WASHINGTON ― For the third time in history, the House of Representatives impeached the president, placing a permanent asterisk next to the name of Donald J. Trump and setting the stage for a Senate trial on removal.
House lawmakers voted Wednesday evening in favour of impeaching Trump for abuse of power. The House is also voting on a second article — obstruction of Congress — and is expected to impeach the president on that charge as well.
The House then voted 229-198 to impeach Trump on a second article, obstruction of Congress, with every member voting the same way except for Rep. Jared Golden (D-Maine), who voted with Republicans on that charge.
“December 18: A great day for the Constitution of the United States. A sad one for America that the president’s reckless activities necessitated our having to introduce articles of impeachment,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said during a news briefing shortly after the votes were tallied. “I could not be prouder or more inspired by the moral courage of the House Democrats.”
Trump learned of the news while onstage at a rally in Michigan on Wednesday night, and launched into a vitriol-filled tirade against Democrats, who he said were conducting a “lawless” effort that would be a “political suicide march.”
“Every single Republican voted for us,” Trump said. “We didn’t lose one Republican vote.”
Democrats accused the president of corruptly soliciting a foreign government to investigate one of his chief political rivals, former Vice President Joe Biden, and conditioning $391 million of security aid on the launch of that investigation.
They also charged Trump with “unprecedented, categorical and indiscriminate defiance” as the House sought to investigate his behaviour. The White House refused to turn over any documents related to the impeachment inquiry, and a number of Trump administration officials ignored subpoenas to testify.
The key evidence supporting Democrats’ charge is a July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. During that call, which took place as US military aid to Ukraine was suspended, Trump asked Zelensky to “do us a favour” and look into supposed Ukrainian interference in the 2016 US election — a debunked conspiracy theory — as well as investigating Joe Biden and his son Hunter. Republicans view a rough transcript of the call as exculpatory, while Democrats see it as obviously damning.
“In America, no one is above the law,” House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff said on the floor Wednesday. “Donald J. Trump sacrificed our national security in an effort to cheat in the next election. And for that and his continued efforts to seek foreign interference in our elections, he must be impeached.”
Democrats sought to maintain a somber tone. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who wore all black, reported at the beginning of the day that she was “sad” and said on the floor that Trump “gave us no choice.”
“If we do not act now, we would be derelict in our duty,” Pelosi said. “It is tragic that the president’s reckless actions make impeachment necessary.”
Time and again, Democrats offered that this was a solemn occasion. At least a half-dozen Democrats described the impeachment as a “sad day.” They avoided taking victory laps.
But the day was still marked by partisanship.
On the Republican side, GOP members offered unhinged defenses of the president. They railed against Democrats over the process — at one point, Barry Loudermilk claimed that Jesus Christ had received more due process than Trump — and they accused Democrats of having decided to impeach the president even before he took office.
This “weaponised impeachment” was brought upon the House by “the same socialists who threaten unborn life in the womb, who threaten First Amendment rights of conservatives, who threaten Second Amendment protections of every American patriot, and who have long ago determined that they would organise and conspire to overthrow President Trump,” Louisiana’s Clay Higgins said.
As he walked away from the lectern on the House floor, fellow Republicans thanked Higgins. “Good speech,” said Peter King.
The Trump defense offered by Louie Gohmert included the claim that then-President Barack Obama had enticed Russia to invade Ukraine, which prompted House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler to say it was concerning to see a member “spout Russian propaganda on the floor of the House.”
Representative for Michigan Tim Walberg argued that history would not be kind to Democrats. “You are the ones interfering in America’s election,” he said. “You are the ones subverting America’s democracy. You are the ones obstructing justice. You are the ones bringing pain and suffering to our republic for your own selfish personal, political and partisan gain.”
And it wasn’t just the GOP’s fringe members who offered frenzied arguments. The fringe has taken over the Republican Party. It seemed on Wednesday that every GOP member who came to the floor was accusing Democrats of a “sham impeachment” or a “complete charade” or a “kangaroo court.”
Republicans presented the process as completely political while failing to acknowledge their own political motivations for defending Trump. Even as Rep. Guy Reschenthaler decried impeachment as a “political hit job,” he said he would happily impeach Adam Schiff for abuse of power and Democrats in general for obstruction.
Bill Johnson asked for a moment of silence for the 63 million voters who were being “disenfranchised” by impeachment. He did not note that Hillary Clinton received nearly 66 million votes in the 2016 election. And as Nadler pointed out at one point when another Republican said Democrats were trying to undo the election, Vice President Mike Pence would simply become president if Trump were impeached and removed from office.
Bizarrely, Republicans in the chamber cheered at that line.
Republicans made sport of jeering at a number of lines near the end of the debate. When Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said “Democrats did not choose this impeachment, we did not wish for it,” Republicans groaned.
When Hoyer noted there was only one member who spoke on the floor who was not a Republican or a Democrat — Justin Amash of Michigan, an independent — Amash’s former GOP colleagues sneered at his name, too.
In truth, Trump faces little threat of being removed from office. Senate Republicans seem determined to quickly acquit the president, perhaps without even hearing from witnesses. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has made no secret of his view that impeachment is political. “I’m not an impartial juror,” McConnell said this week, adding that he’s been taking cues on a Senate trial from the White House.
McConnell declared last week that there was “no chance” the president would be removed from office, and he said Tuesday that the chamber would not call any new witnesses, despite a request from Democrats to subpoena Trump aides who have so far refused to testify. McConnell said that Democrats hadn’t given “one solid reason” why more officials should be called before lawmakers.
But Democrats decided it was important to take such a historic vote even though it seems certain to have little impact on Trump’s behaviour.
Only two other American presidents have been impeached: Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998. Johnson and Clinton were each acquitted in the Senate. President Richard Nixon was on the cusp of being impeached in 1974, but he resigned before a vote as a bipartisan tide of lawmakers turned against him over the Watergate scandal.
The historic nature of the vote on Wednesday was clear. When Democrats gave floor speeches, many addressed their words to their children and grandchildren. After Rep. Joe Kennedy said that justice had won ― that the House had done its job, kept its word and stood its ground ― he added, “I love you. Listen to mom.”
Lawmakers seemed to recognise that their words might define them for the rest of their lives. In that spirit, many Democrats adopted a loftier tone.
“We are being tested on something greater than our ability to toe a party line,” said House Rules Chairman Jim McGovern. “Something more than our ability to score the next great television soundbite. This is a democracy-defining moment.”