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Senate impeachment trial begins with rancor over witnesses and new evidence about Trump’s Ukraine dealings

Reps. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), left, Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) lead other designated House members into the Senate chambers as prosecutors to formally read the articles of impeachment against President Trump on Jan. 16, 2020. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

The third impeachment trial in U.S. history officially began Thursday amid a swirl of new allegations about President Trump’s dealings with Ukraine, which several Republicans rushed to downplay as they dismissed Democrats’ calls for further investigation.

Lev Parnas, a former associate of Trump’s personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani, has alleged that Trump knew of his role in the effort to dig up dirt in Ukraine that could benefit the president politically — the central issue in House Democrats’ case for removing the president from office — and this week provided Congress with documents to buttress his claims. Trump, who has appeared in several pictures with Parnas, denied knowing him on Thursday.

Republican lawmakers appeared unswayed by the new information, focusing on attacking the Democratic-led investigation in the House for not uncovering the evidence before sending the impeachment articles to the Senate.

President Trump has continued to deny knowing a former associate of his personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, despite numerous photos of the two together. (Video: The Washington Post)

“Look, no Republicans were for the inquiry to begin with so why would we be under any sort of obligation to feel like we need to complete the work that we never even agreed should’ve begun in the first place?” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said of the House investigation.

That sentiment was expressed by several other GOP lawmakers, many of whom said they did not want to hear from new witnesses or further investigate Trump’s conduct during the trial.

Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said it is the responsibility of the House, not the Senate, to gather evidence and present a case for impeachment.

“As a juror, I’m not fishing, looking for more information on this,” he said. “I’m trying to respond to what the House is sending over and what they’re doing.”

Historic impeachment trial of Trump begins in the Senate

Chief Justice John Roberts was sworn in for President Trump's impeachment trial, before administering the oath to U.S. senators, on Jan. 16. (Video: U.S. Senate)

The chorus of Republicans unwilling to consider additional evidence served as an indication that Democrats will face an uphill climb in their attempts to further build a case against Trump as the Senate trial plays out. The impeachment charges center on the allegation that the president withheld military aid and a White House meeting to pressure Ukraine to investigate his political rivals, including former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter.

Democrats accused their Republican colleagues of turning a blind eye to incriminating evidence and staging a political coverup to protect the president.

They seized on the allegations made by Parnas in television interviews Wednesday that placed Trump at the center of the alleged plot to solicit political interference by Ukraine.

“The American people have seen allegations, and they’re allegations,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Thursday. “We need to see more evidence that would be contained in the documentation. This is just another avoiding of the facts and the truths on their part.”

Democrats said their case was also bolstered Thursday by a report from a congressional watchdog agency that found the White House violated federal law when it withheld security aid to Ukraine last year.

The Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan agency that reports to Congress, found that the administration broke a law that governs how the executive branch disburses money approved by Congress. The White House disputed the findings, which carry no potential criminal penalties. But Democrats seized on the report to seek more disclosures about the deliberations and events that led to the money, which has since been released, being held back last summer.

The Senate trial will shape the president’s legacy and also that of his Republican Party

Parnas — who has been trying to get House impeachment investigators’ attention for weeks — alleged in an interview with NBC News on Wednesday evening that Trump personally blessed his covert effort to pressure Ukraine to investigate his political adversaries. He also admitted to conveying to the Ukrainians a “quid pro quo” message that aid would flow only when the nation publicly committed to such a probe.

That makes Parnas the second individual to say he conveyed such a demand to Ukrainian officials; Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland also told impeachment investigators that he conveyed an ultimatum to the U.S. ally: an investigation for a White House meeting and military assistance.

In a phone call last year, Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Biden and his son Hunter. Despite his specific request in the call, Trump has said he was concerned with overall corruption in the country and was not seeking to exploit Ukraine’s desire for a strong sign of support from United States in the face of Russian military aggression to secure investigations.

Parnas also submitted documents to Congress that showed Robert F. Hyde, a Republican congressional candidate and former Marine, suggesting to Parnas last year that he was tracking former Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, who was eventually ousted from her post after a campaign led by Trump’s allies.

