US President Donald Trump has defended a series of controversial photographs ahead of the Senate impeachment trial on whether to remove him from office.
The trial began on Thursday (local time) after the House of Representatives voted to impeach him over a charge of abusing his power by trying to pressure Ukraine to investigate a political rival.
House prosecutors may call Lev Parnas, an associate of Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, if the Senate permits testimony in the trial.
Documents released this week indicated Parnas, a Ukraine-born US citizen, helped Giuliani investigate political rival Joe Biden and son Hunter, and was also involved in monitoring the movements of former US Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch before Trump removed her in May.
In an interview with Reuters, Giuliani said he pushed Trump to fire Yovanovitch, but did not know if Parnas put her under surveillance.
Giuliani said he was disappointed with Parnas' decision to cooperate with impeachment investigators.
"I considered him a friend and I considered him to be a man who had character and now I consider him to be a man who will say whatever his phoney lawyer wants him to say," Giuliani said.
Parnas told MSNBC on Wednesday Trump knew "exactly what was going on" and his lawyer has released several photos of Parnas with the president.
But speaking to reporters at the White House, Trump strongly denied knowing Parnas and called the whole thing a “hoax”.
“I don’t know him at all, don’t know what he’s about, don’t know where he comes from know nothing about him,” Trump told reporters, according to CNN.
“I can only tell you this thing is a big hoax.”
CNN reports Trump said on Wednesday he didn’t believe he’d ever spoken to Parnas.
“Perhaps he’s a fine man. Perhaps he’s not,” the president said.
Trump went on to defend a series of photographs of Parnas and the president, saying he took thousands of pictures with people he didn’t know at fundraisers.
“I don’t need the help of a man that I never met before other than perhaps taking a picture at a fundraiser,” he said.
The impeachment trial, only the third such undertaken in American history, is unfolding at the start of the election year, a time of deep political division in the nation.
Four of the senators sitting in judgment on Trump are running for the Democratic Party’s nomination to challenge him in the fall.
– with Reuters
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