The impeachment inquiry into US President Donald Trump reached a critical juncture yesterday when lawmakers launched their first televised public hearings, marking a new, high-stakes phase of proceedings that could determine the fate of his tumultuous presidency.
Democrats leading the House of Representatives probe had summoned three US diplomats - all of whom have previously expressed alarm in closed-door testimony about Trump's dealings with Ukraine - to detail their concerns under the glare of wall-to-wall news coverage.
Trump's fellow Republicans, meanwhile, have crafted a defense strategy that will argue he did nothing wrong when he asked Ukraine's new president to investigate Joe Biden, a former vice president and key 2020 re-election rival.
Both sides will be playing to a sharply polarized electorate as they move deeper into a six-week-old investigation that has shadowed Trump's presidency with the threat of being removed from office even as he campaigns for a second term.
It has been two decades since Americans last witnessed impeachment proceedings against a president, and this is the first of the social media era. Republicans, who then controlled the House, brought impeachment charges against Democratic President Bill Clinton in a scandal involving his sexual relationship with a White House intern. The Senate ultimately voted to keep Clinton in office.
Though no president has ever been removed from office by impeachment, that has not deterred Democrats, who are looking into whether Trump abused his power by withholding nearly US$400 million (HK$3.12 billion)in security assistance to Ukraine to pressure the vulnerable US ally. The focus is a July 25 phone call in which Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to open a corruption investigation into Biden and his son and into a discredited theory that Ukraine may have meddled in the 2016 US elections.
Trump has denied any wrongdoing, derided some of the current and former officials who have appeared before committees as "Never Trumpers" and branded the probe a witch hunt aimed at hurting his re-election chances.
Hours before the hearing, he tweeted comments from conservative media supporters calling the proceedings a sham.