As the US Senate formally opened the impeachment trial on whether to remove Donald Trump from office, a nonpartisan congressional watchdog on Thursday dealt the Republican president a blow by concluding that the White House violated the law by withholding security aid approved for Ukraine by US lawmakers.
Democrat Adam Schiff, who heads a team of seven House of Representatives members will serve as prosecutors, appeared on the Senate floor to read the two charges passed by the House on December 18 accusing Trump of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress arising from his dealings with Ukraine.
The trial’s opening formalities continued, with US Chief Justice John Roberts sworn in to preside over the proceedings. Roberts then swore in all 99 senators who were present to serve as jurors.
After the swearings-in, the Senate adjourned until 1:00 pm (1800 GMT) on Tuesday, when the prosecution begins laying out its case against the president in only the third impeachment trial in US history.
The abuse of power cited by the House included Trump’s withholding of $391 million (€351m) in security aid for Ukraine, a move Democrats have said was aimed at pressuring Kiev into investigating political rival Joe Biden, the president’s possible opponent in the 2020 US general election.
“Faithful execution of the law does not permit the President to substitute his own policy priorities for those that Congress has enacted into law,” the Government Accountability Office (GAO) concluded, referring to the fact that Congress had already voted to appropriate the funds.
An arm of Congress, the GAO is viewed as a top auditing agency for the federal government that advises lawmakers and various government entities on how taxpayer dollars are spent.
While the agency’s assessment was a setback to Trump, it was unclear how or even if it would figure in his trial in the Republican-led Senate given that key issues such as whether witnesses will appear or new evidence will be considered remain up in the air.
Democrats said the GAO report showed the importance of the Senate hearing from witnesses and considering new documents in the trial.
“This reinforces – again – the need for documents and eyewitnesses in the Senate,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told a news conference.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, has said senators should consider only the evidence amassed by the House.
The House voted on Wednesday 228-193, largely along party lines, to give the Senate the task of putting Trump on trial. The Senate is expected to acquit him, keeping Trump in office, as none of its 53 Republicans has voiced support for removing him, a step that requires a two-thirds majority.
Trump has ridiculed the impeachment process for months, and he responded to the opening of the trial by once more branding it a “hoax”.
“I think it should go very quickly,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office.
“It’s totally partisan,” Trump said. “I’ve got to go through a hoax, a phony hoax put out by the Democrats so they can try and win an election.”
Democrats have said Trump abused his power by asking a foreign government to interfere in a US election for his own benefit at the expense of American national security.
Republicans have argued that Trump’s actions did not rise to the level of impeachable offenses. They have accused Democrats of using the Ukraine affair as a way to nullify Trump’s 2016 election victory.
The Senate formally notified the White House of Trump’s impending trial on Thursday.