we’ve explained before, Schiff said he was recounting ‘the essence of what the president communicates’ and ‘in not so many words.’ “
– Jeanine Santucci
Schiff: In 2016, Russia hacked Democrats after Trump’s ‘Russia, if you’re listening …’
Schiff, the lead House impeachment manager, said Wednesday, “In 2016, candidate Trump implored Russians to hack his opponent’s email account, something the Russian military agency did hours later. Only hours later, they hacked his opponent’s campaign.”
Schiff referred to a remark Trump made July 27, 2016, during a news conference in Florida where he said he hoped Moscow could locate emails associated with his rival Hillary Clinton: “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” he said. “I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”
The report on Russian interference in the 2016 election issued by special counsel Robert Mueller noted that “within approximately five hours of Trump’s statement, [Russian military intelligence] officers targeted for the first time Clinton’s personal office,” including 15 email accounts at a specific domain, one of which belonged to a Clinton aide.
As noted by The New York Times, the events of that day in the summer of 2016 were part of an indictment against a dozen Russians charged with hacking by the Justice Department.
In written responses provided by Trump during the Mueller investigation, the president said he made the “Russia, if you’re listening …” remark “in jest and sarcastically, as was apparent to any objective observer.”
Although federal prosecutors said in the hacking indictment that the Russian hackers corresponded with several Americans, a top Justice Department lawyer said in unveiling the indictment that there was no evidence that the Americans were aware they were corresponding with Russian intelligence officers.
– Martina Stewart
Cruz: Obama administration sent ‘blankets and MREs’ to Ukraine
During a break in the trial Wednesday night, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said the Obama administration “sent blankets and MRE’s” to Ukraine, “but they wouldn’t give lethal aid.”
“I traveled to Ukraine in 2014, came back and urged Barack Obama to give lethal military aid to Ukraine. The Obama administration refused to do so,” Cruz said. “Instead, they sent blankets and MRE’s.”
Cruz’s remarks echo others by fellow Republicans. Trump said Obama provided Ukraine with “pillows and sheets.” In 2015, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said, “The Ukrainians are being slaughtered, and we’re sending them blankets and meals. Blankets don’t do well against Russian tanks.”
Cruz is correct that lethal military aid began to be provided to Ukraine only during Trump’s tenure. “The first lethal deliveries came from Trump,” Jim Townsend, deputy assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO Policy during the Obama administration, told PolitiFact.
– Martina Stewart and Savannah Behrmann
Were Republicans, Trump allowed to participate in the House inquiry?
In a wide-ranging pair of speeches on the Senate floor Tuesday, Jay Sekulow, a private lawyer for Trump, and White House counsel Pat Cipollone accused Democrats of seeking to remove Trump since he was elected.
Sekulow said Schiff committed a “trifecta” of improprieties by denying Trump access to evidence, counsel at hearings and the right to cross-examine witnesses during the House inquiry.
“That’s a trifecta, a trifecta that violates the Constitution of the United States,” Sekulow said.
House Democrats on three committees held closed-door depositions during the inquiry, but Republicans were allowed to attend and ask questions. The Judiciary Committee invited Trump’s lawyers to attend and participate in hearings by questioning witnesses, but the White House declined to participate in what Cipollone called a “baseless and highly partisan” inquiry.
GOP lawmakers were a part of the depositions, and the White House lawyers representing the president declined to participate in the House Judiciary Committee hearings, as detailed by PolitiFact and FactCheck.org.
– Bart Jansen
What the Mueller report found on obstruction of justice
Sekulow said Tuesday that “there was no obstruction,” referring to the special counsel’s report on Russian interference.
The report detailed 11 episodes of conduct by Trump that might have constituted obstruction, but Mueller refused to make a firm conclusion on the issue.
As USA TODAY explained, “In leaving that issue unanswered, Mueller neither charged Trump with an offense nor exonerated him, leaving the next moves up to Congress.”
FactCheck.org said that in punting on the question, the Mueller report pointed to “difficult [legal] issues” involved in indicting a sitting president, including concerns about violating the constitutional principle of separation of powers as detailed in an October 2000 legal opinion by the Justice Department.
– Martina Stewart