Ukrainian authorities announced a probe Thursday into the possible surveillance of Yovanovitch before Trump dismissed her from the post. The FBI also visited Hyde’s home and business Thursday. Parnas said in the interview with NBC that he didn’t believe Hyde was actually tracking Yovanovitch and it was an empty boast.

Democrats, who delayed transmitting the articles of impeachment to the Senate for weeks as they tried to ensure that a trial would include testimony from key witnesses, said that Parnas’s revelations bolstered their argument.

“I think it just underscores the point that we do need to bring in some witnesses and we need to make sure that all relevant documents and relevant witnesses are heard,” said Rep. Sylvia Garcia (D-Tex.), one of the seven House impeachment managers.

While Democrats stressed the need to present Parnas’s information, if not call him in to testify in a Senate trial, Republicans sought to challenge his credibility by highlighting that he had been indicted on campaign finance charges last year.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) dismissed the Giuliani associate as a “shady figure.” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) told reporters Thursday that Parnas “lacks all credibility.”

Trump on Thursday denied knowing Parnas and dismissed a photo of himself with the Giuliani associate as one of “thousands” he has taken with supporters as president.

“I don’t know him at all,” Trump told reporters on the sidelines of an Oval Office event on religious freedom. “Don’t know what he’s about. Don’t know where he comes from.”

Later, in his first tweet after the Senate impeachment trial began, Trump wrote: “I JUST GOT IMPEACHED FOR MAKING A PERFECT PHONE CALL!”

The impeachment trial was able to begin formally after the seven House managers, led by House Intelligence Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), arrived in the Senate to formally present the two charges: abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.

After the Senate sergeant of arms warned senators to remain silent “upon pain of imprisonment,” Schiff read the text of House Resolution 755 “Impeaching Donald John Trump, President of the United States, for high crimes and misdemeanors.”

“President Trump thus warrants impeachment and trial, removal from office and disqualification to hold and enjoy any office of honor, trust or profit under the United States,” Schiff said as he finished reading from the articles.

Later, John G. Roberts Jr., chief justice of the United States, was sworn in to preside over the trial. Roberts then asked the senators to “solemnly swear” to “do impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws.”

While each senator said “I do,” Democrats and Republicans immediately clashed over what constitutes a fair trial. The key point of division was whether to hear from witnesses who could shed additional light on Trump’s Ukraine dealings.

Democrats are pressing for several witnesses who did not participate in the House impeachment proceedings, including former national security adviser John Bolton and acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney.

“In America, trials have evidence, and coverups do not,” said Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.).

The White House has blocked testimony from several officials with direct knowledge of Trump’s conduct, but some Republicans indicated they were open to considering witnesses after the initial phase of the trial, which Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said will begin in earnest on Tuesday, after the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) was among a group of senators pushing the idea of “reciprocity,” whereby the Republican and Democratic sides would each get to call witnesses. Some Republicans, including Trump, have said they are interested in hearing from Hunter Biden and the whistleblower whose complaint ultimately led to the impeachment inquiry.

Cramer said he would “be surprised if there weren’t witnesses” eventually.

“My view on it is, I want to wait and start by hearing from both sides and then ask the questions and then be informed by that,” Cramer said. “You know, I think at this point we’re all in jury mode, and that’s the best way to proceed. It’s really up to the House managers to make the case for these things. I’m certainly open to it. And we’ll see what they say.”

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said it was “likely” that she would vote for additional witnesses after the initial arguments. If all Democrats vote in unison, they would need four Republicans to join them in order to secure testimony from any particular witness.

But some senators sought to dodge the question of witnesses altogether, aiming to avoid reporters and underscoring the tense atmosphere surrounding the case.

Rather than answer a question about the impeachment trial, Sen. Martha McSally (R-Az.) repeatedly called a CNN reporter a “liberal hack” Thursday — an exchange that a McSally staffer taped and Trump’s campaign later praised and promoted.

“THREE CHEERS for Senator @MarthaMcSally!!! THIS is how you handle FAKE NEWS @CNN,” the @TrumpWarRoom campaign account tweeted.

Colby Itkowitz, Isabelle Khurshudyan, Felicia Sonmez, John Wagner and Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.