In a grave repudiation of President Donald Trump’s conduct, the House Judiciary Committee voted Friday to send articles of impeachment to the full House, marking only the fourth time a president has faced such a move.
The morning move toward impeaching the President set the stage for a historic vote by the House next week.
Though Democrats are facing at least two defections within their caucus on the politically fraught vote, it is now almost a foregone conclusion that the Democratically-controlled House will impeach Trump.
Members will consider two charges against Trump approved by the committee Friday. The first article of impeachment accuses the President of abusing his power by withholding military aid and a White House meeting while pressuring Ukraine’s President to investigate his political rival. The second accuses Trump of obstructing Congress by thwarting the House’s investigative efforts.
That vote sets the course for proceedings in the Republican-led Senate where the President had hoped to see an expansive trial that he believed would exonerate him from what he views as a sham proceeding against him.
But even as Trump’s lead White House counsel Pat Cipollone met with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Capitol Hill Thursday to discuss those details, all indications pointed toward a short and swift Senate trial that would quickly dispatch the charges against the President.
While no final decisions have been made, McConnell and Cipollone agreed that when a trial begins, the House Democratic impeachment managers would have an opportunity to present, followed by Trump’s lawyers presenting the President’s defense, sources said.
Two senators told CNN that McConnell is leaning toward a procedural framework that would allow senators to fully acquit the President, clearing Trump of all charges against him, instead of simply dismissing them. The Constitution requires 67 votes to convict the President and remove him from office. There is no evidence that Democrats can get anywhere close to that number.
Trump’s lawyers have been trying to convince him that a lengthy trial is risky, a source familiar with the White House discussions told CNN’s Jim Acosta Thursday.
“You just don’t know what’s going to erupt,” the source said.
The political cloud hanging over both parties was evident throughout Thursday’s spirited 14-hour debate over amendments to the two articles of impeachment. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler abruptly ended the hearing before midnight on Thursday and delayed the vote until Friday morning. The articles were backed along party lines during the efficient Friday morning meeting.
Democrats tried to maintain an air of solemnity during the proceedings, but the hearing often devolved into the theatrics and jockeying for political advantage at a time when public opinion on impeachment has stagnated.
Democratic and Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee presented diametrically different views of the President’s conduct Thursday, underscoring the deep polarization that Trump’s presidency has wrought on this nation.
Criticizing Trump for flouting congressional subpoenas and refusing to hand over information critical to their investigation, Democrats argued that impeachment was a much-needed check on a tyrannical executive who behaved like a king as he sought to undermine a US election.
In one fiery moment, Maryland Rep. Jamie Raskin chided Republicans for corralling the debate into process arguments and conspiracy theories, like the false claim that Ukraine meddled in the 2016 election, instead of focusing on what actually transpired between President Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
“Come on! Get real! Be serious! We know exactly what happened here,” Raskin said, before recapping the testimony before the House Intelligence Committee. “17 witnesses. It’s uncontradicted. There’s no rival story. No rival story at all. And our (Republican) colleagues will not even tell us whether, in theory, they think it would be wrong for the President of the United States to shake down foreign governments, to come and get involved in our presidential campaigns, in order to harm the president’s political opponents.”
Republicans, in turn, argued that Democrats have drawn up vague and unsubstantiated charges against the president, after failing to secure the facts that would support a more fulsome case against him.
Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan decried a “rigged and rushed process” that unfolded, he said, because Democrats are “nervous about their prospects next November against President Trump.”
Top Republican on the committee, Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, and Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, described the Democrats’ impeachment effort as a scattershot endeavor that made the charges a moving target.
“The moment I saw that they decided to use ‘abuse of power,’ ” Collins said, referring to the first article, “what they did is – they gave their whole conference carte blanche to make up anything they want and call it ‘abuse of power,’ because they don’t have anything else to give. They don’t have an actual crime that they can add up.”
