Democrats' impeachment case lands with a thud with GOP — but real audience is voters

House Democrats on Wednesday launched the opening arguments in the Senate impeachment trial of President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump passes Pence a dangerous buck Overnight Health Care — Presented by American Health Care Association — Trump taps Pence to lead coronavirus response | Trump accuses Pelosi of trying to create panic | CDC confirms case of 'unknown' origin | Schumer wants .5 billion in emergency funds Trump nods at reputation as germaphobe during coronavirus briefing: 'I try to bail out as much as possible' after sneezes MORE, accusing him of abusing his office in his dealings with Ukraine in ways that demand his removal.

The almost eight hours of arguments on the Senate floor — the first portion of three days of Democratic opening statements — landed like a brick with Republican senators, who quickly panned the process as a political ruse and all but announced their votes to clear Trump of any wrongdoing when the question eventually reaches the floor.

"I think we're going to hear another two and a half days of arguments from the House Democrats, but the longer they talk at this point, the weaker their case is getting," said Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzSteyer calls for Senate term limits to pass gun control legislation Cruz targets California governor over housing 'prescriptions' This week: House to vote on legislation to make lynching a federal hate crime MORE (R-Texas).

Yet the Democrats' long and detailed legal arguments — while ostensibly intended for the ears of the 100 senators acting as both judge and jury in the trial — are more broadly intended to target voters far outside the Beltway, who will provide the ultimate verdict on Trump's undertakings in Ukraine when they head to the polls later this year.

It's a dynamic that hasn't been overlooked by the seven Democrats prosecuting the impeachment case, who are taking pains — and plenty of time on the Senate floor — to portray Trump as a threat to national security and maximize the discomfort for his Senate Republican defenders, even as those GOP lawmakers are poised to acquit their White House ally.  

"The House believes that an impartial juror, upon hearing the evidence that the managers will lay out in the coming days, will find that the Constitution demands the removal of Donald J. Trump from his office as president of the United States," said House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffHillicon Valley: Dems cancel surveillance vote after pushback to amendments | Facebook to ban certain coronavirus ads | Lawmakers grill online ticketing execs | Hacker accessed facial recognition company's database Hillicon Valley: Democrats cancel surveillance vote over pushback to amendments | Lawmakers grill Ticketmaster, StubHub execs over online ticketing | Democrats cancel surveillance vote over pushback to amendments MORE (D-Calif.), the Democrats' lead impeachment manager.

"But that will be for you to decide, with the weight of history upon you, and, as President Kennedy once said, 'a good conscience your only sure reward,'" he added.

The Democrats' impeachment case rests on allegations, first aired by a government whistleblower, that Trump withheld vital military aid to Ukraine to pressure that country's leaders to launch a pair of anti-corruption investigations that might have benefited him politically.

The first was to target the former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden looks to shore up lead in S.C. Hillicon Valley: Dems cancel surveillance vote after pushback to amendments | Facebook to ban certain coronavirus ads | Lawmakers grill online ticketing execs | Hacker accessed facial recognition company's database Vulnerable Democrats brace for Sanders atop ticket MORE, a 2020 presidential contender whose son was employed by a Ukrainian energy company while Biden served under former President Obama. The second would examine the conspiracy theory — dismissed by the U.S. intelligence community — that it was Kyiv, not Moscow, that interfered in the 2016 election.

The case Democrats presented Wednesday on the Senate floor examined the particulars of that pressure campaign, which led the House to pass two impeachment articles last month charging Trump with abusing his power and obstructing Congress.  

The opening arguments, aired live on network TV, leaned heavily on the months of Democratic investigations last year, when impeachment investigators secured testimony from 17 diplomats and national security officials, many of whom painted a grim portrait of a shadow foreign policy in Kyiv designed to benefit Trump politically.

Schiff and his team traded speaking duties, with each turning frequently to the large video screen installed in the chamber specifically for the trial, where Democrats aired clips featuring statements from both the wary officials and Trump himself.

