House lawmakers on the Judiciary Committee clashed in prime time Wednesday night over the propriety of President Trump‘s conduct in Ukraine, highlighting the deep gulf between the parties a day before the panel is poised to pass a pair of resolutions to impeach him.
The historic launch of the two-day markup of impeachment articles – while rife with partisan finger-pointing – was also uniquely disciplined; lawmakers from both parties largely shed the impromptu barbs that had marked earlier hearings and instead moved swiftly through prepared statements invoking the Constitution, the Bible and the founding fathers to advance their conflicting arguments over the gravity of Trump’s pressure campaign on Ukrainian leaders.
The rapid back-and forth carried the tone of closing arguments, as Democrats sought to portray Trump as a lawless figure who abused his power for personal political gain — a breach of the Constitution demanding a congressional response.
“One indisputable truth has emerged: If we do not respond to President Trump’s abuses, the abuses will continue,” Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said at the start of the hearing, which was held in the House Ways and Means Committee room. “If our elections are corrupt, everything is corrupt.”
Republicans countered in kind, with accusations that Democrats had rammed the process through in order to oust a president they can’t remove electorally, while distorting the underlying facts to achieve that “preordained” political goal.
“The big lie that we are hearing perpetrated tonight is [that] the end justifies the means,” said Rep. Doug Collins (Ga.), senior Republican on the committee.
Unlike previous hearings which focused on the Intelligence Committee’s investigation into the Ukraine affair, Judiciary Democrats shifted their strategy from laying out evidence that Trump is a lawless president to imploring their Republican colleagues to join them and put country over party.
“The people don’t vote on impeachment, Congress does. So before I close, I want to speak directly to my Republican friends: Wake up,” said Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), who heads Democrats’ messaging arm. “Do what you were elected to do.”
But Republicans, who remain unified in opposing impeachment, fought to flip the script, saying it wasn’t Trump who abused his power and obstructed justice, but the Democrats, for orchestrating a process that denied the president a fair defense.
“This is the quickest, thinnest, weakest, most partisan impeachment in all of American presidential history,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.). “For all of the radical-left syntax on the president’s honesty, it is their lies that continue to fuel this scorched-earth strategy of impeachment.”
GOP members also warned that House Democrats were setting a dangerous precedent that will come back to haunt them when the scales of power next tip in Republican favor.
“They are setting a precedent which they will likely one day be the victims of themselves,” said Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio), a senior member on the committee who was an impeachment manager during the GOP-impeachment of President Bill Clinton.
Wednesday’s markup represented a pivotal moment in the Democrats’ hard-charging impeachment inquiry, launched just 11 weeks ago after an anonymous government whistleblower accused Trump of abusing his power by pressuring Ukraine to open politically-beneficial investigations.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who had resisted impeachment for much of the year, pivoted in late September to open the inquiry. After weeks of investigation by the Intelligence panel, the process moved early this month to the Judiciary Committee, which on Tuesday introduced two articles accusing Trump of abusing power and obstructing Congress.
The Judiciary Committee will resume the markup Thursday morning, when Republicans are expected to introduce a long list of amendments likely to extend the proceeding deep into the day, ahead of final votes on the two articles.
With both sides unyielding, the resolutions will likely pass along strict party lines, sending them to the full House, which is expected to vote on them next week.
Passage in the House would make Trump just the third president in the nation’s history to be impeached. In a country fiercely divided over Trump’s fitness for office, the historic process all but ensures that the impeachment debate will play an outsized role in 2020 races far outside the presidential contest — a dynamic of lingering concern for vulnerable Democrats in battleground districts.
“All of this, at the end of the day, is not going to matter. Because … it’s going to go to the Senate, and at the end of the day the Senate’s going to say he’s not guilty,” said Rep. Jeff Van Drew (D-N.J.), who has vowed to oppose the articles on the floor. “Then he is going to speak about that — a lot.”
With much at stake, Democrats sought to use Wednesday’s markup to appeal to undecided and independent voters by invoking their personal life stories about a democratic country that has provided them the opportunity to achieve the American dream — and why they feel removing Trump is a necessary move to protect it.
“I’m a black man representing Georgia, born when Jim Crow was alive and well,” said Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.). “To me, the idea that elections can be undermined is not theoretical.
“I have constituents who remember what it’s like to live in a democracy in name only, and they can tell you what it’s like when powerful men undermine fair and free elections,” he continued.
Perhaps the most personal story came from freshman Rep. Lucy McBath (D-Ga.), who detailed how her son was shot and killed at a Florida gas station in 2012.
McBath, who is facing a tough reelection, announced her support for the impeachment articles Wednesday night, emphasizing that she did not come to Washington to remove a president, but nevertheless must vote her “conscience” after considering the president’s actions towards Kyiv.
“I do so with a heavy heart and a grieving soul,” she said.
However, it remains unclear whether their appeals will resonate outside the Beltway.
Polls in recent weeks indicate that the country is split on whether or not to impeach Trump, with those supporting his removal hovering roughly 1 percentage point above those who oppose such a move.
Amid the uncertain public attitude towards impeachment, Republicans have stepped up their attacks on vulnerable Democrats fighting for reelection in 2020 by targeting dozens of battleground districts with attack ads.
GOP lawmakers are also feeling more confident in their 2020 re-election prospects as the sentiment of impeachment reverberates throughout the country. Some warned Wednesday that Democrats do not need to wait to see how history will judge their hasty push to remove Trump from office; they only need to wait until the next election.
“The chairman and members of this committee keep saying that history will judge our decisions,” said freshman Rep. Greg Steube (R-Fla.). “I would offer that your decisions and that of your colleagues in the majority will be judged much sooner than history, they will be judged by the voters in November 2020, and I guess we will see who is on the right side of history.”
But Democrats say that they must put aside political considerations in order to protect the founding principles of the country.
“We have an opportunity to show the world that in the United States, nobody is above the law,” said Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), “including President Trump.”
Maggie Miller contributed.