Washington: The third impeachment trial in U.S. history officially began Thursday amid a swirl of new allegations about President Donald 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 Rudy 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 Democrat-led investigation in the House for not uncovering the evidence before sending the impeachment articles to the Senate.
“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.”
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.
What are the charges?
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 against Trump and staging a political cover-up 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.”
‘White House violated federal law’
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 push for more disclosures about the deliberations and chain of events that led to the money, which has since been spent, being held back last summer.
Parnas - who has been trying to get House impeachment investigators’ attention for weeks - alleged in an interview with NBC News 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 only flow when the nation publicly committed to such a probe.
That makes Parnas the second individual to say they conveyed such a demand to Ukrainian officials; Ambassador to the European Union Gordan 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.