WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Democrats on Monday sought to bolster the case for impeaching President Donald Trump, describing his pressuring of Ukraine to investigate a political rival as a “clear and present danger” to free and fair elections and national security.
In a hearing that could lay the groundwork for a vote later this week on formal impeachment charges in the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee, the top Democrat on the panel said there was extensive proof of Trump’s wrongdoing.
“The evidence shows that Donald J. Trump, the president of the United States, has put himself before his country. He has violated his most basic responsibilities to the people. He has broken his oath,” Representative Jerrold Nadler, the panel’s Democratic chairman, said in his opening statement.
Republicans fired back, branding the impeachment inquiry as a fanciful but not factual effort by Democrats to unseat a president who had done nothing to merit being removed from office.
“Presumption has now become the standard instead of truth,” said Representative Doug Collins, the ranking Republican on the panel. “They’re desperate to have an impeachment vote on this president.”
The hearing on Monday is a key step before determining charges, known as articles of impeachment, that the full Democratic-controlled House is likely to vote on before Christmas. The Republican-controlled Senate will then conduct a trial on whether to remove Trump from office.
The heart of the issue is whether Trump abused his power by pressuring Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, who is seeking the Democratic nomination to face Trump in the 2020 election, and then obstructed Congress’ investigation.
Trump denies having done anything wrong and has called the impeachment probe a hoax.
The House Judiciary panel is expected to vote by the end of the week on whether to send formal charges to the full House.
That would set up an inevitable clash with the White House and its Republican allies. No current House Republican has come out in favour of impeaching Trump.
The White House has refused to participate in the impeachment hearings in the House, including those before the Judiciary Committee, because it says the process is unfair.
White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham tweeted during Monday’s hearing that there was no evidence of wrongdoing by Trump and that “there’s no obstruction whatsoever.”
In a letter to Collins, Nadler denied Republicans’ request for eight witnesses to appear before the inquiry.
A vote in the House in favour of impeachment would trigger a trial in the Senate where a two-thirds vote of those present would be needed to remove the president from office. A conviction is considered unlikely.
It has been 20 years since Americans last witnessed impeachment proceedings, when Republicans brought charges against Democratic President Bill Clinton arising from a sexual relationship he had with a White House intern. He was acquitted in the Senate.
After weeks of investigation into Trump’s request that Ukraine investigate Biden and his businessman son, Hunter Biden, the committee is focused on two articles charging Trump with abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.
Democrats have also accused Trump of abusing his power by withholding $391 million in security aid to Ukraine – a vulnerable U.S. ally facing Russian aggression – and holding back a coveted White House meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy as leverage to pressure Kiev into investigating the Bidens.
But they appeared to back away from basing one of the articles of impeachment on former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian election interference in 2016. Some Democrats believe Trump’s campaign colluded with Moscow, an allegation that has been denied by Trump and was not established by Mueller’s probe.
Daniel Goldman, the majority counsel for the House Intelligence Committee, picked up on Democrats’ argument that leaving Trump in office would open the door to further undermining of the U.S. electoral process.
“Trump’s persistent and continuing effort to coerce a foreign country to help him cheat to win an election is a clear and present danger to our free and fair elections and to our national security,” Goldman said during Monday’s hearing.
Stephen Castor, a Republican attorney, downplayed the impeachment inquiry as a tempest in a teapot that boiled down to a small part of Trump’s July 25 phone call with Zelenskiy. It was during that call that Trump sought investigations of the Bidens and a debunked theory that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that interfered in the 2016 U.S. election.
“To impeach a president who 63 million people voted for over eight lines in a call transcript is baloney. Democrats seek to impeach president Trump, not because they have evidence of high crimes and misdemeanours, but because they disagree with his policies,” Castor said.
Separately, the U.S. Justice Department’s internal watchdog is expected to announce on Monday that the FBI, despite some mistakes, was legally justified in 2016 in opening its investigation into contacts between Trump’s campaign and Russia, according to sources familiar with the findings.
Democrats intend to decide which articles to bring forward after Monday’s hearing, which also showcased the findings of a 300-page report by Intelligence Committee Democrats that levels allegations of sweeping abuse of power against Trump.
Republicans have their own, 110-page report, which argues that the inquiry has relied on “unelected bureaucrats” who “fundamentally disagreed with President Trump’s style, world view and decisions” but presented no evidence amounting to an impeachable offences.
Reporting by David Morgan, Susan Heavey, Tim Ahmann and Lisa Lambert; Writing by Paul Simao; Editing by Soyoung Kim, Peter Cooney and Jonathan Oatis