The historic impeachment trial of President Donald Trump began in a bitterly divided Senate on Thursday with a solemn reading to a hushed chamber of the charges facing the combative 45th US president.
Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Michael Stenger opened the proceedings with a warning to the 100 senators who will decide whether the 73-year-old chief executive should be removed from office.
“Hear ye, hear ye, hear ye,” Stenger said after the seven members of the House of Representatives who will act as prosecutors marched from the House to the Senate chamber.
“All persons are commanded to keep silent, on pain of imprisonment, while the House of Representatives is exhibiting to the Senate of the United States, articles of impeachment against Donald John Trump, President of the United States,” the sergeant-at-arms said.
Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee who will serve as lead prosecutor for the trial, then read out the two articles of impeachment accusing Trump of “high crimes and misdemeanours”.
The Democratic-controlled House, in an overwhelmingly partisan vote, impeached Trump on December 18 for abuse of power in his dealings with Ukraine and obstruction of Congress.
US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts was sworn in shortly after 2pm (1900 GMT) to preside over the impeachment trial, just the third in American history.
Roberts, 64, who was appointed to the nation’s top court by president George W Bush, then delivered an oath to the 100 senators who will swear to administer “impartial justice”.
The proceedings then adjourned, with the trial to get underway “in earnest” on Tuesday, according to Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell.
Impeachment rules require a two-thirds Senate majority to convict and remove a president, and Trump’s acquittal is widely expected in the Republican-dominated Senate.
Trump is accused of abuse of power for withholding military aid to Ukraine and a White House meeting for the country’s president in exchange for an investigation into his potential presidential election rival Democrat Joe Biden.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) concluded in a report released yesterday that the White House violated federal law by putting a hold on the congressionally-approved funds for Ukraine.
“Faithful execution of the law does not permit the president to substitute his own policy priorities for those that Congress has enacted into law,” according to the GAO, a congressional watchdog.
The second article of impeachment – for obstruction of Congress – relates to Trump’s refusal to provide witnesses and documents to House impeachment investigators in defiance of congressional subpoenas.
McConnell has been extremely critical of Trump’s impeachment by the House and Democrats have accused him of planning to oversee a “sham” trial in the Senate.
McConnell has said he would co-ordinate the defence of Trump in the Republican-led Senate with the White House.
“It was a transparently partisan performance from beginning to end,” McConnell said of the House impeachment. “But it’s not what this process will be going forward.
“The House’s hour is over,” the Republican senator from Kentucky said. “The Senate’s time is at hand.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said yesterday that Trump had given the House no option.
“It is a sad day for America,” Pelosi told reporters. “We were given no choice.”
“Trump’s actions undermined national security, were a violation of his oath of office and jeopardised the integrity of our elections,” she said.
Pelosi held back on delivering the articles to the Senate as she pressured McConnell to agree to subpoena the witnesses and documents that the White House blocked from the House probe.
McConnell has refused to commit, saying that the issue will only be decided after the trial’s opening arguments and questioning.
A Trump administration official told reporters that they expect the trial to last no longer than two weeks, suggesting that McConnell could use his 53-47 Republican majority to stifle calls for witnesses and quickly take the charges to a vote.
Trump did not have any immediate public reaction to the opening of the trial, but he ridiculed the impeachment process on Wednesday, as he has for months.
“Here we go again, another Con Job by the Do Nothing Democrats,” he tweeted.
Democrats released documents this week that showed Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani worked with Ukrainian-born American Lev Parnas to pressure Kyiv to investigate Biden.
They also showed the two, working with Ukrainian officials, trying to force out the US ambassador to the country, Marie Yovanovitch, eventually removed by Trump.
In a televised interview on Wednesday, Parnas told MSNBC that “President Trump knew exactly what was going on.”
“He was aware of all of my movements. I wouldn’t do anything without the consent of Rudy Giuliani or the president,” he said.
Aside from Schiff, the prosecution team will include Judiciary Committee chair Jerry Nadler, House Democratic Caucus chair Hakeem Jeffries, Zoe Lofgren, a veteran of two previous impeachment investigations, and three others.
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