Trump impeachment trial: Dems use Republicans' own words against them

Key Points
  • Democratic impeachment managers pushing the Senate to remove President Donald Trump from office laid out a sprawling argument Thursday that he had abused his power.
  • Democrats used a wide array of video clips and other visual exhibits, including a two-decade-old clip of staunch Trump ally Lindsey Graham arguing that impeachment did not require the commission of a crime.
  • Lead impeachment manager Rep. Adam Schiff appealed to senators' distrust of the Kremlin, an opinion that enjoys near-universal bipartisan support.
House impeachment manager Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., is seen in the Capitol before the continuation of the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump on Thursday, January 23, 2020.
Tom Williams | CQ Roll Call | Getty Images

Democratic impeachment managers pushing the Senate to remove President Donald Trump from office laid out a sprawling argument Thursday that he had abused his power.

On their second day of opening statements, the seven House Democrats, led by Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., zeroed in on the first of two articles of impeachment that the House passed last month. They have 24 hours total, spread out over three days, to state their case.

Schiff, along with Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., Rep. Sylvia Garcia, D-Texas and other managers, took a step-by-step approach to laying out their arguments that Trump's efforts to pressure Ukraine's president to announce probes into his political opponents meet the standard for impeachment.

When the Democrats finish, Trump's lawyers will have the same amount of time to present the president's defense. Jay Sekulow, one of Trump's attorneys, said that they plan to rebut the Democrats' arguments and present "an affirmative case" of their own.

Senators, who have been required to keep silent during the trial proceedings, will then have 16 cumulative hours to ask questions of the House managers and the defense team.

Under Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's rules, the Senate will then get to vote on whether to produce documents and witnesses in the trial that both Republican and Democratic lawmakers have been pushing for. Amendments to issue subpoenas beforehand for a slew of documents and witnesses, were shot down Tuesday.

Before the Senate convened at 1 p.m. ET on Thursday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., slammed Republicans who complained that the House managers had not presented anything new in the trial thus far.

"This argument that they heard nothing new, when they voted against new evidence repeatedly, rings very, very hollow," Schumer told reporters.

The House impeached Trump on Dec. 18 on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, both related to his dealings with Ukraine.

Trump and his allies had pushed Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to announce investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, as well as a debunked conspiracy theory alleging Ukrainian interference in the 2016 presidential election, while millions of dollars in military aid to Ukraine were being withheld. Democrats say Trump then blocked the House's investigation into the matter by refusing to hand over any documents and directing key witnesses not to comply with Congress.

It is considered highly unlikely that two thirds of the GOP-majority Senate will vote to remove a Republican president.

Here are the biggest highlights of the day:

Nadler: Don't need a crime to impeach Trump

Nadler sought from the start of his remarks to establish that Trump's conduct is gravely serious and constitutionally impeachable — even if it doesn't necessarily violate a specific criminal statue.

"No president has ever used his office to compel a foreign nation to help him cheat in our elections," Nadler said. "The president has repeatedly, flagrantly violated his oath."

He then cited a raft of historical precedent, including past presidents, Supreme Court rulings, founding fathers and experts who testified before the House that Trump should be impeached, to support a broader view of impeachment.

Impeachment, Nadler said, "is not a punishment for crimes." Rather, "Impeachment exists to address threats to the political system, applies only to political officials and responds not by imprisonment or fines, but only by stripping political power," he said.

Nadler argued that it would be "practically impossible" to limit the scope of possible presidential abuse only to what has been written into law.

"The Constitution is not a suicide pact," he said. "It does not leave us stuck with presidents who abuse their power in unforeseen ways that threaten our security and democracy."

"No one anticipated a president would stoop to this misconduct, and Congress has passed no specific law to make this behavior a crime," Nadler added. "Yet this is precisely the kind of abuse that the framers [of the Constitution] had in mind when they wrote the impeachment clause."

Nadler uses Trump ally Lindsey Graham to make his case

The Democrats used a wide array of video clips and other visual exhibits to support their arguments. But Nadler raised eyebrows with one video in particular: a two-decade-old clip of staunch Trump ally, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

From the time Democrats launched their investigation, Graham has been among the Senate's most vocal critics of the impeachment proceedings. "They're on a crusade to destroy this president," Graham said of Nadler, Schiff and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., on Wednesday.

But Nadler used Graham's own words — from the time of former President Bill Clinton's impeachment trial — to bolster his argument that Trump can be impeached without having committed a specific crime.

"What's a high crime? How about an important person hurting somebody of low means?" Graham asked in the Senate in 1999.

"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," Graham said in the clip.

