Battle for witnesses looms as defense rests in Trump trial
Moses Robinson, Getty Images North America, AFP | File photo of Hunter Biden

US President Donald Trump's lawyers accused Democrats Tuesday of bringing politically motivated charges in his Senate impeachment trial in an attempt to reverse the 2016 election result, closing their defense with a call for a speedy acquittal.

But the trial was bogged down in a battle over whether former national security advisor John Bolton will be called to testify against his old boss, and Republican counter-threats to subpoena Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden and his son Hunter.

"What they are asking you to do is to throw out a successful president, on the eve of an election, with no basis and in violation of the constitution," Trump's lead counsel Pat Cipollone said at the end of defense arguments.

"The American people are entitled to choose their president," he told the senators sitting as the jury. "We urge the Senate to reject these articles of impeachment."

- Low bar -

Trump is accused of cheating in his 2020 reelection effort by pressuring vulnerable ally Ukraine to announce investigations into both Bidens and a debunked Russian conspiracy theory that Kiev helped the Democrats in 2016.

AFP/File / Sergei GAPON Former national security advisor John Bolton could be asked to testify in the impeachment trial against his former boss, President Donald Trump

His Democratic opponents say the president froze vital military aid to Ukraine for two months in summer to pressure President Volodymyr Zelensky to publicly announce the probes, illicitly drawing a foreign nation into US electoral politics.

Over their three-day defense before the Senate's 100 members, Trump's lawyers mostly steered clear of those specific allegations.

Instead they argued that the impeachment case was rooted in "policy differences" and that the charges against him, abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, are too weak and thinly-sourced to justify his removal from office.

They said a conviction would set a precedent for US politics that would result in retribution-driven political battles for years to come.

"The bar for impeachment cannot be set this low," said Jay Sekulow, another Trump lawyer.

"If partisan impeachment is now the rule of the day... future presidents -- Democrats, Republicans -- will be paralyzed the moment they are elected," he said.

- Battle over Bolton -

The trial, which began eight days ago, turns now to senators submitting written questions to the prosecution and defense through presiding Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts over the next two days.

AFP/File / STEPHEN MATUREN Republicans say they could demand that Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden testify

Both sides were gearing for a fight on Friday over calling witnesses, after the bombshell news that a draft of Bolton's forthcoming book offers direct evidence of Trump's wrongdoing.

Bolton reportedly says Trump told him in August that aid to Ukraine, totaling almost $400 million, would stay frozen until Zelensky announces the two investigations.

Trump and his allies have denounced the longtime US diplomat whom Trump fired last September.

"The Witch Hunt continues!" Trump tweeted.

But John Kelly, Trump's second hire as White House chief of staff who lasted around 18 months, declared Tuesday that he trusts Bolton on the matter.

"If John Bolton says that in the book, I believe John Bolton," he said in Florida.

The witness issue threatens to extend the trial beyond what Republicans, who hold a 53-47 majority in the Senate, expected would be a rapid vote to exonerate Trump by this weekend.

Democrats need four Republicans to join them in voting to call witnesses, and after the revelations of Bolton's book, it appeared that threshold could be met.

"I think it's increasingly likely that other Republicans will join those of us who think we should hear from John Bolton," said Utah Senator Mitt Romney.

- 'A lot of witnesses' -

AFP / Jonathan WALTER John Bolton

Adam Schiff, the Democrat leading the House prosecution team in the trail, said calling Bolton was essential for a fair trial.

"Are we going to get a fair trial or not? Is the Senate going to hear from someone everyone knows is a key and important witness to the most egregious of the president's conduct, or are we not?" he said after Tuesday's hearing.

Republicans -- who have leveled vague accusations of corruption at the Bidens without offering any details or evidence -- said they would demand that the father and son testify in exchange.

Democrats believe Republicans would use the appearance to smear the former vice president, a favorite to win the Democratic Party's presidential nomination and challenge Trump for the White House.

Senator Lindsey Graham, one of Trump's staunchest defenders, said they would call multiple witnesses, including the whistleblower whose complaint sparked the investigation into Trump's Ukraine dealings, and a Democratic consultant with Ukraine ties.

"If people want witnesses, we're going to get a lot of witnesses. This idea of calling one and one makes zero sense to me," Graham said Tuesday.