President Trump impeached in historic vote by sharply divided House

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent

WASHINGTON — Donald Trump became the third sitting president in U.S. history to be impeached, as the House of Representatives approved on Wednesday the two articles of impeachment against him: that he abused the power of his office by pressuring Ukraine to interfere in the 2020 election on his behalf, and that he obstructed Congress in its inquiry.

The House approved the first article of impeachment, on abuse of power, by a vote of 230 to 197 at 8:34 p.m. after a daylong debate. Of the 233 Democrats, 229 voted in favor, along with the House’s one independent. Two Democrats opposed the measure. No Republicans voted in favor.

Eighteen minutes later, the second article, charging obstruction of Congress, passed by a vote of 229 to 198 with three Democrats voting no, and again no Republicans in favor.

One Democrat voted “present” on each article.

Trump came to the stage for a rally in Battle Creek, Mich., just as the vote was being called and told the crowd, “It doesn’t really feel like we’re being impeached. The country is doing better than ever before. We did nothing wrong. And we have tremendous support in the Republican Party.”

Moments after the second article was approved, Trump called his impeachment “illegal, unconstitutional and partisan.” Democrats, he said, “are declaring their deep hatred and disdain for the American voter.”

Democrats “have branded themselves with an eternal mark of shame," he said.

Eight hours earlier, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi laid out the Democratic case: “The president violated the Constitution. It is a matter of fact that the president is an ongoing threat to our national security and the integrity of our elections: the basis of our democracy.”

Pelosi said that Trump “used the power of his public office to obtain an improper personal, political benefit at the expense of America's national security.”

The only other two presidents to be impeached in American history are Andrew Johnson, in 1868, and Bill Clinton, in 1998. Both survived their Senate trials and served out their terms. The House began impeachment proceedings against Richard Nixon in 1973, but Nixon resigned before he was impeached. 

Trump was scheduled to speak at his rally at around the same time that the House held its final vote on impeachment. 

He was awaited by supporters — most of whom stood in line for hours in temperatures that did not rise above the teens — inside the 9,800-seat Kellogg Arena. 

During the day, Trump railed against the impeachment on Twitter in the same vein as the six-page, angry letter he sent to Pelosi on Tuesday. In one early morning tweet, he wrote, “I DID NOTHING WRONG!” In a midday tweet, he called his impeachment “AN ASSAULT ON AMERICA, AND AN ASSAULT ON THE REPUBLICAN PARTY!!!!”

President Donald Trump arrives at W. K. Kellogg Airport as the US House of Representatives debates his impeachment December 18, 2019, in Battle Creek, Michigan. (Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

The proceedings on Capitol Hill were historic, but lacked suspense and drama for much of the day. The outcome unfolded just as most had expected since the day Pelosi announced the opening of an official impeachment inquiry on Sept. 24.

After a prayer by the House chaplain for “wisdom and discernment,” and an hour or so of procedural delay by Republicans, the House chamber was filled all day with short speeches — typically just one minute — by hundreds of representatives, alternating between the two parties. 

The chamber was mostly empty for most of the day’s six hours of scheduled debate — which ran to more than eight hours — making what should be the most high-profile moment of the impeachment process the least substantive. It was a striking contrast to the last several weeks of in-depth hearings in which fact witnesses laid out a detailed storyline of the president’s actions. 

Democrats kept to a disciplined set of talking points, reiterating that they were reluctant to impeach the president, but his abuse of the power of the presidency left them no choice.

“I want you to know that it does not feel good,” said Rep. Joe Kennedy III, addressing his 60-second floor speech to his two young children. But, he said, the president “broke our laws” and “abused the highest, most sacred office in our land.”

As the debate moved toward a conclusion, Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the majority whip, put his personal stamp on the case for impeachment. “Never in all my years of serving in this great institution that I love,” he said, speaking more deliberately than most of those who went before, “… did I ever expect to encounter such an obvious wrongdoing by a president of the United States. Nor did I expect to witness such a craven rationalization of presidential actions."

His remarks lowered the tension in the chamber after Republican Whip Steve Scalise accused Democrats of hating the 63 million Americans who voted for Trump, prompting boos from the other side of the aisle.

While Democrats projected a tone of sadness, the mood among Republicans was one of outrage, at times veering toward the apocalyptic.

“This country’s end is now in sight. I hope I don’t live to see it,” said Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas. 

Rep. Clay Higgins, R-La., described a scene more similar to Dante’s “Inferno” than that of a legislative body. “I have descended into the belly of the beast. I have witnessed the terror within. And I rise committed to oppose the insidious forces which threaten our republic,” said Higgins, a former police officer whose colorful past includes filming a video from the Auschwitz death camp to promote U.S. homeland security.

