House Democrats took the historic step Wednesday of impeaching President Trump, a momentous move that will send long-lasting reverberations throughout the Capitol and the country, both already fiercely divided over the truculent figure in the Oval Office.
The two articles, which charge Trump with abusing power in his dealings with Ukraine and obstructing Congress in their investigation of those actions, passed almost exclusively along party lines, marking the most sectarian and contentious of the three presidential impeachments since the nation’s founding — and the first to target a president in his first term.
Lawmakers voted 230 to 197 on the resolution accusing Trump of abusing his power, with all Republicans opposed and only two Democrats — Reps. Collin Peterson (Minn.) and Jefferson Van Drew (N.J.) — crossing the aisle in dissent. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii), a Democratic presidential candidate, voted “present.”
The second article, alleging obstruction, passed along near-identical lines, with lawmakers voting 229-198 approving it and Gabbard voting “present.” Republicans were again unanimous in rejecting the measure, while a third Democrat, Rep. Jared Golden (Maine), joined Peterson and Van Drew in opposition.
The votes marked the culmination of the Democrats’ months-long investigation into Trump’s handling of foreign policy towards Kyiv, triggered in September by a government whistleblower’s allegations that the president had threatened national security in withholding military aid and the promise of a White House meeting to press Ukrainian leaders to find dirt on his political rivals.
Dressed in black to mark the somber occasion, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) framed the extraordinary maneuver as a congressional obligation — the Constitution’s Hail Mary remedy for protecting America’s democratic institutions from a lawless president who would seek foreign help to sway a U.S. election.
“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,” she added. “He gave us no choice.”
Republicans countered with equal vigor, defending their White House ally with accusations that Democrats had orchestrated a discriminatory process that exaggerated the evidence and denied Trump a fair defense.
“What we’ve seen is a process that’s led to the most partisan and least credible impeachment in the history of America,” said Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), the House minority leader. “After three years of breathless outrage, this is their last attempt to stop the Trump presidency.”
With much at stake and the TV cameras rolling, lawmakers from both parties dug deep into their rhetorical closets to mark the historic debate, invoking the Founding Fathers, Jesus and the crucifixion, Pearl Harbor and Maya Angelou — among a long list of other cultural touchstones — to make their case.
The facts underlying the impeachment debate are not seriously contested. Beginning early this year, Trump and his allies had pressed Ukrainian leaders to open two investigations that might have helped him politically: one into the son of former Vice President Joe Biden, a 2020 presidential hopeful; and another into debunked theories that it was Kyiv, not Moscow, that had meddled in the 2016 election. Amid that pressure campaign, the administration temporarily withheld almost $400 million in U.S. aid to Ukraine, which is fighting Russian aggression in eastern parts of the country.
Where the parties diverge is on the question of whether that conduct represents a flagrant abuse of power, as Democrats argue, or a routine effort to protect U.S. taxpayer dollars from being frittered by a country long known for corruption, as Republicans maintain.
“He has laid siege to the foundation of our democracy: our electoral process,” said Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.).
“This impeachment will not just be a stain on this Democrat majority’s legacy — it will be their only legacy,” countered Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), the minority whip.
The debate was largely civil; lawmakers from both sides — so far apart on the merits of the impeachment effort — seemed to agree on the historical significance of the moment.
But there were also some flare-ups, most notably when Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) promoted the conspiracy theory that Ukraine had interfered in the 2016 election, in addition to Russia. All of America’s intelligence agencies have determined that Russia was the culprit, and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) wasted no time lambasting the claim.
“I’m concerned that any representative of the United States would spout Russian propaganda on House floor,” he said.
Gohmert marched back to the podium and sought to shout over the banging of the gavel in response to the accusation fired against him, but his yells were drowned out by demands that the House return to order.
Throughout the impeachment investigation, Trump has bashed the process as a politically motivated “witch hunt” designed to undo the 2016 election results. As the impeachment debate raged on the House floor Wednesday, he lashed out on Twitter to amplify those charges.
“SUCH ATROCIOUS LIES BY THE RADICAL LEFT, DO NOTHING DEMOCRATS,” he wrote. “THIS IS AN ASSAULT ON AMERICA, AND AN ASSAULT ON THE REPUBLICAN PARTY!!!”
What effect Trump’s rallying cry had on the debate is unclear, but Republicans gained more gusto as the day wore on, responding at times en masse with boos, groans or other knee-jerk reactions at the later statements from the Democrats.
Wednesday’s debate ran for six hours equally divided between the parties and featuring some of the key players in the months-long impeachment investigation.
Nadler, who returned to D.C. despite an ongoing family emergency, led the first round, jousting with the committee’s top Republican, Rep. Doug Collins (Ga.). The second half of the debate fell to the leaders of the Intelligence Committee — Reps. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) — who sparred in familiar fashion over the propriety of Trump’s pressure campaign in Ukraine.
Yet it was Pelosi, a historic figure in her own right, who was on center stage. The Speaker, who spent hours on the House floor as the sides traded barbs, had managed all facets of the process, from the launch of the inquiry in September, to dictating which committees would take the lead, to deciding what charges would eventually be brought, and how many.
One Democratic lawmaker who spoke on the floor Wednesday said Pelosi’s office had even screened each lawmaker speech prior to delivery.
“We needed to stay on message,” the lawmaker said.
Wednesday’s votes send the two articles to the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said he’ll hold an impeachment trial early next year. It’s widely expected that the GOP-controlled Senate will fall far short of the two-thirds majority required to convict Trump, meaning he will almost certainly join the small club of presidents — including Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton — to be impeached but remain in office.
Passage of the two articles was secured after dozens of moderate Democrats facing tough reelections — lawmakers who were wary of impeachment for much of the year — jumped on board after the details of the Ukraine affair emerged through the investigation.
One Democratic lawmaker described such votes as “seismic,” warning that there will be some blowback at the polls in 2020.
“Some of them are going to lose,” the lawmaker said.
Both parties agreed the votes were historic, but clashed wildly over what legacy would be left. Republicans warned that impeachment will become the new normal: a political cudgel to grab anytime the president and the House are of opposing parties.
“There is a rush-job … because they want to influence the 2020 elections,” said Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), who served as a manager during the Clinton impeachment.
Democrats had a different view of history, offering their own cautionary tales of future presidents run amok because Congress failed to impeach Trump.
“I remind my friends that he will not be the last president, and you may one day be in the majority, and what will you say when have no oversight over them?” said Schiff.
“What will you say?”