An all-caps chyron above Graham in the clip read: "LINDSEY GRAHAM: IMPEACHMENT DOES NOT REQUIRE A CRIME."

Graham was reportedly the only senator not present in the chamber at the time the clip was played. A spokesman for his office did not respond to CNBC's inquiry about Nadler's use of the clip.

Dems take on Biden corruption claims that Trump wanted Ukraine to 'look into'

Democrats accuse Trump of pressuring Ukraine to announce the probe into the Bidens in order to help his reelection prospects.

Biden has been a frontrunner in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary since joining the race in April. In a July 25 phone call, Trump asked Zelenskiy to "look into" Biden and his son Hunter, who was serving on the board of a Ukrainian natural gas company at the time his father was vice president.

Trump and his allies have said that the president decided to withhold the military aid and ask for the Biden probes merely out of concern about corruption in Ukraine. They have suspicions about why Biden, as vice president, had pressured Ukraine to fire a prosecutor there who was reportedly investigating the natural gas company, Burisma Holdings.

But neither Biden nor his son have been credibly accused of wrongdoing. Biden's push for Ukraine to fire that prosecutor aligned with official U.S. policy at the time, as well as the wishes of numerous other countries who saw him as corrupt.

Rep. Garcia argued that Trump had been unconcerned about alleged corruption in Ukraine until Biden announced his presidential bid.

"The president asked Ukraine for this investigation for one reason and one reason only: because he knew it would be damaging to an opponent who was consistently beating him in the polls and therefore it could help him get reelected in 2020," Garcia said.

Schiff: Trump pushed a Kremlin-backed conspiracy theory

Early in the afternoon, Schiff took the floor to build a crucial part of the Democrats' case: that Trump's demand that Ukraine investigate election interference was 2016 was based on a false Kremlin backed conspiracy, and designed simply to damage Democrats.

Schiff appealed to senators' distrust of the Kremlin, an opinion that enjoys near-universal bipartisan support. The "election interference" that Trump said he wanted investigated during his July 25 phone call with the president of Ukraine, Schiff said, was a "very specific conspiracy theory," that Ukraine, and not Russia, had interfered in the 2016 presidential election by stealing emails from the Democratic National Committee and the campaign of Hillary Clinton.

"This theory was brought to you by the Kremlin," Schiff said. "So we're not talking about generic interference … what Donald Trump wanted investigated or announced was this completely bogus, Kremlin-pushed conspiracy theory."

U.S. intelligence agencies have said unequivocally that Russia, and not Ukraine, used an arsenal of hacking and disinformation tactics in 2016 to sway the election in Trump's favor. By demanding a probe of the so-called "Crowdstrike" conspiracy about Ukraine having hacked the election, Schiff said, Trump was rejecting his own intelligence community's assessment in favor of pushing a Kremlin backed fallacy.

As evidence of how much Russia benefited from Trump's actions, Schiff quoted Russian President Vladimir Putin, who said last fall, "Thank God nobody is accusing us anymore of interfering in U.S. elections. Now they're accusing Ukraine."

"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.

Trump rails against process

Starting early Thursday morning, Trump used Twitter to express his growing frustration over the impeachment trial, railing against the current witness procedure and claiming he'd done nothing his predecessor hadn't done, too.

"The Democrat House would not give us lawyers, or not one witness, but now demand that the Republican Senate produce the witnesses that the House never sought, or even asked for?" Trump tweeted. "They had their chance, but pretended to rush. Most unfair & corrupt hearing in Congressional history!"

"No matter what you give to the Radical Left, Do Nothing Democrats, it will never be enough!" he wrote a few minutes later.

Trump then sought to equate his withholding of aid to Ukraine to Obama administration decisions.

"The Democrats & Shifty Schiff, whose presentation to the Senate was loaded with lies and misrepresentations, are refusing to state that the Obama Administration withheld aid from many countries including Ukraine, Pakistan, Philippines, Egypt, Honduras, & Mexico. Witch Hunt!"

Trump's claims about the Obama administration are something his lawyers have seized upon in recent days, claiming that his actions in Ukraine were no different than Obama's.

But this argument misses the crucial point that the Obama administration withheld foreign aid in order to prevent it from being used by repressive governments to seize or hold onto power. Trump, meanwhile, withheld aid to a country that is fighting to remain free from the creeping power of a repressive government, namely Russia.

After returning to Washington Wednesday from Davos, Switzerland, Trump left on Thursday afternoon for Florida, where he was scheduled to address the Republican National Committee's winter meeting.

Trump impeachment trial highlights: Democrats lay out case against president
Trump impeachment trial highlights: Democrats lay out case against president