By David Morgan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Democrats sought on Monday to bolster the case for impeaching President Donald Trump, describing his pressuring of Ukraine to investigate a political rival as a “clear and present danger” to free and fair elections and national security.
In a raucous hearing that could lay the groundwork for a vote later this week on formal impeachment charges in the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee, the top Democrat on the panel said there was extensive proof of Trump’s wrongdoing.
“The evidence shows that Donald J. Trump, the president of the United States, has put himself before his country. He has violated his most basic responsibilities to the people. He has broken his oath,” Representative Jerrold Nadler said.
Republicans fired back, accusing Democrats of embarking on a partisan-driven flight of fancy to remove Trump from office without any proof he had abused his power, obstructed Congress or committed other impeachable offences.
“Presumption has now become the standard instead of truth,” said Representative Doug Collins, the top Republican on the panel. “They’re desperate to have an impeachment vote on this president.”
Republicans asserted there was no direct evidence Trump withheld $391 million in military aid to Ukraine or a White House meeting with his Ukrainian counterpart to get Kiev to investigate former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and his businessman son, Hunter Biden, as well as a debunked theory that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 U.S. election.
Joe Biden is seeking the Democratic nomination to face Trump in the 2020 presidential election.
Trump denies wrongdoing and has called the impeachment probe a hoax.
If Trump is impeached by the Democratic-led House, a trial would be held in the Republican-controlled Senate, where a two-thirds majority of those present would be needed to vote to remove the president from office. A conviction is considered unlikely.
The battle has divided Americans and raised the heat in an already polarized Congress.
The proceedings on Monday were disrupted by a man who shouted that Democrats were committing treason. Republicans then peppered the hearing with objections, points of order and other parliamentary manoeuvres, forcing Nadler to gavel them into silence.
The House Judiciary panel is expected to vote by the end of the week on whether to send formal charges, known as articles of impeachment, to the full House.
No current House Republican has come out in favour of impeaching Trump.
The White House has refused to participate in the hearings in the House because it says the process is unfair.
In a letter to Collins, Nadler denied Republicans’ request for eight witnesses to appear before the inquiry.
It has been 21 years since Americans last witnessed impeachment proceedings, when Republicans brought charges against Democratic President Bill Clinton arising from a sexual relationship he had with a White House intern. He was acquitted in the Senate.
After weeks of investigation and hearings in the House, the Judiciary Committee is focussed on two articles charging Trump with abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.
Democrats have accused Trump of abusing his power by withholding the aid to Ukraine – a vulnerable U.S. ally facing Russian aggression – and holding back a coveted White House meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy as leverage to get Kiev to launch the probes.
But they appeared to back away from basing one of the articles of impeachment on former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election. Some Democrats believe Trump’s campaign colluded with Moscow, an allegation that has been denied by Trump and was not established by Mueller’s probe.
Daniel Goldman, the majority counsel for the House Intelligence Committee, picked up on Democrats’ argument that leaving Trump in office would open the door to further undermining of the U.S. electoral process.
“Trump’s persistent and continuing effort to coerce a foreign country to help him cheat to win an election is a clear and present danger to our free and fair elections and to our national security,” Goldman said during Monday’s hearing.
Stephen Castor, a Republican attorney, said facts that Democrats have presented as damning could be explained in other ways.
He told the panel that Trump asked Zelenskiy for the investigations in a July 25 call not to serve his own political interests but to “help our country move forward from the divisiveness of the Russia collusion investigation.”
“To impeach a president who 63 million people voted for over eight lines in a call transcript is baloney. Democrats seek to impeach president Trump … because they disagree with his policies,” Castor said.
Separately, the U.S. Justice Department’s internal watchdog said on Monday it found numerous errors but no evidence of political bias by the FBI in opening a probe into contacts between Trump’s presidential campaign and Russia in 2016.
(Reporting by David Morgan, Susan Heavey, Patricia Zengerle, Susan Cornwell, Tim Ahmann, Mark Hosenball and Lisa Lambert; Writing by Paul Simao; Editing by Soyoung Kim, Jonathan Oatis and Peter Cooney)