House lawmakers voted to impeach President Trump on Wednesday in only the third such rebuke in American history.
The move triggers a trial for Trump in the Senate, expected in January — one in which majority Republicans are likely to permit him to retain his office.
The vote was 230 to 197 on the first of two articles of impeachment — abuse of power — with one member voting present. The House then passed the second article — obstruction of Congress — with a vote of 229 to 198, with one member voting present.
The vote was largely along party lines. Every Republican opposed impeachment.
The sole independent in the House, Michigan Rep. Justin Amash, voted with Democrats.
Two House Democrats — Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota and Rep. Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey — opposed Article 1. A third Democrat, Rep. Jared Golden of Maine, joined Peterson and Van Drew to oppose Article 2.
Hawaii Democratic Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who is running for president, voted present on both articles: “I am standing in the center,” she said in a statement.
History months in the making
The House vote follows months of talk by Democrats about impeaching Trump and investigations that deepened profound political division across the country.
Impeachment discussions accelerated in September after the discovery that the president wanted Ukraine to conduct investigations that could help him in the 2020 election.
The White House froze some $391 million in military aid for Ukraine for a time this year but ultimately released it; Ukraine’s leaders never agreed to launch investigations that Trump wanted into the 2016 election and the family of former Vice President Joe Biden.
For Trump and Republicans, what they called the absence of any real exchange meant there was no crime. In fact, they have argued, the president was doing his duty to investigate what they called “corruption” in a nation long troubled by it.
For Democrats, led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Trump was caught red-handed in the middle of a shakedown, conditioning dollars appropriated by Congress and his own official acts — an Oval Office meeting — on political favors.
What’s more, Democrats argue, Trump obstructed Congress by frustrating its investigation of the Ukraine affair.
Consequences for 2020
In a nation deeply hardened into rival partisan tribes, impeachment hasn’t appeared to move the needle with many Americans.
And the tumultuous frenzy of political life in the Trump era means that it isn’t clear how much the events of late 2019 and early 2020 might resonate with voters by the time they cast ballots in the presidential election on Nov. 3.
But the pending election figured prominently in all sides’ commentary about whether and how the House should take up impeachment, a question that also fractured Democrats after they gained a majority in the 2018 midterm elections.
Calls to impeach Trump began not long into his presidency.
Pelosi resisted her most anti-Trump members’ desire to impeach, uneasy about the problems that might cause in the 2020 election for members in districts that previously had supported Trump.
Revelations about the Ukraine affair, however, convinced so many Democrats that Pelosi, too, got on board, and the chamber voted on Oct. 31 to formally authorize an inquiry.
Trump and his supporters say Democrats despair so badly about their slate of 2020 presidential candidates that they want to nullify the election before it happens by impeaching and attempting to remove the president.
“You view democracy as your enemy!” Trump wrote to the speaker in an extraordinary six-page letter unveiled on Tuesday.
Over the course of around eight hours of debate on Wednesday, the president’s supporters reiterated that they not only believed there was no wrongdoing but the process itself was illegitimate.
“This impeachment is a total joke and a total sham,” said Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Ariz.
No, argue Democrats — they are preserving the integrity of an election in which Trump has invited foreign powers to interfere. That’s doubly outrageous, they say, following Trump’s invitation in 2016 for Russia to interfere in that election, which, subsequent investigations have found, it did.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., who led the Democrats’ investigation, said that’s why the House can’t wait for a vote or get into what he called legal “rope-a-dope” with Trump in court over witnesses and documents.
“The argument, ‘Why don’t you just wait’ amounts to this — why don’t you just let him cheat in one more election?” Schiff said when Democrats announced the articles of impeachment. “Why not let him cheat just one more time? Why not let him have foreign help just one more time?”
Next up: Senate trial
The Constitution now calls for a trial in the Senate over which John Roberts, the chief justice of the United States, must preside.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has said he’ll convene the trial as required and is negotiating with majority Republicans, the White House and minority Democrats about the particulars.
Impeachment, however, is only a quasi-legal process — it is not a strict assessment of whether the president broke the law. It’s largely political and has been since President Andrew Johnson was impeached in 1868 by a faction then known as the “radical Republicans.”
McConnell, accordingly, said this week that he is not “impartial” and he would not demure from arranging matters in the best way he sees fit for his ally, the president, and his members in the majority.
One example of this maneuvering is that the Senate impeachment trial will not include outside witnesses, as Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., had requested.
Democrats wanted top administration aides to testify about their actions in the Ukraine affair. Trump, for his part, had suggested he might be open to a drawn-out trial, including one that could effectively serve as an impeachment of Biden — with a critical look at his son’s work with a Ukrainian gas company.
McConnell, however, appears most inclined toward a comparatively brief session in which impeachment managers from the House make their case and then the Senate casts a vote on Trump’s fate.
Details for a Senate trial aren’t settled, however.
For example, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, an important leader in the Senate, said on Wednesday that he might be open to private depositions of witnesses. Republicans must agree among themselves about the rules of the road before they proceed.
A question of legacy
The bottom line, however, is that McConnell has said he considers it “inconceivable” that the requisite 20 Republicans could join all the Democrats to vote to remove the president, given how staunchly the GOP has stood behind Trump.
If enough Republicans were to defect, Trump would lose his office with no chance to appeal and Vice President Pence would become the 46th president.
In all likelihood, however, Trump’s red wall in the Senate will remain intact and he will preserve the presidency subject to the outcome of the election in November.
The president told Pelosi in his letter on Tuesday ahead of the House vote that she and Democrats had cheapened and abused their powers under the Constitution.
“History will judge you harshly as you proceed with this impeachment crusade,” Trump wrote. “Your legacy will be that of turning the House of Representatives from a revered legislative body into a star chamber of partisan persecution.”
Democrats argue the president’s actions in the Ukraine affair left them no choice but to act — that what they call his invitation of foreign interference is so egregious that even an impeachment that could be stillborn in the Senate was worth pursuing.
“Impeachment is a form of deterrence,” said Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., during the floor debate on Wednesday.
If this was all the House could do, that meant the House had to do it, he said.
“No president ever wants to be impeached. And whether Donald Trump leaves in one month, one year or five years, this impeachment is permanent,” Lieu said. “It will follow him around for the rest of his life and history books will record it. People will know why we impeached.”