WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Senate on Thursday formally convened to consider articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump.
Rep. Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., the lead House impeachment manager, began by reading aloud the two articles in the well of the U.S. Senate, the start of the pomp and ceremony of a trial to determine whether Trump should be removed from office.
The presentation of articles got underway hours after a nonpartisan government watchdog agency said the Trump administration violated federal law by withholding congressionally approved aid to Ukraine last summer — an action at the heart of the impeachment effort.
The law “does not permit the president to substitute his own policy priorities for those that Congress has enacted into law,” the Government Accountability Office said in a report issued Thursday morning.
The agency report says that while Congress makes laws, including those deciding how public money is spent, “the president is not vested with the power to ignore or amend any such duly enacted law.”
Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., called the report a “bombshell legal opinion” that “demonstrates, without a doubt, that the Trump administration illegally withheld security assistance from Ukraine.”
The House impeached the president last month for abusing his office and obstructing Congress’ investigation, arguing that he withheld about $400 million in aid and a White House meeting with Trump in hopes of getting Ukraine’s president to announce an investigation into his political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, and Biden’s son.
Republicans stressed that the GAO report said the administration’s Office of Management and Budget, not the president, broke the law. The office, known as OMB, is within the executive office of the president.
“I think we’re going to hear some more about it, but I don’t think that changes anything,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.
At midday Thursday, seven House Democrats who will act as impeachment managers walked across the Capitol to serve as de facto prosecutors in the third impeachment trial in U.S. history. They include Schiff and Reps. Zoe Lofgren of San Jose, Jerrold Nadler and Hakeem Jeffries of New York, Jason Crow of Colorado and Sylvia Garcia of Texas, Val Demmings of Florida.
After the ceremonial walk, Schiff read the articles in front of the full Senate, with members of both parties watching from their desks. Under the rules, senators are not allowed to speak during the trial.
The proceedings got underway amid dramatically heightened security on Capitol Hill. Reporters who can normally roam much of the Capitol in order to speak with senators were barricaded behind rope lines, changes imposed by the Senate sergeant at arms and Senate Republican leadership that will allow lawmakers to escape being questioned by the media.
At 2 p.m., Senate President Pro Tempore Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, — the longest-serving Senate Republican — is slated to swear in Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who will preside over the trial. Roberts would then swear in all 100 members of the Senate.
The Senate is then expected to recess for the day and start the trial in earnest on Tuesday. From then on, the Senate is required to meet each day —Monday through Saturday — at 1 p.m. to hear the case.
Sixty-seven votes are required in order to convict the president and remove him from office. No Senate Republican has indicated publicly that they’re apt to join the 47 Senate Democrats to vote to convict, all but ensure that the president will remain in office.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian police announced Thursday that they had opened an investigation into new allegations that former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch came under illegal surveillance by Trump loyalists before she was recalled from her post.
The announcement followed the release by Democrats of documents showing Lev Parnas, an indicted associate of President Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, communicating about her movements. Parnas has said Trump and Giuliani were both aware of his activities.
Ukraine also said it would look into reports that Russian hackers gained access to computers of the Ukrainian gas company Burisma, presumably in an effort to uncover embarrassing information about former Vice President Joe Biden, Trump’s possible rival in 2020. Biden’s son Hunter worked as a director for Burisma, and Trump was impeached, in part, for pressuring Ukraine to announce an investigation into the Bidens. Ukrainian officials say there is no evidence of wrongdoing by the Bidens.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said new information from Parnas should be admitted to the Senate trial, a likely point of friction between the two parties.
“Every day new incriminating information comes forward,” she said. “That only speaks very clearly to the need for the Senate to enter the documentation into their discussion.”
Parnas is under indictment in the Southern District of New York for unrelated matters and his lawyer has suggested he wants immunity in that case, a factor Republicans have already brought up.
Cornyn said he doesn’t know if Parnas is credible and it is up to the House managers whether to request to call him as a witness.
“I don’t know, he looks kind of like a seemy, shady character to me,” he said.