Trump’s trial begins, senators vowing ‘impartial justice’

Ukraine announces investigation into surveillance of former ambassador

WASHINGTON (AP) - The impeachment trial of President Donald Trump has opened in the Senate.

President Donald Trump speaks during an event on prayer in public schools, in the Oval Office of the White House, Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020, in Washington.
President Donald Trump speaks during an event on prayer in public schools, in the Oval Office of the White House, Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020, in Washington. (Source: AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

All the senators stood on Thursday and swore an oath of “impartial justice” as jurors for the historic proceeding. Chief Justice John Roberts presided in his black Supreme Court robe.

Meanwhile, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said new evidence reinforces the need for senators to call additional. Pelosi warned senators not to become “all the president’s henchmen.”

Trump derided the proceedings anew as a “hoax.”

The full trial will begin next week.

Earlier, Rep. Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, stood before the senators to read the formal charges against the president.

Also Thursday, the federal government’s watchdog agency says the a White House office violated federal law in withholding security assistance to Ukraine aid.

The Government Accountability Office says the White House Office of Management and Budget violated the law in holding up the assistance.

The freeze is at center of the impeachment of President Donald Trump. Trump was impeached last month on charges of abusing his power for pressuring Ukraine to investigate Democratic rival Joe Biden, and for obstructing Congress’ ensuing probe.

On Wednesday, after a dramatic procession across the Capitol, House Democrats notified the Senate of its delivery of the articles, with a more formal presentation to follow on Thursday. The Senate will transform itself into an impeachment court at noon.

Trump is complaining anew that it is all a “hoax,” even as fresh details emerge about his efforts in Ukraine.

Ukrainian authorities announced Thursday they are opening a criminal investigation into the possible illegal surveillance of Marie Yovanovitch while she was an ambassador in Ukraine after new information surfaced this week.

A close associate of Trump’s personal lawyer says he delivered an ultimatum in May to the incoming president of Ukraine that no senior U.S. officials would attend his inauguration and all American aid to the war-torn country would be withheld if an investigation into Joe Biden wasn’t announced.

Lev Parnas, an associate of Rudy Giuliani, made several potentially explosive claims in a televised interview Wednesday.

Parnas says, “President Trump knew exactly what was going on." He also says Attorney General William Barr knew about his efforts in Ukraine.

A Justice Department spokeswoman called such claims “false.”

Pelosi has chosen a team of seven lawmakers to prosecute the House’s case that Trump abused his office and obstructed Congress’ probe into what happened. They’ll be led by Schiff of the Intelligence Committee and Jerrold Nadler of the Judiciary Committee.

Pelosi also named to the team Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California, a veteran of three presidential impeachment inquiries. The final four tapped for the historic proceedings are House members Hakeem Jeffries of New York, Val Demings of Florida and freshmen Sylvia Garcia of Texas and Jason Crow of Colorado.

The impeachment managers need to persuade at least four Republican senators to demand new documents and testimony — and, in the process, prevent a rush to Trump’s acquittal. Even that modest goal could prove difficult.

McConnell is skeptical about hearing from witnesses, though he hasn’t ruled it out. Many Republicans say that if the House wanted more information, they should have gone to court. However, new information about the president’s Ukraine efforts has intensified pressure for more witnesses at the trial.

Rep. Eliot Engel, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, says the panel will investigate what he says are “profoundly alarming” text messages that have raised questions about the possible surveillance of former Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch before she was ousted by the Trump administration last spring.

The messages show that a Trump donor named Robert F. Hyde disparaged Yovanovitch in messages to Parnas and gave him updates on her location and cellphone use.

Hyde dismissed the claims as “laughable” on Twitter.

Other documents obtained by House Democrats as part of the impeachment investigation and released Tuesday include a handwritten note that mentions asking Ukraine’s president to investigate “the Biden case.”

Proceedings in the staid Senate are expected to run cooler than the fiery partisanship that was on display in the House, which voted to impeach Trump in December. But Trump’s impeachment team will be trying to appeal to multiple audiences when it mounts a defense of the president.

There will be millions watching on television, 100 senators seated silently in the Capitol and one man in the Oval Office with a twitchy Twitter finger.

White House counsel Pat Cipollone will lead the defense. He has little trial experience but high regard in conservative Washington legal circles. He has spent most of his career in commercial litigation.

Trump has described him as the “strong, silent type.”

In correspondence with House Democrats during the impeachment saga, Cipollone has shown a knack for channeling the president’s provocative rhetoric.

Copyright 2020 Associated Press. All rights reserved. Gray Media Group, Inc., contributed to this report.