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Ninety-nine US senators were sworn in Thursday and, with their right hands raised, pledged to do “impartial justice” in the impeachment trial of Donald John Trump. (The 100th, Oklahoma’s James Inhofe, was back home dealing with a family medical issue and will be sworn in next week.)
A reading of the articles
House Intelligence Chairman and impeachment manager Adam Schiff had presided over witness testimony all fall detailing Trump’s pressure campaign on Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden ahead of the 2020 campaign. On Thursday, the California Democrat read the charges against Trump aloud at high noon.
Chief Justice John Roberts also took his own oath before taking over the Senate proceedings. Then the senators signed an “oath book,” capping the somber proceeding.
The dichotomy of this trial is that it is a grave and historic occasion accented by partisan bickering. Will it create a situation where lawmakers on either side buck the party line? “The weight of history sits on shoulders and produces, sometimes, results you never know will happen,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader.
History is watching
Schumer later summed up the constitutional threat that impeachment supporters see in Trump’s presidency.
“President Donald Trump is accused of coercing a foreign leader into interfering in our elections and then doing everything in his power to cover it up. These are exactly the kind of offenses the founders most feared when they formed the impeachment clause in the Constitution.”
The Senate will reconvene at 1 p.m. Tuesday for opening arguments.
Government Accountability Office says the White House broke the law on Ukraine aid
Just as the events above were getting going, the Government Accountability Office – Congress’ nonpartisan investigative arm – issued a legal opinion Thursday that the Trump administration had broken the law by withholding millions in military and security aid from Ukraine.
“Faithful execution of the law does not permit the President to substitute his own policy priorities for those that Congress has enacted into law. OMB withheld funds for a policy reason, which is not permitted under the Impoundment Control Act (ICA). The withholding was not a programmatic delay. Therefore, we conclude that OMB violated the ICA.”
It’s a key point. Remember, Pentagon officials fretted in recently released emails about delaying the aid because they thought it was illegal after Congress had appropriated it. Reread that story – the January 2 bombshell report that kicked off this year – here.
Republican defenders of the President on Capitol Hill were suspicious of the opinion even though the GAO guards its nonpartisan status.
Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, the Appropriations Committee chairman, said the timing of the GAO report looked suspicious.
“Timing looked a little suspect to everybody, I think,” said Shelby. “I’ve never known GAO to get involved in partisan politics and stuff like that. It’s probably not good for the GAO.”
Lev Parnas speaks, implicates Trump and Giuliani
While all that’s been going on, Rudy Giuliani’s Ukraine fixer has been spilling the beans. After first handing over documents to House impeachment investigators, Parnas – who remains under indictment over alleged campaign finance violations – is now going public.
In a remarkable interview late Wednesday with Anderson Cooper, Parnas talked about his efforts in Ukraine with Giuliani.
Parnas says he delivered messages to the current and former Ukrainian presidents
Convincing the Ukrainians to announce an investigation into Biden and his son Hunter was the goal. Parnas claims that, at Giuliani’s direction, he delivered quid pro quo offers to Ukrainian leaders, promising access to or the support of the Trump administration in return for announcing such an investigation.
Close ties to Giuliani
He talked to Giuliani every day, Parnas said, adding he was the first person the President’s personal attorney would brief after leaving the White House or speaking to Trump.
When asked how he had the authority to make offers of support from the administration, which included Vice President Mike Pence attending Volodymyr Zelensky’s inauguration, Parnas said that’s what he “was told to do” by Giuliani.
Suggests testifying alongside Bolton
Parnas offered to testify at the Senate impeachment trial and said that along with former national security adviser John Bolton he “could fit in all the dots, I think, because I was on the ground there, and he was over here.”
“Why aren’t they calling me to testify?” he asked. “Why do they need Biden? Call me. Ask me what Biden did wrong … I think they’re very afraid of me.”
His allegations regarding Pence, who like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has stayed incredibly quiet and apart from all of this, were notable.
Marc Short, Pence’s chief of staff, dismissed the charge and pointed to Parnas’ legal problems. “Lev Parnas is under a multi-count indictment and will say anything to anybody who will listen in hopes of staying out of prison,” Short said.
Says Zelensky’s denials of US pressure are ‘a total lie’
Ukraine’s President denied, in a news conference with Trump in September, feeling any pressure to open investigations against Trump’s political rivals. Parnas says that isn’t true.
“They’re still rocked ‘til this day,” Parnas said. “They’re still not recovered and I don’t know if (or) when they will.”
Says he saw Trump tell an aide the Ukrainian ambassador should be fired
He says it happened during a dinner in spring 2018 at the President’s Washington hotel with top Trump donors, including Parnas.
“I told the President that our opinion that (Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch) is badmouthing him – and that she said that he’s gonna get impeached – something like that,” Parnas said.
