The Senate impeachment trial on whether to remove US president Donald Trump from office formally began on Thursday, as a congressional watchdog found that the White House broke the law by withholding security aid for Ukraine approved by Congress.
The assessment from the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office was a setback for Mr Trump, even though it was unclear 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.
Democrat Adam Schiff, who heads a team of seven House of Representatives members who will serve as prosecutors, appeared on the Senate floor to read the two charges passed by the House on December 18th accusing Mr Trump of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress arising from his dealings with Ukraine.
Chief justice John Roberts, wearing his black judicial robe, was led on to the Senate floor by four senior lawmakers. He took an oath to preside over the trial and then swore in the assembled senators, instructing them to raise their right hand, asking, "Do you solemnly swear that in all things appertaining to the trial of the impeachment of Donald John Trump, president of the United States, now pending you will do impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws, so help you God?"
The 99 senators present signed their assent one by one. One senator – Republican Jim Inhofe – was in his home state of Oklahoma to be with a family member facing a medical issue, according to his office, but was due to sign later in the day.
Opening statements in the trial were due to start on Tuesday. The Senate is expected to acquit Mr Trump, as none of its 53 Republicans has voiced support for removing him, a step that requires a two-thirds majority. Mr Trump has denied wrongdoing and has called the impeachment process a sham.
The abuse of power cited in the House articles of impeachment included Mr Trump's withholding of $391 million (€350 million) 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 November 3rd US 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 GAO report released on Thursday stated, 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.
"This reinforces – again – the need for documents and eyewitnesses in the Senate," House speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, told a news conference.
Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, has said senators should consider only the evidence amassed by the House.
The GAO issued its opinion after receiving a letter inquiring about the aid from Democratic senator Chris Van Hollen. The agency's findings are not legally binding, but its reports are seen by lawmakers as objective, reliable and generally uncontested. The GAO has no prosecutorial power.
Its report noted that the US constitution grants a president no unilateral authority to withhold funds in the way that Mr Trump did. Instead, a president has a “strictly circumscribed authority” to withhold spending only in limited circumstances expressly provided by law. Holding up money for a policy reason, which the Trump administration did in this case, is not permitted, the report said.
Asked about the GAO report, House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy defended Mr Trump’s withholding of aid, citing concerns about corruption in Ukraine’s new government. “I think it was the rightful thing to do,” Mr McCarthy told a news conference.
Congress approved the $391 million to help Ukraine combat Russia-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country. The money ultimately was provided to Kiev in September after the controversy had spilled into public view.
A pivotal event leading to Mr Trump's impeachment was a July 25th call in which he asked Ukraine's president to investigate Mr Biden and his son Hunter Biden over unsubstantiated allegations of corruption and to look into a discredited theory that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 US election.
Mr Schiff indicated that the House prosecutors were considering calling Lev Parnas, an associate of Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, as a witness if the Senate permits testimony in the trial.
“We are continuing to review his [media] interviews and the materials he has provided to evaluate his potential testimony in the Senate trial,” Mr Schiff said in a statement.
Mr Giuliani has said Mr Parnas, a Ukraine-born US citizen, helped him in investigating the Bidens. Documents released this week indicate Mr Parnas was also involved in monitoring the movements of former ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch before Mr Trump removed her in May after being urged to do so by Giuliani.
Ukraine said on Thursday it had opened a criminal investigation into the alleged surveillance of Ms Yovanovitch.
Republicans have argued that Mr Trump’s actions did not rise to the level of impeachable offences. They have accused Democrats of using the Ukraine affair as a way to nullify Mr Trump’s 2016 election victory. – Reuters