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Impeachment: Democrats say conduct is 'not America first, but Trump first'

David Smith in Washington and Tom McCarthy in New York

In a stirring oration to conclude the third full day of Donald Trump’s impeachment trial, the lead prosecutor Adam Schiff told senators that in the United States, “right matters” and “you know that what he did was not right”.

After about nine hours of argumentation in which Democrats methodically presented evidence that Trump had committed an abuse of power by pressuring Ukraine for his personal political benefit, Schiff urged the Senate to remove Trump from office.

“You know you can’t trust this president to do what’s right for this country,” said Schiff. “You can only trust this president to do what’s right for Donald Trump.”

Democratic impeachment managers, who are acting as the prosecutors bringing the case for Trump’s removal from office, were spending a third day in Washington laying out their case against Trump in only the third presidential impeachment trial in American history.

Jerry Nadler, the chair of the House of Representatives’ judiciary committee, argued that Trump should be convicted of two articles of impeachment passed by the House last month – abuse of power and obstruction of Congress – for pressuring Ukraine to investigate his 2020 Democratic rival Joe Biden last year, and obstructing an investigation into the affair.

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Quoting national security aide Col Alexander Vindman, who testified in November in public hearings before the intelligence committee and whose family were Soviet refugees, Schiff said that “if right doesn’t matter, we’re lost”.

“You know that what he did was not right. That’s what they do in the old country, that Colonel Vindman’s father came from, that my great-grandfather came from, that some of you may come from. But here right is supposed to matter.”

Democrats have been hammering against extreme Republican skepticism of the case against Trump. A rotation of managers on the Senate floor, led by Schiff of California, have presented the 100 senators with video testimony from public hearings last month interwoven with recently unearthed evidence and analysis detailing Trump’s scheme.

Republicans, for their part, have voted against taking witness testimony while complaining the trial was bringing no new evidence to light, and multiple Republicans called on Thursday for the testimony of Hunter Biden, the former vice-president’s son once employed by a Ukrainian gas company.

Expressing frustration with the length and what they said was the repetitiousness of the Democrats’ case, Republican senators told reporters during a break that it was time to hear the other side.

“We are ready for the president’s team to put their defense on. We have heard plenty from the House now,” said Republican Senator John Barrasso, of Wyoming. “I am ready to hear from the president’s defense.”

Trump’s defense could get under way as soon as Saturday. Jay Sekulow, a lead lawyer on the defense team, did not offer a specific reply to reporters’ questions about the arguments they would make. “We will refute their case, and we will present our case,” Sekulow said.

On Thursday, the impeachment managers sought to expose the hypocrisy, as they framed it, in Trump’s defense by using Republicans’ own past words against them.

Nadler played archival clips of Senator Lindsey Graham and Alan Dershowitz, a member of Trump’s legal team, arguing during the impeachment of Bill Clinton that an impeachable “abuse of power” need not be based on an underlying criminal offense. That is the mainstream view of constitutional scholars, but not Trump’s current defense argument.

To argue that Trump’s obsession with supposed Ukrainian hacking in the 2016 election was “far-fetched and crazy”, in the words of manager Silvia Garcia of Texas, the managers played video of Trump’s FBI director, Christopher Wray; Trump’s former homeland security adviser Tom Bossert; and Trump’s former top Russia expert Fiona Hill, debunking the conspiracy theory.

“He must not remain in power one moment longer,” Nadler said of Trump.

Taking a swipe at one of Trump’s campaign slogans, Nadler added: “This conduct is not ‘America first’. It is Donald Trump first. Donald Trump swore an oath to faithfully execute the laws – that means putting the nation’s interests above his own. And the president has repeatedly, flagrantly violated his oath.”

Democratic House impeachment managers have a total of 24 hours over three days, which makes it likely that their case will continue into Friday.

But so far, all the signs are that Republicans are unmoved. Even as Schiff presented a meticulous and lengthy narrative on Wednesday, praised by the Senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer, as a “tour de force”, the Republicans’ body language in the Senate chamber and public statements outside it expressed weariness and disbelief.

“I think it’s now clear we absolutely must call Hunter Biden and we probably need to call Joe Biden,” Josh Hawley, a Republican senator from Missouri, said during a break on Thursday. “Based on the House managers’ presentation today, I think we probably are going to need to hear from the former vice-president if indeed we call witnesses.”

Sekulow argued that nothing Democrats had said had changed the disposition of the case. He declined to comment on whether Trump’s team would take all of its allotted 24 hours to respond.

“We’re going to use a sufficient amount of time, to not only defend our case but to point out the inconsistencies in their case,” Sekulow said. “We’re not going to try to run the clock out.” Trump is not expected to appear at his own congressional trial.

The smooth rollout of the Democratic case had just one hiccup, shortly before the dinner break, when Schiff teed up a video clip of testimony by national security aide Alexander Vindman – but the video did not play.

“Let’s hear Colonel Vindman,” Schiff said. “No? We don’t have that? Let’s not hear Colonel Vindman. We’ve heard enough from Colonel Vindman.”

Trump has directed current and former administration officials, including the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, and the former national security adviser John Bolton, not to testify or provide documents. But a Reuters/Ipsos poll this week found that 72% of Americans – including 84% of Democrats and 69% of Republicans – want to see new witnesses testify in the trial.

Schiff and other Democrats have told how Trump and his aides pressed the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, to investigate Biden, a leading 2020 Democratic presidential contender, and Biden’s son on baseless corruption charges as well as a discredited theory that Ukraine, not Russia, meddled in the 2016 presidential election. Nearly $400m in US military aid to Ukraine was temporarily frozen.

Trump seems almost certain to be acquitted by the 100-member Senate, where there are 53 Republicans and where a two-thirds majority of those present is needed to convict and remove him from office. But the political impact of the trial remains uncertain.