“He looked at me, like, got very angry, and basically turned around to (then-White House aide) John DeStefano, and said, ‘Fire her. Get rid of her,’ ” Parnas said.
His message to Trump
Asked if he had a message for the President, he blasted the man he once “idolized.”
“He needs to understand he’s not a king,” Parnas said. “He needs to understand that there’s a democracy. There’s rules … even if you don’t like ‘em … even if you don’t agree with ‘em.”
Trump says he doesn’t know Parnas. So Parnas released video of them together.
Trump again dismissed the impeachment as a hoax. But he was asked about Parnas, and the President said he doesn’t know the man other than taking a campaign photo with him.
Parnas has said that every time Trump does that, he’ll release a photo of them together. Thursday, after Trump said he doesn’t know Parnas, Parnas’ lawyer tweeted a video of the President with his client, apparently at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort. The audio is covered by a pop track. Nice touch, but it’d be great to hear what they’re saying.
Separately: Rep. Devin Nunes, a California Republican and ally of the President who used to say he didn’t know Parnas, now admits talking to him on the phone.
Also: Ukraine launches investigation of Yovanovitch surveillance claims
The Ukrainian government has launched an official criminal investigation into whether former US Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch had been under surveillance, as suggested by documents released by Parnas. The US government has not.
Here’s a smart thought from CNN’s Marshall Cohen on the irony of this development:
Trump, Rudy, Parnas, Sondland, etc., worked SO HARD to get Ukraine to publicly announce an investigation into the Bidens and into 2016 hacking. It didn’t work. But their efforts were so sketchy that they inadvertently forced Ukraine to announce an investigation into … some of their own potential misconduct with Yovanovitch.
Hear no evil, Part One
It’s not at all clear, yet, that Democrats will call for Parnas to testify, but it’s a good bet they ultimately will. It is certainly clear we’ve learned a lot about the President’s efforts to pressure Ukraine in the month since he was impeached and there will be votes during the Senate trial about hearing witnesses and admitting this new evidence.
Republican lashes out at CNN’s Manu Raju
Some Republicans, particularly those in endangered Senate seats, don’t want to talk about it. Sen. Martha McSally of Arizona was appointed to replace the late Sen. John McCain after she lost the Arizona Senate race in 2018. She’s now running for election to that seat. When CNN’s Manu Raju asked her if she’d consider new evidence at the trial, she called him a “liberal hack.”
She then proudly tweeted video of the incident.
Raju is not a liberal hack. But as John King later pointed out on CNN, McSally will need Trump’s base in order to win that seat in Arizona. Appearing to stand up to the press may help her do that.
Trials have witnesses. Susan Collins used to know that.
This is all in line with Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who has made a show of paving the way for witnesses, arguing that maybe the Senate shouldn’t hear new information from someone like Parnas. That, she argued, was the House’s job.
She’s wrong, of course. Previous presidential impeachments featured witnesses and evidence. The Constitution describes the Senate portion of impeachment as a trial. Trials usually have witnesses and evidence.
In one of those devastating and awkward historical flashbacks, here is video of Collins in 1999 talking about how she needed evidence presented at the impeachment trial to get her to the truth.
Hear no evil, Part Two
CNN’s Zachary Cohen reports US intelligence officials have quietly asked the Senate and House Intelligence committees not to hold public hearings on this year’s Worldwide Threat Assessment after the testimony from agency chiefs last year prompted an angry response from President Donald Trump, according to a source familiar.
Officials from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence broached the topic during informal preliminary discussions with committee staff, the source said.
While these officials made it clear that they don’t want top intelligence officials to testify publicly, they haven’t formally refused to do so as an invitation to appear has not been issued yet, the source added. The request is unlikely to be granted, multiple sources told CNN.
House Democrats asked for a briefing by the director of national intelligence anyway.
Side note: The Senate is above souvenir pens
In a silent reprimand of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who signed the impeachment articles with multiple pens she then gave out as souvenirs Wednesday, the 99 senators who were present on Thursday all used the same pen. Up on the dais, presiding, John Roberts wielded a No. 2 pencil.
Bernie Sanders would rather be somewhere else
After the swearing-in, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont was among the senators to go before cameras and talk to reporters. He talked about the necessity of impeachment and the gravity of the day, but added that it can’t distract from the larger problems affecting the country.
“We’ve got to deal with this impeachment trial but we cannot forget the very serious problems facing the American people,” he said.
Along with Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Michael Bennet of Colorado, Sanders will have to take a break from the campaign trail while the trial is in session. That’s not a problem for candidates like Pete Buttigieg, who held five events in Iowa on Thursday.
What are we doing here?
The President has invited foreign powers to interfere in the US presidential election. Democrats impeached him for it. A Senate trial is next. It is a crossroads for the American system of government as the President tries to change what’s acceptable for US politicians. This newsletter will focus on this consequential moment in US history.