WASHINGTON — The Senate formally opened the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump on Thursday, bracing for a deeply divisive debate over his fate as senators swore to deliver “impartial justice” and installed Chief Justice John Roberts to preside over the proceeding.
In a somber ceremony that initiated only the third presidential impeachment trial in the nation’s history, Roberts vowed to act “according to the Constitution and the laws.” He then administered the same, 222-year-old oath of impartiality to the senators, setting in motion the final stage of a process that has roiled Congress and could shape the outcome of the 2020 elections, along with Trump’s legacy.
Even as the ritual unfolded in the chamber, with senators signing their names one by one in an oath book near the marble Senate rostrum, new evidence was emerging about Trump’s pressure campaign on Ukraine that is at the heart of the charges against him.
A trove of texts, voicemail messages, calendar entries and other records handed over by Lev Parnas, an associate of the president’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, offered additional detail about the scheme. And the Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan federal watchdog, found that Trump’s decision to withhold military aid from Ukraine, which the House charges was part of his pressure campaign, was a violation of the law.
In Ukraine, officials announced Thursday that they had opened a criminal investigation into “possible violations of Ukrainian law and of the Vienna Convention” by allies of Trump after documents from Parnas suggested that his associates had conducted surveillance on a U.S. ambassador while she was stationed in Kyiv.
While Thursday’s ceremony was dictated by tradition and senatorial courtesy, Trump’s trial promises to be an unpredictable affair, as Democrats press their case for removing a Republican president they argue abused his power and obstructed Congress.
Trump is almost certain to be acquitted in the Republican-controlled chamber, but even the president’s allies were divided Thursday about how best to defend him in a trial with heavy political stakes, some pushing for a quick dismissal and others staying open to calling witnesses who could offer new information.
At the White House, Trump sought to distance himself from Parnas and raged about the trial, telling school prayer advocates that impeachment was a “hoax” fabricated by his enemies. The president called Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the lead House impeachment manager, a “corrupt person.”
His comments came hours after Schiff strode across the Capitol, flanked by the six other House prosectors, to present the articles of impeachment to a Senate chamber hushed by the sergeant-at-arms, who shouted, “Hear ye, hear ye, hear ye,” to bring the trial to order.
Schiff read aloud the charges against Trump, accusing the president of a scheme to solicit foreign interference in the 2020 election for his own benefit by pressuring Ukraine to announce investigations into his political rivals, withholding $391 million in military aid and a White House meeting as leverage, and then trying to conceal his actions from Congress.
“President Trump,” Schiff said, “warrants impeachment and trial, removal from office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any office of honor, trust, or profit under the United States.”
Later, the president used Twitter to express his outrage.
“I JUST GOT IMPEACHED FOR MAKING A PERFECT PHONE CALL!” he wrote, apparently referring to the July phone call in which he asked President Volodymyr Zelenskiy of Ukraine to “do us a favor” and investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden.
Four Democratic candidates for president — Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Michael Bennet of Colorado — sat quietly in their seats Thursday for the start of a trial that is likely to keep them off the campaign trail for much of the time before the Feb. 3 caucuses.
“I would rather be in Iowa today,” Sanders said, noting the coming caucuses and the contests soon to follow in New Hampshire and Nevada. “But I swore a constitutional oath as a United States senator to do my job and I’m here to do my job, and I think the people of the United States understand that.”
Less than an hour before the impeachment charges were read, the Senate performed one last bit of legislative business, giving final approval to Trump’s revised North American trade deal. The vote sent the overwhelmingly bipartisan trade pact to the president’s desk for his signature, handing Trump a victory as the trial began.
Behind the scenes, Republicans were divided over how to proceed, with moderates and conservatives at odds over whether to try to dismiss the case altogether, as Trump has suggested he would like and some of his staunchest allies are eager to do.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the majority leader, was drafting trial rules that would not guarantee a vote to do so, rankling some conservatives but potentially sparing moderates a politically risky move. And in another bow to centrists who have insisted on it, McConnell was planning to allow votes on whether to call witnesses after opening arguments from both sides and questions by senators.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said Thursday that she would be inclined to vote in favor of new testimony at that point.
“While I need to hear the case argued and the questions answered, I tend to believe having additional information would be helpful,” she said in a statement. “It is likely that I would support a motion to call witnesses at that point in the trial, just as I did in 1999.”
The issue will be hotly debated when the trial resumes Tuesday, and the Senate is scheduled to vote on the rules for the proceeding.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the minority leader, said he would immediately call for a vote to subpoena witnesses and documents that could provide new information about Trump’s actions. Democrats have said the new evidence from Parnas proves that the Senate should press for documents that the administration refused to provide during the House investigation.
The evidence provided by Parnas adds significant detail to the public record about how the pressure campaign played out and new political peril for Trump as his lawyers seek to exonerate him. On Wednesday, Parnas told The New York Times that he believed the president knew about the efforts to dig up dirt on his political rivals.
Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., one of the seven impeachment managers, tweeted Thursday that the assertions by Parnas confirmed that Giuliani and others were “working on the president’s orders.”
Democrats have also demanded that the senators hear from John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser; Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff; Robert Blair, a top aide to Mulvaney; and Michael Duffey, a top budget official.
But Schumer’s motion is all but certain to fail. McConnell has said he has the votes to open the trial without promising witnesses, and will take up the matter later.