And Rep. Barry Loudermilk, R-Ga., compared Trump’s impeachment to the trial of Jesus Christ.

“When Jesus was falsely accused of treason, Pontius Pilate gave Jesus the opportunity to face his accusers. During that sham trial, Pontius Pilate afforded more rights to Jesus than the Democrats have afforded this president and this process,” Loudermilk said.

Rep. Barry Loudermilk, R-Ga. (Photo: House Television via AP)

Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., said that “all we keep hearing from the other side are attacks on the process and questions of our motives.”

“They cannot articulate a real defense of the president’s actions,” Nadler said. 

Impeachment is an act of censure by the House, a recommendation that the president be removed from office. But the Senate decides in a trial whether to actually do so, and Republicans in the Senate — who hold a 53-to-47 majority — are not expected to defect from the president. He will therefore almost certainly remain in office, even if the stain of impeachment lingers.

"Donald J. Trump is president of the United States. He is president today. He’ll be president tomorrow, and he will be president when this impeachment is over,” House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy told the chamber.

The impeachment vote was the culmination of a process that began in early August when a whistleblower filed a complaint to the inspector general of the intelligence community, alleging that Trump pressured Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to open an investigation into a political rival. The report became public in mid-September. 

The House Intelligence Committee conducted an investigation, calling over a dozen witnesses to testify in closed-door depositions, and then moving on to a series of public hearings with a majority of those witnesses. The White House refused to cooperate and blocked another dozen witnesses from speaking with Congress. 

That stonewalling gave Democrats the grounds to charge the president with obstructing an investigation by Congress, a co-equal branch of the federal government. 

The witnesses who did testify said that Trump pressured Ukraine to announce an investigation into Democrat Joe Biden, a rival for the presidency, using a White House meeting the the new Ukrainian president wanted, and also withholding nearly $400 million in military assistance to the country. 

President Trump meets with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in New York City, Sept. 25, 2019. (Photo: Evan Vucci/AP)

Ukraine, a former Soviet state that became independent in 1991, has increasingly sought to align itself with the West since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea, a peninsula in southern Ukraine, and began supporting a separatist conflict in the east of the country. Russian and Ukrainian forces are still engaged in an active military conflict. 

Republicans on the Intelligence Committee mounted a series of often-changing defenses to explain why the president withheld assistance, but settled around a few explanations. They pointed to actions by individual Ukrainians critical of Trump to argue that president had a justified bias against the nation. 

And Republicans said Trump was concerned about giving aid to a country that had problems with corruption. Yet the new Ukrainian government had met benchmarks set by the U.S. government to qualify for the funding, even before Trump decided to freeze the congressionally authorized aid. 

Republicans also said, despite evidence to the contrary from Pentagon officials, that Ukraine didn’t know the aid had been withheld when Trump spoke to Zelensky by phone on July 25 and asked him to investigate Biden. 

In an angry six-page letter to Pelosi sent Tuesday afternoon, Trump also lodged a series of criticisms, starting with the fact that there are “no crimes, no misdemeanors, and no offenses” in the two articles of impeachment.

Trump, in his letter, also insisted that Biden “used his office and $1 billion of U.S. aid money to coerce Ukraine into firing the prosecutor who was digging into the company paying his son millions of dollars.” 

This is a reference to Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden, and to Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company with a history of corruption. Burisma added Hunter Biden to its board in April 2014, not long after the British government had frozen $23 million in assets belonging to Burisma’s owner, Mykola Zlochevsky, on suspicion of money laundering. 

Hunter Biden, left, and Joe Biden. (Photo: Teresa Kroeger/Getty Images for World Food Program USA)

In December 2015, Joe Biden — then vice president under President Obama and responsible for running U.S. policy in Eastern Europe — told the Ukrainian government that $1 billion in aid would be withheld if the nation’s top prosecutor was not fired. Biden related this conversation in a 2018 think tank appearance.

The Ukrainian prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, was fired three months later

But Biden’s demand that Shokin be fired actually increased the likelihood that Burisma would be investigated for corruption, according to the most authoritative reporting on the subject, because the prosecutor had failed to pursue corruption cases.

Nonetheless, Hunter Biden’s presence on the board of Burisma, which paid a significant amount of money to him, has created a massive political headache for his father and the Democratic Party. Hunter Biden has admitted he exercised “poor judgment” but maintains he did nothing illegal or unethical. 

Like Trump’s attacks on Hillary Clinton in 2016 about her speaking fees and her private email server, the criticisms of Biden and Burisma are becoming a mantra for the president that he will likely repeat over and over as long as the former vice president is the leading Democratic candidate for president. 

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