Rep. Adam B. Schiff’s opening statement Wednesday at the Senate impeachment trial described President Trump as a serial election “cheat” who must be stopped before the November vote, while the president lobbed insults back at the proceedings from the other side of the Atlantic, calling Mr. Schiff’s crew “major sleaze bags.”
Mr. Schiff, the House Democrats’ lead impeachment manager prosecuting the case, focused his argument on a simple concept: The president attempted to “cheat” in this year’s election just like he did in 2016.
The California Democrat described it as a pattern of cheating that Mr. Trump began by seeking Russia’s assistance in 2016 and was determined to repeat by forcing Ukraine to help him this time.
“We are here today to consider a much more grave matter, and that is an attempt to use the powers of the presidency to cheat in an election,” he said. “For precisely this reason, the president’s misconduct cannot be decided at the ballot box — for we cannot be assured that the vote will be fairly won.”
Mr. Schiff mentioned Russia and election hacking at least 15 times during the opening statement.
Mr. Trump is on trial for two articles of impeachment: abuse of power for asking Ukraine to investigate political rival Joseph R. Biden and obstruction of Congress for not cooperating with the House impeachment inquiry.
The president denies wrongdoing and has been defended by Senate Republicans, who are poised to acquit him of the articles of impeachment that House Democrats passed in a party-line vote on Dec. 18.
Still, Mr. Schiff urged the senators to convict the president and remove him from office. He argued that Mr. Trump put his political benefit above national security and undermined America’s “fair and free elections.”
The abuse of power charge holds that Mr. Trump withheld official acts — a White House visit and nearly $400 million in military aid — to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Mr. Biden and his son Hunter Biden.
Hunter Biden landed a high-paying position on the board of Ukrainian energy company Burisma Holdings while his father, as vice president, led Obama administration policy in that graft-riddled country.
Mr. Trump conducts himself as if he is “above the law and scornful of restrictions,” Mr. Schiff said.
Mr. Schiff, who also led Democrats’ push of Trump-Russian collusion allegations that were discredited by a nearly two-year investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller, returned to the collusion theme.
He recalled that Mr. Trump, as a candidate in 2016, joked at a rally that Russia should uncover missing emails of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Mrs. Clinton purged the emails amid a scandal over her use of a secret personal server while she was secretary of state.
To drive home the point, a video was shown in the chamber of Mr. Trump on the stump calling out, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”
Hours later, Mr. Schiff noted, Russia hacked the email account of Mrs. Clinton’s campaign manager and revealed embarrassing messages, including an exchange that expressed anti-Catholic bias.
Mrs. Clinton’s missing State Department emails, however, were never recovered.
“And the president has made it clear that it will not be the last time, asking China only recently to join Ukraine in investigating his political opponent,” he said.
The opening statement started up to 24 hours of floor time over three days for the House impeachment managers to present their case against Mr. Trump. It’s not clear whether all of the time will be used. It was not for the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton in 1999.
After the prosecution presents its case, the president’s legal team will have 24 hours over three days to deliver a defense.
Mr. Trump didn’t wait for his defense team to take the podium.
“This is the greatest witch hunt,” he said as he prepared to return home from an economic summit in Davos, Switzerland. “It’s horrible for our country. Our country needs to get back to business.”
Mr. Trump said he wouldn’t mind seeing former National Security Adviser John R. Bolton testify — which Democrats have been demanding — about what he knows on Ukraine. But he said he worried that his former aide would reveal too much about private conversations about global leaders, harming the executive branch.
In the end, he said, it will be up to senators whether to call witnesses.
“I have great respect for the Senate as a body and many of the individuals,” Mr. Trump said. “This is the greatest witch hunt.”
The president said Democrats orchestrated the impeachment to detract from the strong U.S. economy, which the president touted in Davos.
Back in Washington, Mr. Schiff promised senators that House Democrats would present “extensive evidence” and “overwhelming evidence” of wrongdoing by the president.
He also prodded the senators to vote to compel more administration documents and more testimony by administration officials to seal the case against Mr. Trump.
Democrats have been clamoring for more evidence at the trial since the House passed the two articles of impeachment.
Senate Democrats put up 11 amendments that would have compelled more documents and testimony during a marathon debate of the trial rules Tuesday. But the Republican-run chamber shot down each amendment and adopted rules that put off the question of additional witnesses until after the two sides present their cases.
Mr. Schiff said the senators could still hear from witnesses such as Mr. Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney.
“You will hear their testimony at the same time as the American people — if you allow it,” Mr. Schiff said.
While he was making his case on the chamber floor, Mr. Trump’s surrogates — a handful of Republican House lawmakers — told reporters that Mr. Schiff can’t be trusted to present the truth.
Rep. Jim Jordan, Ohio Republican, said Mr. Schiff claimed to have more than circumstantial evidence that Mr. Trump colluded with Russia but that ended up not being accurate. He added that Mr. Schiff said the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court could be trusted, but the Justice Department inspector general found otherwise.
He said Mr. Schiff said they would hear from the whistleblower during the House probe and that never happened, and claimed not to have communicated with the whistleblower. It was later reported that Mr. Schiff’s staff did interact with the whistleblower, he added.
“But today we are supposed to believe him?” Mr. Jordan said dismissively.
Rep. Lee M. Zeldin, New York Republican, said Mr. Schiff thinks he is the chairman of the House’s impeachment committee.
“Unfortunately, you are not going to see a live fact-checker as you are watching Adam Schiff in the course of the day,” he said.
“His story — essentially trying to write the world’s greatest parody — is a reliance on presumption, on hearsay and lies. … He is trying to connect dots that aren’t actually connected,” Mr. Zeldin said.