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Democrats focus on Trump's character as they argue for removing him from office in impeachment trial

WASHINGTON - House prosecutors finished their opening arguments in President Donald Trump's impeachment trial on Friday, arguing that his conduct toward Ukraine reflected a dangerous reflex toward political expediency and a lack of character that will backfire on Republicans if they do not help remove him from office.

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., and his colleagues attempted to drive this argument home Friday to sway a handful of Republican senators whose position on gathering further evidence will determine the arc and scope of the trial. Yet there were few signs that any Republican was persuaded, leaving open the matter of possible witness testimony and further dampening Democrats' already meager hopes of a conviction in the GOP-controlled Senate.

Schiff's pointed and increasingly personal approach was an attempt to go beyond the specifics of House Democrats' case to make the broader argument that Trump is an untrustworthy president who is likely to repeatedly flout the Constitution if allowed to stay in office.

"It goes to character," Schiff said. "You don't realize how important character is in the highest office in the land until you don't have it."

The Democrats' closing statements were their final appeal to senators before the next phase of the trial: an aggressive rebuttal from Trump's lawyers that will kick off Saturday and continue in earnest on Monday.

Speaking Friday on the Senate floor - hours after new evidence emerged of Trump's campaign to oust the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine starting in 2018 - Schiff predicted that Trump's future behavior would vindicate Democrats' claim that he abused his power, and warned Republicans the president, now their ally, could ultimately turn on them.

"Do you think for a moment that any of you - no matter what your relationship with this president, no matter how close you are to this president - do you think for a moment that if he felt it was in his interest, he wouldn't ask you to be investigated?," he asked.

The remarks concluded the House managers' case for the first article of impeachment, which charges Trump with abuse of power over his withholding of military aid and an Oval Office meeting from Ukraine to pressure the country's leaders into announcing investigations into Trump's political rivals. These included former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden, who served on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company, while his father was in office. The managers spent the rest of the day detailing their case for the second article of impeachment - obstruction of Congress, following Trump's barring the executive branch from cooperating with the House investigation.

The Senate will reconvene Saturday at 10 a.m. for several hours of what Trump's lawyer Jay Sekulow described as "coming attractions" from his side - a preview of the pro-Trump case before the full-scale presentation begins Monday. The timetable is aimed at garnering peak television viewership - a priority for Trump as he faces the third presidential impeachment trial in U.S. history - though Sekulow also said that his side would not use its full 24-hour time allotment for defending Trump.

"We're not going to try to run the clock out," he said this week.

Democrats faced continued criticism from Republicans that their presentations were tedious and difficult to follow.

"I just thought yesterday was like, too much," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., calling the remarks repetitive and "mind-numbing." "This needs to end. They've had an opportunity to make their case."

While many Republicans echoed the view that the trial has been repetitive, every member of the Senate GOP caucus has voted against hearing from new witnesses or collecting new evidence.

It was clear when the trial resumed at 1 p.m. on Friday afternoon that Schiff heeded some of Republicans' complaints: rather than speaking for hours at a time, the managers presented in shorter spurts, rotating more often and punctuating their remarks with more video clips.

After Trump's defense concludes, mostly likely on Monday, the trial will enter a question-and-answer phase that will last for up to 16 hours. This is expected to take place Tuesday and Wednesday, followed by a debate Thursday over whether to seek testimony from witnesses. Democrats are pushing for former national security adviser John Bolton and acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney to appear, while most Republicans have shot down the idea of hearing from witnesses. But they have said that if Democrats secure the votes to subpoena any of their choices, the GOP will push for Joe or Hunter Biden to appear.

Democrats need four Republicans to join them in any attempt to secure new testimony or evidence and the senators being targeted have been careful to say that they have made no decision - while giving no indication they are moving closer to supporting any subpoenas.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., one of the most closely watched Republican senators, said Friday that the House managers had "presented us with a mountain of overwhelming evidence," though it was unclear which way he was leaning on the question of hearing more.

Alexander told reporters that he will make his decision on admitting witnesses and other new evidence only after the White House defense team makes its case.

"I think that question can only be answered then," he said. "We've been polite to the House managers, listened to them carefully, and now we're going to do the same with the president's lawyers. I think the House managers have done a good job of making their arguments. But that doesn't mean I will agree with them."

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, raised the prospect that a Senate trial could drag on for months if Trump administration witnesses are called, arguing that the issue of executive privilege would have to be litigated in the courts.

"This could tie up the Senate through the election and even beyond as the courts litigate these claims," Cornyn said during an appearance on conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt's syndicated radio show. "We'll wait and see, but right now, I'm not for extending this for months and months while claims of privilege and the like are litigated in the courts."

The question of whether the Senate will seek more evidence was heightened Friday by a new Washington Post-ABC News poll revealing that a majority of American adults, 66 percent, support the Senate calling new witnesses to testify, as opposed to 27 percent who don't.

ABC News also reported Friday that it reviewed a recording of Trump at a private dinner telling associates that he wanted then-U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch gone, a reminder of the evidence yet to be uncovered about Trump's actions.

"Get rid of her! Get her out tomorrow. I don't care. Get her out tomorrow. Take her out. OK? Do it," Trump is heard saying, according to ABC News.

Schiff challenged the Senate to call the administration's bluff on whether witnesses would be limited from testifying by executive privilege and let Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., who is presiding over the trial, make those calls.

Calling executive privilege "the last refuge of the president's team to conceal the evidence from the American people," Schiff argued that Roberts should "decide issues of evidence and privilege" whenever witnesses or the president claim it, but that the assumption Trump will try to silence certain witnesses by claiming executive privilege should not keep the Senate from calling them to testify.

"The Senate will always have the opportunity to overrule the justice," Schiff said to reporters, adding that "you cannot use executive privilege to hide wrongdoing or criminality or impeachable misconduct, and that is exactly the purpose for which they seek to use it."

After Roberts scolded both sides for overheated rhetoric late Tuesday night, Democrats took pains to tone down their accusations against Trump and his supporters in the Senate.

Yet Schiff also sharpened his case on Friday, arguing that Republicans trust Trump at their own peril.

He invoked the late senator John McCain, R-Ariz., in arguing about the strategic importance of Ukraine as a U.S. ally and quoted him as saying, "We are all Ukrainians."

And he made a lengthy case that Trump's skepticism about the conclusions of U.S. intelligence services - particularly about Russian interference in the 2016 election - represents a "coup" for Russia.

"Has there ever been such a coup? I would submit to you that in the entire length of the Cold War, the Soviet Union had no such success. No such success," Schiff said. "... I hope it was worth it. I hope it was worth it for the president. Because it certainly wasn't worth it for the United States."

Trump's defenders are focused on Biden's push to oust former Ukraine prosecutor-general Viktor Shokin, who was overseeing a probe of the Ukrainian gas company Burisma and its owner at the same time that Biden's son was serving as a member of the company's board.

Biden's actions were in line with official U.S. and European policy at the time - a consensus that Shokin was involved in corrupt schemes and needed to be removed.

Democrats detailed these facts on Thursday with the awareness that Trump's legal team was likely to focus on them during their defense of the president.

The president's aides and allies continued to portray the trial as a waste of time and one that is not capturing the public's attention.

"As you've seen, the ratings keep going down every day in terms of viewers," White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said on Fox News. "I think that next week, we need to get this over with so we can get on with the business of the country."

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The Washington Post's Michael Brice-Saddler, Scott Clement, Colby Itkowitz and John Wagner contributed to this report.

This article was written by Elise Viebeck, Karoun Demirjian and Mike DeBonis, reporters for The Washington Post.

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