Separately, the Democrats also made repeated references to new evidence related to Trump's Ukraine campaign, which has emerged in the weeks since they impeached the president on Dec. 18. That evidence, and the potential to call new witnesses, has emerged as a central sticking point in the debate, especially since Tuesday, when Republicans voted unanimously to block access to the new evidence until the end of the trial.

Democrats framed the process as inherently unfair — "rigged" in favor of Trump, they charged — and warned senators they were setting a dangerous precedent by empowering presidential abuse in the future.

"If not remedied by his conviction in the Senate and removal from office, President Trump’s abuse of his office and obstruction of Congress will permanently alter the balance of power among our branches of government, inviting future presidents to operate as if they too are also beyond the reach of accountability, congressional oversight and the law," Schiff said.

Republican senators wasted no time dismissing the Democrats' arguments, saying the impeachment effort all along has been designed to damage a president they couldn't defeat at the polls. If Democrats had hoped to convince Republicans of Trump's guilt, it wasn't working on Day One.

"I didn't hear anything new at all," said Sen. John BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoWhere do we go from here? Conservation can show the way Senators to meet with Zelensky after impeachment trial GOP senators defend Sondland, Vindman ousters: They weren't 'loyal' MORE (R-Wyo.) roughly six hours into Wednesday's opening arguments. "It still seems to me as if this was an effort by the Democrats, in a very partisan way, to bring a case against President Trump because they weren't happy with the 2016 election and are concerned that they're going to have real problems in the 2020 election."

Barrasso, along with Sen. Tim ScottTimothy (Tim) Eugene ScottGOP casts Sanders as 2020 boogeyman Tim Scott: Sanders would be toughest challenger for Trump House to vote on legislation to make lynching a federal hate crime MORE (R-S.C.), accused Democrats of using impeachment not only to target Trump but also to gain advantage in competitive Senate races in battleground states in November.

"The goal of this entire process is not to remove the president from office," said Scott. "It's simply to remove certain Republican senators — Colorado, North Carolina, Iowa, Maine and Arizona — from office."

The comments underline the highly partisan nature of the Democrats' impeachment effort, with both sides digging in as the process has shifted from the House, led by Democrats, to the GOP-controlled Senate.

Following the Democrats' opening arguments, which will run as long as 24 hours, Trump's legal team will have the same window to present his defense.

Jay SekulowJay Alan SekulowWhat the impeachment vote looked like from inside the chamber Senate votes to acquit Trump on articles of impeachment Roberts emerges unscathed from bitter impeachment trial MORE, one of Trump's personal lawyers, said Wednesday that it remains too early to know if the president's team will seek new witnesses — such as Biden's son — or will seek to use the entirely of its allotted 24 hours.

"I don't know if it's going to take 10 hours, 14 hours, 24 hours or six hours," Sekulow told reporters in the Capitol. "When you're in a proceeding like this you have to be flexible. ... We're doing that."

Trump on Wednesday morning had suggested a willingness to attend his own trial on the Senate floor unless his lawyers thought it unwise. Sekulow was quick to throw cold water on the idea. "The counsel might recommend against that," he quipped.

"That's not the way it works," he quickly added. "Presidents don't do that."

Sen. Mike BraunMichael BraunOvernight Health Care: Ernst endorses bipartisan bill to lower drug prices | US partnering with drugmakers on coronavirus vaccine | UN chief says virus poses 'enormous' risks Senators, bruised by impeachment, hunt for deals Plan to probe Bidens sparks GOP divisions MORE (R-Ind.), among the many Republicans rushing to Trump's defense on Wednesday, also hinted at one element of the president's defense strategy, suggesting that the president's lawyers may focus on the origins of the investigations into Trump, which Republicans have long suspected were politically motivated. Those arguments, Braun predicted, could very well contain information not yet revealed in the course of the debate — an intriguing remark in light of the administration's refusal to turn over thousands of documents subpoenaed by Democrats during their impeachment investigation.

"I think you're going to see when the defense comes along that this was orchestrated from way, way back," Braun said. "There was a lot of maybe new information that will come out in how it got to the point of how we're here in an impeachment trial."