“This is not a rifle shot impeachment with facts and evidence. This is bird shot,” said Gaetz, who accused Democrats of having “a bloodlust for impeachment.” “This is like pin the tail on your favorite impeachment theory because they don’t have evidence for any one single thing to impeach the President for.”
Nadler, a Democrat from New York, rejected those arguments, along with the Republicans’ frequent assertion Thursday that the President should be cleared of the ‘abuse of power’ charge because Zelensky said he didn’t feel pressured to launch the investigation that Trump requested into his 2020 rival Joe Biden and his son Hunter.
“He has a gun to his head,” Nadler said of Zelensky. “The gun is the fact that the President of the United States, upon whom he depends for military aid, for help in many different ways, has shown himself willing to withhold that aid, and to do other things … based on whether he’s willing to play along with the President for his personal political goals.”
In simply refusing to participate in the impeachment process, Nadler also accused Trump of trying to “destroy the power of Congress.”
“Congress may be unpopular – and maybe we should be reelected, or maybe we shouldn’t be reelected, that’s a question for the voters,” Nadler said, “but the institutional power of Congress to safeguard our liberties by providing a check and a balance on the executive is absolutely crucial to the constitutional scheme to protect our liberties. Central to that is the ability to investigate the actions of the executive branch.”
Theatrics and jockeying
House leadership sources insist Democratic members will simply be asked to vote their conscience next week, giving latitude to undecided moderate Democrats concerned that voting for impeachment could backfire in their districts. Two Democrats, Reps. Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey and Colin Peterson of Minnesota, have indicated they will vote against the articles of impeachment, while independent Justin Amash of Michigan is likely to vote for the articles.
During her weekly news conference Thursday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi rejected Trump’s characterization of the articles as “impeachment lite,” calling them “very powerful” and “very strong,” and underscored that leadership would not be whipping the legislation.
“People have to come to their own conclusions,” Pelosi said. “They’ve seen the facts as presented in the intelligence committee. They’ve seen the Constitution. They know it. They take an oath to protect and defend it. But they see the constitutional experts speak about it. They’ll make their own decisions.”
Beyond the pressures confronting vulnerable House members, there were frequent reminders throughout the House Judiciary Committee hearing about the unknown consequences of impeachment on the 2020 presidential election – namely the potential match-up between President Trump and Biden.
Though there is no evidence of wrongdoing by either Biden, Republicans repeatedly raised questions about Hunter Biden’s position on the board of Ukraine energy company known as Burisma – the matter that President Trump wanted Zelensky to investigate.
During a discussion of one amendment – which would have swapped out Biden’s name in the impeachment resolution with Hunter Biden’s name and his connection to the “well-known corrupt company Burisma” – Gaetz questioned the $86,000 Hunter Biden received each month as compensation from Burisma; whether he would have gotten the job on the board if his father had not been vice president; and sought to highlight his personal troubles, including his struggle with substance abuse.
“Would you let your vice president have their son or daughter or family member out moonlighting for some foreign company?” Gaetz asked his colleagues. “Maybe I’ll use language familiar to the former vice president. Come on, man. This looks dirty as it is. Hunter Biden was making more than five times more than a board member for ExxonMobil.”
After Gaetz went on read a passage from a New Yorker profile that referenced drug use by Hunter Biden and a subsequent car accident, Democrat Hank Johnson responded by alluding to Gaetz’s past DUI arrest in 2008, which was dismissed.
“I would say that the pot calling the kettle black is not something that we should do,” Johnson said, speaking in opposition to Gaetz’s amendment. “I don’t know what members, if any, have had any problems with substance abuse, been busted in DUI, I don’t know. But if I did, I wouldn’t raise it against anyone on this committee. I don’t think it’s proper. I think we have got to get back down to what is most important here.”
Still, it was a reminder that even as Trump is in the process of being impeached, he has succeeded in making Hunter Biden’s conduct a household topic at the same time the elder Biden is locked in a tight race for the Democratic nomination.