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Trump impeached for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress

Regardless of the outcome of a Senate trial, the impeachment vote in the House puts an indelible stain on Trump's presidency that cannot be wiped from the public consciousness with a barrage of tweets or an angry tirade in front of thousands of his cheering supporters at a campaign rally

By Nicholas Fandos and Michael D. Shear
Published: Dec 19, 2019

Trump impeached for abuse of power and obstruction of CongressPresident Donald Trump departs the Oval Office at the White House in Washington on Wednesday evening, Dec. 18, 2019, for a scheduled campaign event in Battle Creek, Mich. The House of Representatives convened on Wednesday to debate whether to impeach President Donald Trump on two articles of impeachment charging President Trump with abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.
Image: Damon Winter/ The New York Times

WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives on Wednesday impeached President Donald Trump for obstruction of Congress and abuse of power, making him the third president in history to be charged with committing high crimes and misdemeanors and face removal by the Senate.

On a day of constitutional consequence and raging partisan tension, the votes on the two articles of impeachment fell largely along party lines, after a bitter debate that reflected the deep polarization gripping American politics in the Trump era.

All but two Democrats supported the article on abuse of power, which accused Trump of corruptly using the levers of government to solicit election assistance from Ukraine in the form of investigations to discredit his Democratic political rivals. Republicans were united in opposition. It passed 230-197, with Speaker Nancy Pelosi gaveling the vote to a close from the House rostrum.

On the second charge, obstruction of Congress, a third Democrat joined Republicans in opposition. The vote was 229-198.

The vote set the stage for a historic trial beginning early next year in the Senate, which will have final say — 10 months before Trump faces reelection — on whether to acquit the 45th president or convict and remove him from office. Acquittal in the Republican-controlled chamber is likely, but the proceeding is certain to aggravate the political and cultural fault lines in the country that Trump’s presidency has brought into dramatic relief.

On Wednesday, Democrats characterized his impeachment as an urgent action to stop a corrupt president whose misdeeds had unfolded in plain view from damaging the country any further.

“Over the course of the last three months, we have found incontrovertible evidence that President Trump abused his power by pressuring the newly elected president of Ukraine to announce an investigation into President Trump’s political rival,” said Rep. Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., the Intelligence Committee chairman, who led the impeachment inquiry.

“The president and his men plot on,” Schiff said. “The danger persists. The risk is real. Our democracy is at peril.”

Far from showing contrition or contemplating resignation, as his predecessors have done in the face of impeachment, Trump instead offered an indignant defense as the House weighed his fate, raging on Twitter from the White House.

“SUCH ATROCIOUS LIES BY THE RADICAL LEFT, DO NOTHING DEMOCRATS,” the president wrote as the historic debate took place on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. “THIS IS AN ASSAULT ON AMERICA, AND AN ASSAULT ON THE REPUBLICAN PARTY!!!!”

Regardless of the outcome of a Senate trial, the impeachment vote in the House puts an indelible stain on Trump’s presidency that cannot be wiped from the public consciousness with a barrage of tweets or an angry tirade in front of thousands of his cheering supporters at a campaign rally.

It did not grow out of the two-year investigation into Russian election meddling by Robert Mueller, the special counsel, or the seemingly endless series of other accusations of corruption and misconduct that have plagued his White House: embracing Russian election interference, tax evasion, profiting from the presidency, payoffs to a pornographic film actress and fraudulent activities by his charitable foundation.

Instead, the existential threat to Trump’s presidency centered around a half-hour phone call in July in which he pressured Ukraine’s president to announce investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden and other Democrats, at the same time he was withholding nearly $400 million in vital military assistance for the country and a White House meeting.

Congress learned about the call after an anonymous CIA official lodged a whistleblower complaint in August — pulling a string that helped unravel an effort by the president and his allies to pressure a foreign government for help in smearing a political rival. Over a period of weeks this fall, a parade of diplomats and other administration officials confirmed and expanded on those revelations.

When Congress found out about the scheme and sought to investigate, the president ordered his administration to defy its every request, leading to what the House said Tuesday was a violation of the separation of powers and a de facto assertion by Trump that he was above the law.

United in their opposition, Republicans accused the Democrats, who fought their way back from political oblivion in 2016 to win the House in 2018, of misusing the power voters had invested in them to harangue a president they never viewed as legitimate by manufacturing a case against him. Though they conceded few of them, they insisted the facts against Trump nonetheless fell woefully short of impeachment.

“When all is said and done, when the history of this impeachment is written, it will be said that my Washington Democrat friends couldn’t bring themselves to work with Donald Trump, so they consoled themselves instead by silencing the will of those who did, the American people,” said Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C.

Through the course of the inquiry, even as Republicans raged against the process and sought to offer benign explanations for Trump’s conduct, none disputed the central facts that served as its basis: that he asked Ukraine’s president to “do us a favor” and investigate Biden, a prospective rival in the 2020 campaign, and other Democrats.

Trump’s impeachment had the potential to change the trajectory of his presidency and redefine an already volatile political landscape. Democrats, including the most vulnerable moderates, embraced the articles of impeachment with the full knowledge that doing so could damage them politically, potentially even costing them control of the House. Republicans tethered themselves closely to Trump as they have since he took office, yoking their political brands and fortunes to his. The debate proceeded in historic terms in the well of the House, even as an odd sense of inevitability hung over Washington about Trump’s fate.

