President Donald Trump. Picture: AP
President Donald Trump. Picture: AP

Trump’s impeachment trial begins

THE two articles of impeachment against Donald Trump were read out on the US Senate floor as the historic trial against the US president began.

"In his conduct, and in violation of his constitutional oath ... Donald J. Trump has abused the powers of the presidency," Representative Adam Schiff, one of the House managers who will lead the prosecution of the president, said as he began reading from the first article of impeachment.

Chief Justice John Roberts was later sworn in to preside over the trial, which will hear opening statements on Tuesday.

Mr Roberts then witnessed all senators being sworn in as well.

Senator Chuck Grassleyswears in Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts as the presiding officer for the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump. Picture: AP
Senator Chuck Grassleyswears in Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts as the presiding officer for the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump. Picture: AP

 

WATCHDOG: WHITE HOUSE 'BROKE LAW ON UKRAINE AID'

The federal government's independent watchdog has declared that an office of the White House broke the law when it withheld security assistance to Ukraine.

The watchdog, the Government Accountability Office, said the White House entity in question - the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) - delayed assistance for "policy reasons", in breach of its charter.

The freeze on assistance to Ukraine is at the centre of the impeachment of President Donald Trump.

The independent accountability office (GAO), which reports to Congress, said the policy-fuelled delay violated the Impoundment Control Act, which decreed the timing of assistance should be based on technical budgetary reasons.

"Faithful execution of the law does not permit the President to substitute his own policy priorities for those that Congress has enacted into law," wrote the agency's general counsel, Thomas Armstrong, in the report.

President Donald Trump signs a trade agreement with China this week. Picture: AP
President Donald Trump signs a trade agreement with China this week. Picture: AP

OMB has argued the hold was appropriate and necessary.

"We disagree with GAO's opinion. OMB uses its apportionment authority to ensure taxpayer dollars are properly spent consistent with the President's priorities and with the law," said OMB spokeswoman Rachel Semmel.

Mr Trump was impeached last month on charges of abusing his power for pressuring Ukraine to investigate Democratic rivals, as he was withholding the aid, and for obstructing Congress' ensuing probe. He has repeatedly dismissed the impeachment process as a "witch hunt" and "con job" orchestrated by the "do nothing Democrats".

The Senate is set to begin its trial on Thursday.

Donald Trump, left, and Rudy Giuliani associate Lev Parnas. Picture: Supplied
Donald Trump, left, and Rudy Giuliani associate Lev Parnas. Picture: Supplied

 

 

 

TRUMP 'KNEW EXACTLY WHAT WAS GOING ON'

A close associate of President Donald Trump's personal lawyer says he delivered an ultimatum in May to the incoming president of Ukraine that no senior US officials would attend his inauguration and all American aid to the war-torn country would be withheld if an investigation into Joe Biden wasn't announced.

Lev Parnas, an associate of Rudy Giuliani, made several potentially explosive claims in a televised interview Wednesday night with MSNBC's Rachel Maddow.

"President Trump knew exactly what was going on. He was aware of all my movements. I wouldn't do anything without the consent of Rudy Giuliani, or the president," Mr Parnas said. "I have no intent, I have no reason to speak to any of these officials. I mean, they have no reason to speak to me. Why would President Zelensky's inner circle, or Minister [Arsen] Avakov, or all these people, or (former Ukranian President Petro Poroshenko) meet with me? Who am I? They were told to meet with me. And that's the secret that they're trying to keep. I was on the ground doing their work."

The day after Mr Parnas said he delivered the message, the US State Department announced that Vice President Mike Pence would no longer be attending the inauguration of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Mr Parnas alleged that Mr Trump ordered Mr Pence to stay away at the behest of Mr Giuliani to send a clear message to the incoming Ukrainian administration that they needed to take seriously the demand for an investigation into Mr Biden, a Democratic presidential candidate seen as a potential threat to Mr Trump's 2020 re-election.

