US Democratic House prosecutors concluded their final arguments on Friday at Donald Trump’s impeachment trial, arguing the president would continue to abuse his position ahead of the 2020 election unless Congress intervenes to remove him from office.
The wrap-up came as congressional investigators were handed an explosive 2018 recording of Mr Trump ordering the removal of the US ambassador to Ukraine, whose withdrawal a year later has become an issue in the trial.
“He is who he is,” Representative Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told senators in the hearing, accusing Mr Trump of putting the US-Ukraine relationship on the line in a way that benefited Russia just so he could take a political “cheap shot” at Joe Biden.
“You cannot leave a man like that in office,” Mr Schiff said. “You know it’s not going to stop. It’s not going to stop unless the Congress does something about it.”
The Democratic prosecutors ended their three days of presentations before Republican senators on Friday night.
The president’s legal team was expected to start tabling their defence on Saturday morning.
Mr Trump, eyes on the audience beyond the Senate chamber, bemoaned the schedule in a tweet, saying “looks like my lawyers will be forced to start on Saturday, which is called Death Valley in T.V.”
The president is being tried in the Senate after the House impeached him last month, accusing him of abusing his office by asking Ukraine for politically motivated probes of political foe Joe Biden and Mr Biden’s son while withholding military aid from a US ally that was at war with bordering Russia.
The second article of impeachment accuses him of obstructing Congress by refusing to turn over documents or allow officials to testify in the House probe.
READ THE TRANSCRIPTS!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 24, 2020
The drama surrounding the trial took another twist on Friday night when ABC News reported the story about the recording of Mr Trump speaking to a small group of people at an April 2018 dinner at his Washington hotel.
Mr Trump reportedly demanded the removal of US ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, who was withdrawl from her post a year later.
ABC said a speaker who appears to be Mr Trump says on the recording: “Get rid of her! Get her out tomorrow. I don’t care. Get her out tomorrow. Take her out. OK? Do it.”
The recording has been provided to congressional investigators by Lev Parnas, an associate of Mr Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani. Mr Parnas was reportedly among the group speaking with Mr Trump when the recording was made.
Ms Yovanovitch, who was viewed as an obstacle to investigations into Mr Biden and his son Hunter, has said the decision to recall her from her position was based on “unfounded and false claims by people with clearly questionable motives” that she was disloyal to Mr Trump.
The recording also appears to contradict the president’s statements that he did not know Mr Parnas, a key figure in the investigation.
The Associated Press reported on Friday night that the recording has now been given by Mr Parnas’s lawyer to the House Intelligence Committee, whose chairman Mr Schiff is helping lead the impeachment proceedings.
The White House denied any suggestion of presidential wrongdoing.
“Every president in our history has had the right to place people who support his agenda and his policies within his administration,” White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said.
Republicans have defended Mr Trump’s actions as appropriate and are casting the process as a politically motivated effort to weaken him in his reelection campaign.
Republicans hold a 53-47 majority in the Senate, and acquittal is considered likely.
The Senate is heading next week toward a pivotal vote on Democratic demands for testimony from top Trump aides, including acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and former national security adviser John Bolton who refused to appear before the House.
It would take four Republican senators to join the Democratic minority to seek witnesses, and so far the numbers appear lacking.
“This needs to end,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, a Trump confidant. He said he does not want to hear from Mr Bolton or the Bidens.
With Chief Justice John Roberts presiding, Friday’s arguments opened with Democrats wrapping up their presentation on the first article of impeachment, abuse of power, before turning to the second, obstruction of Congress.
The Democrats relied on the words of the late Republican Senator John McCain to explain to senators why Mr Trump’s decision to block the military aid to Ukraine was so “disturbing”, as Mr Schiff put it.
It wasn’t just a policy dispute, Mr Schiff argued, but “one hell of a Russian intelligence coup” as Mr Trump chased “kooky” theories about Ukraine pushed by Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani that benefited Vladimir Putin at US expense.
“This is Trump first. Not America first,” Mr Schiff declared.
A new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Centre for Public Affairs Research showed the public slightly more likely to say the Senate should convict and remove Mr Trump from office than to say it should not, 45% to 40%.
But a sizable percentage, 14%, said they did not know enough to have an opinion.