Washington, DC – Democrats and Republicans in the United States House of Representatives sparred on Monday over whether President Donald Trump abused the power of his office by pressuring Ukraine for political favours in exchange for US assistance.
In a day-long hearing, Democratic and Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee and their top staff lawyers argued fiercely over evidence produced in the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry.
Democrats are expected to prepare at least two impeachment charges against Trump related to abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. The president and his allies in the Republican Party say the Democrats impeachment drive is partisan and they disputed Democrats’ claims Trump had pressured Ukraine.
House Democrats have accused Trump of undercutting US security policy in Eastern Europe by improperly withholding $391m in military aid for Ukraine and a White House visit for President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
The inquiry began after an anonymous intelligence agency whistle-blower issued an internal report in August calling into question Trump’s handling of Ukraine policy.
At the centre of the complaint, and subsequent inquiry is a phone call on July 25 in which Trump asked newly elected President Zelenskyy to announce investigations of former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter, who had served on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company.
“That call was part of a concerted effort by President Trump to compel the government of Ukraine to announce an investigation – not an investigation of corruption writ large, but an investigation of President Trump’s political rivals, and only his political rivals,” said Democrat Jerrold Nadler, chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
Biden is one of the leading candidates seeking the Democratic Party‘s nomination for president in 2020.
Following the whistle-blower’s disclosure, the House Intelligence Committee issued subpoenas to witnesses, conducted closed-door depositions and held 35 hours of public hearings with 12 witnesses.
Trump also wanted Ukraine to investigate a debunked conspiracy theory promoted by Russian President Vladimir Putin that Ukraine, not Russia, had interfered in the 2016 US presidential election.
“The record shows that President Trump withheld military aid, allocated by the United States Congress, from Ukraine. It also shows that he withheld a White House meeting from President Zelenskyy,” Nadler said.
Democratic staff lawyer Daniel Goldman detailed the timeline of Trump withholding aid to Ukraine.
Trump “directed a months-long scheme to solicit foreign help in his 2020 re-election campaign, withholding official acts from the government of Ukraine in order to coerce and secure political interference in our domestic affairs,” Goldman said.
Republicans argued the Democrats’ impeachment drive is politically motivated and contrived to damage Trump.
Doug Collins, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said Democrats were racing against a “clock and calendar” before Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign.
“They can’t get over the fact that Donald Trump is the president of the United States and they don’t have a candidate that can beat him,” Collins said.
Republicans complained about the process Democrats used to investigate Trump and disrupted Monday’s public hearing with points of order and parliamentary inquiries.
“There is no clear evidence that President Trump acted with malicious intent,” said Steve Castor, a Republican Judiciary Committee staff lawyer.
“Overall, at best, the impeachment inquiry record is riddled with hearsay, presumptions and speculation. There are conflicting and ambiguous facts throughout the record, facts that could be interpreted in different ways,” Castor said.
The anonymous whistle-blower report reframed the facts and caused witnesses to adjust their views to fit the Democrats narrative, Castor said.
‘An additional agenda’
At the White House, Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway told reporters that Representative Adam Schiff, Democrat chairman of the Intelligence Committee, should be called as a “fact witness” in a Senate trial.
Trump was not watching the hearing, was being updated on its developments by aides, Conway said.
Trump tweeted the impeachment investigation was a “Witch Hunt!” and “The Do Nothing Democrats are a disgrace!”
Trump and his White House lawyers have refused to cooperate with the impeachment inquiry and declined invitations by Democrats to participate in the Judiciary panel’s hearings. Twelve witnesses were directed not to appear.
“The Republicans are going to try to minimise the evidence of what Trump did as much as possible,” Keith Whittington, a political science professor at Princeton University, told Al Jazeera.
“The defence they are circling around is the idea there is just a policy disagreement between the president and the people around him and even his own executive agencies,” Whittington said.
It is, however, hard to characterise the matter as just a question of policy differences, Whittington added.
Trump is in a “bad spot” because his “actions are fairly plain” and the administration has done all it can to keep the facts off the record, he said.
In truth, it appears the “president had an additional agenda” which is “very troubling”, he added.
Zelenskyy and Putin were meeting in Paris on Monday under the auspices of France and Germany to revive the Minsk peace talks suspended for the past three years. Zelenskyy has previously said he did not feel pressured by Trump on the July 25 telephone call.
Russia invaded and annexed Crimea in 2014 and pro-Russian separatists seized control the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. The actions by Russia drew harsh economic sanctions from Europe and the US. More than 13,000 Ukrainians have been killed in the conflict.
Giuliani was in Ukraine and Hungary last week meeting with current and former Ukrainian officials continuing his efforts to try to find support for his claims Biden should be investigated. Giuliani was filming interviews for a documentary being produced by One America News Network, a pro-Trump media outlet, according to reports.