Mr Parnas said every communication he had with Mr Zelenskiy's team was at the direction of Mr Giuliani, whom he regularly overheard briefing Mr Trump about their progress by phone.

If true, Mr Parnas' account undercuts a key Republican defence of Mr Trump deployed during the ongoing impeachment fight - that Mr Trump's withholding of vital military aid to Ukraine last summer wasn't a quid pro quo for Biden investigations because Mr Zelenskiy didn't know the money was being held up.

 

 

Mr Giuliani called Mr Parnas' statements "sad."

"I feel sorry for him," Mr Giuliani said in a text message to an AP reporter. "I thought he was an honourable man. I was wrong."

Asked directly if Mr Parnas was lying, Mr Trump's lawyer replied, "I'm not responding yet." Mr Parnas said he also heard Mr Giuliani and another Trump-aligned defence lawyer, Victoria Toensing, briefing Attorney-General William Barr by phone about their efforts to pressure the Ukrainian government to announce the investigation into Mr Biden and his son Hunter's business dealings.

"Barr was basically on the team," Mr Parnas said.

The Justice Department said in September that Mr Trump had not spoken to Mr Barr about having Ukraine investigate the Bidens and that the Attorney-General had not discussed Ukraine with Mr Giuliani.

 

Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said on Wednesday that Mr Parnas' claims were "100 per cent false."

The new accusations came as House Democrats made public a trove of documents, text messages and photos from Mr Parnas' smartphones that appear to verify parts of his account.

A federal judge earlier this month ruled that Mr Parnas could provide the materials to Congress as part of the impeachment proceedings.

Democrats voted in December to impeach Mr Trump for abuse of power and for obstruction of Congress.

A House committee chairman said his panel will investigate what he says are "profoundly alarming" text messages among the newly disclosed materials that have raised questions about the possible surveillance of former Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch before she was ousted by the Trump administration.

 

The messages show that a Robert F. Hyde, a Republican candidate for Congress from Connecticut, disparaged Ms Yovanovitch in messages to Mr Parnas and gave him updates on her location and mobile phone use.

Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said that the messages are "profoundly alarming" and "suggest a possible risk" to Ms Yovanovitch's security in Kiev before she was recalled from her post.

"These threats occurred at the same time that the two men were also discussing President Trump's efforts, through Rudy Giuliani, to smear the ambassador's reputation," Mr Engel said.

He said the committee staff flagged the information for the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security and is seeking assurances that proper steps have been taken to ensure the security of Ms Yovanovitch and committee staff.

 

 

He said he also wanted to know what, if anything, the State Department knew about the situation.

"This unprecedented threat to our diplomats must be thoroughly investigated and, if warranted, prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law," Mr Engel said.

Democrats released the files on Tuesday and Wednesday as they prepared to send articles of impeachment to the Senate for Mr Trump's trial.

The documents could add pressure on the Senate as it debates whether to hear witnesses in the trial.

The text and phone records show Mr Parnas communicating with Mr Giuliani multiple times a day before Ms Yovanovitch's removal, as well as a handwritten note that mentions asking Ukraine's president to investigate "the Biden case."

Hunter Biden (L) and his father, former US Vice President Joe Biden. Picture: Getty
Hunter Biden (L) and his father, former US Vice President Joe Biden. Picture: Getty

Among the documents is a screenshot of a previously undisclosed letter from Mr Giuliani to Mr Zelenskiy dated May 10, 2019, which was shortly after Mr Zelenskiy was elected but before he took office.

In the letter, Mr Giuliani requests a meeting with Mr Zelenskiy "as personal counsel to President Trump and with his knowledge and consent."

The Associated Press reported in October that Mr Zelenskiy had huddled three days earlier, on May 7, with a small group of key advisers in Kiev to seek advice about how to navigate the insistence from Mr Trump and Mr Giuliani for a probe into the Bidens.