“Today, as speaker of the House, I solemnly and sadly open the debate on the impeachment of the president of the United States,” Pelosi, dressed in all black, said as debate opened on the articles around noon. “If we do not act now, we would be derelict in our duty. It is tragic that the president’s reckless actions make impeachment necessary. He gave us no choice.”

In the Senate, Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the majority leader, has already made clear he views the House’s case as “weak” and would prefer a speedy trial in January that does not call any additional fact witnesses. Doing so increases the likelihood that Congress will simply never hear from several senior government officials with knowledge of the Ukraine matter who avoided House testimony.

Impeachment traces its origins to monarchical England, but the framers of the Constitution confined its use on presidents to rare occasions, when his actions corrupted the public interest for personal ones. Only twice has the House previously impeached a president: Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton 1998. President Richard Nixon resigned in 1974 rather than face such a consequence.

Johnson remained in office by a single vote in 1868. Clinton more soundly beat the charges, with no more than half of the Senate voting for conviction after more than a month of deliberations. The trial of Trump is likely to reach a similar outcome, but it could do so much more quickly, with some Senate Republicans discussing the possibility that the case could be resolved in little more than a week.

As he did in the face of past accusations, Trump, 73, railed against impeachment as a “witch hunt” and a “hoax,” attacking his adversaries with a viciousness rarely heard from previous presidents.

“More due process was afforded to those accused in the Salem Witch Trials,” the president seethed in an angry impeachment eve letter to Pelosi.

In Trump’s reality, reinforced by the conservative cable news programs that swirl around him throughout the day, his three years in the White House have been more successful than any other. Wednesday’s impeachment intrudes on that, forcing the president and those around him to confront a different narrative, one in which he has — in the words of the articles of impeachment — “betrayed the nation” and acted “in a manner grossly incompatible with self governance and the rule of law.”

“Whether Donald Trump leaves in one month, one year or five years, this impeachment is permanent,” said Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif. “It will follow him around for the rest of his life, and history books will record it.”

The absolutist defense by many members of the Republican Party and the partisan nature of Wednesday’s vote underscored the remarkable hold that Trump, who has never commanded the support of a majority of the nation, has come to have over the party, remaking it in his image.

One Republican, Rep. Barry Loudermilk of Georgia, compared Trump on Wednesday with Jesus Christ, saying that the son of God had been “afforded more rights” by Pontius Pilate than Democrats had given the president.

Democrats’ most fervent supporters have fantasized since Inauguration Day 2017 about impeaching Trump, an extreme remedy for the ultimate insurgent they believed was shredding American institutions in his self interest. The debate reached a new pitch this year when Democrats reclaimed control of the House after nearly a decade and awaited the results of a two-year Justice Department investigation into whether Trump’s campaign had conspired with Russia to interfere in the 2016 election.

But as the left pushed harder for Trump’s ouster, Democratic leaders resisted. “He’s just not worth it,” Pelosi said in March. The Russia investigation fizzled when the special counsel declined to recommend charges, even though his report detailed at least 10 instances of possible obstruction of justice by Trump when he tried to thwart the inquiry. By the time lawmakers returned to Washington this fall after a summer break, impeachment appeared all but dead.

Pelosi’s calculations — and public opinion — shifted abruptly in September, when the CIA whistleblower arrived on the House’s doorstep.

The inquiry it prompted moved with alacrity, even as Democrats did not have an independent counsel or special prosecutor on whose work they could build. Instead, the House Intelligence Committee called senior American diplomats and White House officials for questioning and requested reams of documents.

In private and then in publicly televised hearings — and all in defiance of White House orders — they outlined a wide-ranging attempt by Trump and his allies to bend U.S. policy on Ukraine toward carrying out what one former White House official called “a domestic political errand” on the president’s own behalf.

Fueling the obstruction of Congress charge, a dozen more witnesses, some with direct knowledge of Trump’s actions, were blocked from speaking to investigators, and the Trump administration refused to produce a single document under subpoena.

As the facts tumbled out into the open, there were moments when Republicans in the House and Senate flirted with casting their lot against the president. After the acting White House chief of staff said from the White House in October that Trump had withheld military aid in part to extract at least one politically beneficial investigation from Ukraine, Rep. Francis Rooney of Florida said he was open to impeachment. But Wednesday, he joined every Republican in voting no.

Testimony weeks later in November by Gordon Sondland, Trump’s ambassador to the European Union, that there had been a quid quo pro around a White House meeting and maybe around the foreign aid money prompted momentary fears of a mass defection. It did not materialize.

If anything, the process underscored the extent to which the nation is pulling apart into two, with each side claiming its own news sources and fact sets that make meaningful debate between Democrats and Republicans over the significance of president’s conduct almost impossible. Public opinion polls show that nation as closely divided over Trump’s impeachment and removal as it was on Election Day 2016.

On Wednesday, neither lawmakers nor aides to Trump foresaw a resolution.

“We know how this partisan process will end this evening,” said Rep. Will Hurd of Texas, one of a handful of Republicans willing to criticize Trump’s conduct, who is retiring from Congress. “But what happens tomorrow?”

©2019 New York Times News Service

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