WASHINGTON • US President Donald Trump's impeachment trial began in earnest in the Senate yesterday, in a rare use of the constitutional mechanism for ousting a president that has only deepened the polarisation of voters ahead of presidential elections in November.
Democrats have called on the Senate to remove the Republican President from office, describing him as a danger to American democracy and national security. Mr Trump and his lawyers have decried his impeachment, saying he has done nothing wrong and that Democrats are simply trying to stop him from being re-elected.
The televised trial is expected to hear opening arguments in the Republican-controlled Senate this week, and votes will take place on the rules governing the trial. This would include deciding whether the Senate should at a later date consider subpoenas for witnesses, such as Mr Trump's former national security adviser John Bolton.
The chamber's 100 members must decide whether to convict Mr Trump on charges approved by the Democratic-led House of Representatives on Dec 18, accusing him of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress arising from his dealings with Ukraine.
"If the Senate permits President Trump to remain in office, he and future leaders would be emboldened to welcome, and even enlist, foreign interference in elections for years to come," Democrats wrote in a pre-trial document, making the case for his removal.
Mr Trump's legal team, in their pre-trial brief on Monday, accused Democrats of using impeachment as a "partisan, election-year political tool", and said the Senate should move speedily to acquit him.
The trial of a US president should be a moment freighted with drama, huge political risk and the potential unravelling of a presidency. But financial markets have shrugged it off, and the revelations in the months-long probe have done little to boost anti-Trump sentiment among undecided voters or turn away moderate Republican voters.
The trial is expected to continue six days a week, Monday to Saturday, until at least the end of this month.
Opening arguments could last for four days and run well into the night, with a team of Democratic House lawmakers presenting the case against Mr Trump, and the President's legal team responding.
This is only the third impeachment trial in US history. No president has ever been removed through impeachment, a mechanism the nation's founders devised to oust a president for "treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanours".
With a two-thirds majority needed in the Senate to remove Mr Trump from office, he is almost certain to be acquitted by fellow Republicans in the chamber. But the impact of the trial on his re-election bid is far from clear.
Twelve Democrats are vying for their party's nomination to challenge Mr Trump, including former vice-president Joe Biden.
Mr Trump's request to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky last July to investigate Mr Biden is at the heart of the impeachment case. Democrats accuse Mr Trump of pressuring a vulnerable ally to interfere in US elections at the expense of national security. Mr Trump's legal team says there was no pressure and that the Democrats' case is based on hearsay.
Meanwhile, Mr Trump was in Davos, Switzerland, yesterday for the annual gathering of world business leaders. He projected an air of business as usual, telling reporters that the impeachment trial is "just a hoax" and a "witch hunt that's been going on for years".
"Frankly, it's disgraceful," he added.