Lisa Mascaro and Mary Clare Jalonick
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump's efforts to "cheat to win an election" are a threat to national security, the top Democratic investigator testified Monday as the House Judiciary Committee pushes ahead with articles of impeachment.
In an acrimonious daylong hearing, Democrats outlined their case against the president, saying Trump's push to have Ukraine investigate rival Joe Biden while withholding U.S. military aid ran counter to U.S. policy and benefited Russia as well as himself. Trump and his allies railed against the "absurd" proceedings, with Republicans defending the president as having done nothing wrong ahead of the 2020 election.
The outcome, though, appears increasingly set as Democrats prepare at least two, if not more, articles of impeachment against Trump, likely charging him with an abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. A Judiciary committee vote could come as soon as this week.
"President Trump's persistent and continuing effort to coerce a foreign country to help him cheat to win an election is a clear and present danger to our free and fair elections and to our national security," said Dan Goldman, the director of investigations at the House Intelligence Committee.
Republicans rejected not only Goldman's conclusion as he presented the Intelligence Committee's 300-page report on the Ukraine matter, but his very appearance before the Judiciary panel. In a series of heated exchanges, they said Rep. Adam Schiff, the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, should appear rather than send his lawyer.
"Where's Adam?" thundered Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee. "We want Schiff," echoed Trump ally Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla.
From the White House, Trump tweeted repeatedly, assailing the "Witch Hunt!" and "Do Nothing Democrats."
The hearing set off a pivotal week as Democrats march toward a full House vote expected by Christmas.
In drafting the articles of impeachment, Speaker Nancy Pelosi is facing a legal and political challenge of balancing the views of her majority while hitting the Constitution's bar of "treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors."
Pelosi was meeting with her leadership team behind closed doors Monday evening. A crucial decision will be whether to include an obstruction charge from special counsel Robert Mueller's findings as some liberals want or keep the impeachment articles focused on Urkaine as centrist Democrats prefer.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler was blunt as he opened the hearing, saying, "President Trump put himself before country."
Nadler said the case against Trump is clear after "multiple officials testified that the president's demand for an investigation into his rivals was a part of his personal, political agenda, and not related to the foreign policy objectives of the United States.
"The integrity of our next election is at stake."
Collins said Democrats are racing to jam impeachment through on a "clock and a calendar" ahead of the 2020 presidential election.
"They can't get over the fact that Donald Trump is the president of the United States, and they don't have a candidate that can beat him," Collins said.
In one testy exchange, Republican attorney Stephen Castor dismissed the transcript of Trump's crucial call with Ukraine as "eight ambiguous lines" that did not amount to the president seeking a personal political favor.
Democrats argued vigorously that Trump's meaning could not have been clearer in seeking political dirt on Biden, his possible opponent in the 2020 election.
Asked for his view, Goldman testified, "I don't think there's any other way to read the words on the page."
Republicans also revived criticism of Schiff's decision to expose phone records of members of Congress. The inquiry showed that Trump's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, was in frequent contact with California Rep. Devin Nunes, the top Republican on the House intelligence committee.
Collins accused Democrats of engaging in a "smear" campaign against lawmakers by disclosing phone records. But Goldman said investigators did not subpoena lawmaker accounts but simply matched them up once they appeared in the records.
The Republicans tried numerous times to halt or slow the proceedings and at one point the hearing was briefly interrupted by a protester shouting "We voted for Donald Trump!" The protester was escorted from the House hearing room by Capitol Police.
The White House is refusing to participate in the impeachment process, and Trump appears to be focused elsewhere — on Giuliani's own probe and the president's upcoming campaign rallies.
Trump spent the morning tweeting against the proceedings. He and and his allies acknowledge he likely will be impeached in the Democratic-controlled House, but they also expect acquittal next year in the Senate, where Republicans have the majority.
The president was focused instead on Monday's long-awaited release of the Justice Department report into the 2016 Russia investigation. The Inspector General found that the FBI was justified in opening its investigation into ties between the Trump presidential campaign and Russia and that the FBI did not act with political bias, despite "serious performance failures" up the bureau's chain of command.
Those findings undercut Trump's claim that he was the target of a "witch hunt," rejecting theories and criticism spread by Trump and his supporters. Yet it found errors and misjudgments likely to be exploited by Republican allies as the president faces probable impeachment.
As the House pushes ahead toward votes, Trump attorney Giuliani said Monday he'll soon be releasing findings from his own recent visit to Ukraine.
Many Republicans in Congress are distancing themselves from Giuliani, but Trump's top ally found an audience in former Trump campaign manger Steve Bannon's "War Room 2020"' podcast to discuss his findings, which he promised to reveal in more detail later this week.
Democrats say Trump abused his power in a July 25 phone call when he asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy for a favor in investigating Democrats. That was bribery, they say, since Trump was withholding nearly $400 million in military aid that Ukraine depended on to counter Russian aggression.
Pelosi and Democrats point to a "pattern" of conduct by Trump in seeking foreign interference in elections from Mueller's inquiry of the Russia probe to Ukraine.
In his report, Mueller said he could not determine that Trump's campaign conspired or coordinated with Russia in the 2016 election. But Mueller said he could not exonerate Trump of obstructing justice in the probe and left it for Congress to determine.
Associated Press writers Laurie Kellman, Matthew Daly, Eric Tucker, and Darlene Superville contributed to this report.