He expressed his unease about becoming entangled in the American elections, according to three people familiar with the details of the three-hour meeting.

They spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the diplomatic sensitivity of the issue, which has roiled US-Ukrainian relations.

One of the documents released by Democrats is a handwritten note on stationery from the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Vienna that says "get Zalensky to Annonce that the Biden case will be Investigated."

 

Mr Parnas told Maddow he took the notes as he was speaking by phone to Mr Giuliani, receiving precise instructions about the demands Mr Trump wanted to convey to Mr Zelenskiy's team.

Mr Trump asked Mr Zelenskiy in a July 25 call to investigate the Bidens.

Hunter Biden served on the board of a gas company based in Ukraine.

The documents were sent to the House Judiciary Committee by three other House panels "to be included as part of the official record that will be transmitted to the Senate along with the Articles of Impeachment," according to a statement.

Some of the materials were made public while others were blacked out and marked as sensitive.

Mr Parnas and his business partner, Igor Fruman, both US citizens who emigrated from the former Soviet Union, were indicted last year on charges of conspiracy, making false statements and falsification of records.

Prosecutors allege they made outsize campaign donations to Republican causes after receiving millions of dollars originating from Russia.

The men have pleaded not guilty.

In several of the documents, Mr Parnas communicated with Mr Giuliani about the removal of Ms Yovanovitch.

 

 

The ambassador's ouster, ordered by Mr Trump, was at the centre of the Democrats' impeachment inquiry.

Ms Yovanovitch testified in the House impeachment hearings that she was the victim of a "smear campaign."

Mr Trump on the July call told Mr Zelenskiy that Ms Yovanovitch was "going to go through some things."

She had been recalled from her diplomatic post roughly three months earlier.

On April 23, just before Ms Yovanovitch was directed to return to the United States, Mr Giuliani texted Mr Parnas, "He fired her again."

Mr Parnas texted back, "I pray it happens this time I'll call you tomorrow my brother."

Mr Parnas also received messages from Hyde, who referred to Ms Yovanovitch as a "bitch." After texting about the ambassador, Hyde gave Mr Parnas detailed updates that suggested he was watching her.

In one text, Hyde wrote: "She's talked to three people. Her phone is off. Her computer is off." He said she was under heavy security and "we have a person inside."

Hyde texted Mr Parnas that "they are willing to help if we/you would like a price," and "guess you can do anything in Ukraine with money … is what I was told."

Mr Parnas texted back: "lol."

Lawrence Robbins, a lawyer for Ms Yovanovitch, called for an investigation into the messages.

In a Twitter post, Hyde called Mr Parnas a "dweeb" and suggested the messages about surveilling the ambassador were a joke.

He said he welcomed an investigation.

 

Mr Parnas, in turn, also said Wednesday that Hyde's texts shouldn't be taken seriously.

The text messages show that Mr Parnas consulted Mr Giuliani in January 2019 after the US denied a visa to former Ukrainian Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin.

Mr Giuliani replied: "I can revive it."

The following day, Mr Giuliani told Mr Parnas, "It's going to work I have no 1 in it."

Mr Giuliani then predicted "he will get one," before giving Mr Parnas the phone number for Jay Sekulow, the leader of the president's personal legal team.

Mr Sekulow is expected to be part of Mr Trump's legal team during the impeachment trial.

Mr Trump has repeatedly denied knowing Mr Parnas and Mr Fruman, despite numerous photos that have emerged of the men together.

Among the materials released from Mr Parnas' phone this week were more photos of him with Mr Trump, as well as the president's son Donald Trump Jr., first daughter Ivanka Trump, and her husband, Jared Kushner.

Asked by Maddow about Mr Trump's denials of knowing him, Mr Parnas said he had spoken one-on-one with the president numerous times.

"He lied," Parnas said of the president. "I mean, we're not friends. Me and him didn't watch football games together, we didn't eat hot dogs. But he knew exactly who we were, who I was especially."


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