Thwarting Republican Bid to Kill Charges, House Panel Moves Toward Approving Impeachment Articles Against Trump
WASHINGTON — The House Judiciary Committee trudged toward a historic vote on Thursday to push President Trump to the brink of impeachment, turning back Republican attempts to kill the articles of impeachment in a fractious debate on Democrats’ charges that he abused his power and obstructed Congress.
Amid Republicans’ cries of outrage, Democrats were poised to approve, starkly along party lines, a charge that Mr. Trump abused the powers of his office by pressuring Ukraine to announce investigations of his political rivals, seeking advantage for his 2020 re-election campaign, and by using official acts as leverage. They were also on track to adopt a second charge against Mr. Trump for obstructing Congress, based on his across-the-board defiance of their subpoenas, which Democrats branded an attempt to conceal the Ukraine scheme.
Gathered in the stately Ways and Means Committee room for the second consecutive day, lawmakers feuded for hours over the two articles of impeachment, their tempers flaring and patience wearing thin as they debated amendments proposed by the Republicans to gut the articles or embarrass Democrats. As their efforts failed on lopsided votes, the only question was when the president’s defenders would sheath their swords for the day to allow the final roll-call vote to recommend the articles to the full House to go forward.
“There is overwhelming evidence of the existence of a scheme led by the president, led by his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, to corrupt the American elections, to continue to withhold military aid until such time as a public announcement was made that would smear the president’s chief political rival,” said Representative David Cicilline, Democrat of Rhode Island.
The Judiciary Committee vote would make Mr. Trump, whose unorthodox and polarizing presidency has preoccupied the nation like few of his modern predecessors, only the fourth president in American history to face impeachment by the House for “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
The full House is expected to debate and vote on the articles next week, just days before Congress is scheduled to leave town for Christmas. A Senate trial is expected in early 2020, 10 months before the next election.
While the Judiciary Committee debated, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she would refrain from pressing Democrats to support the articles, instead encouraging them to follow their consciences on a vote heavy with historic and political weight.
“People have to come to their own conclusions,” she said. Republican leaders, however, began an all-out effort to keep their members in line to vote “no.”
Democratic leaders anticipate that a handful of their members — particularly more moderate lawmakers from districts Mr. Trump won in 2016 — may join Republicans in opposing one or both of the articles. But they expect the defections to be narrow.
Far from expressing remorse for the charges against him, the president once again declared his total innocence and raged against the Democrats leading the charge to impeach him. He turned to Twitter, his favored platform, to retweet dozens of allies who were defending his conduct and slamming the Democrats.
Mr. Trump himself made clear he was watching the proceedings, accusing two representatives of misquoting from a July phone call he had with Ukraine’s president in which Mr. Trump asked his Ukrainian counterpart to “do us a favor though” with regard to the investigations.
Determined not to lend the proceedings legitimacy, Mr. Trump never mounted a defense in the House, declining repeated invitations from Democrats to take part in the process. He would be given a fairer chance in the Senate, the president and his team concluded, and they spent Thursday making further preparations for that stage of the drama.
The vote expected on Thursday evening would cap two days of intense debate in the Judiciary Committee, a body known for attracting some of the House’s most progressive and conservative members. Lawmakers stayed late into Wednesday night offering, one by one, statements of fact and principle about the presidency, the Constitution, the country and Mr. Trump himself. Members on both sides of the dais lamented that their opposites would not reconsider, though none of the pleaders really expected any change.
Thursday’s proceeding was rawer, airing out all the pent-up bitterness of years of near existential political warfare. Republicans argued that Democrats were merely impeaching the president because they abhorred his unorthodox style and his conservative policies, citing years’ worth of strident cries from the most liberal members of their party championing Mr. Trump’s removal.
“This impeachment is going to fail,” said Representative Mike Johnson, Republican of Louisiana. “The Democrats are going to pay a heavy political price for it, but the Pandora’s box they have opened today will do irreparable injury to our country in years ahead.”
Democrats accused Republicans of turning a blind eye to misconduct by Mr. Trump out of reflexive loyalty to their party.
“This is about conscience, the conscience of the nation, the conscience of my friends on the other side of the aisle,” said Representative Hank Johnson, Democrat of Georgia. “Do you believe that we should allow this to go unaddressed, what the president did? Because we are a country of precedent, we are a country of rule of law, we are a country of norms and traditions.”
The debate traces back months, through a lengthy Intelligence Committee investigation, to the submission of an anonymous C.I.A. whistle-blower complaint alleging a systematic campaign by Mr. Trump to solicit Ukraine’s help in the 2020 election, by asking its president to investigate his political rivals.
Unlike past impeachment cases, there was no special prosecutor or independent counsel to look into the Ukraine matter. Beginning in late September, the House Intelligence Committee did so itself, calling more than a dozen American diplomats and administration officials to testify, first in private, then in public. Over the course of the fall, they confirmed and expanded on the facts in the whistle-blower’s complaint, uncovering a broad scheme by Mr. Trump and allies inside and outside the government to supplant long-held American policy toward Ukraine in line with the president’s personal political interests.
In a report released last week, the Intelligence Committee’s Democrats concluded based on that testimony that Mr. Trump had used the levers of government to pressure the former Soviet republic into investigating former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., his leading campaign rival, and a theory that Democrats conspired with Ukraine to interfere in the 2016 election. The president, they asserted, conditioned nearly $400 million in security assistance for the country and a White House meeting for its leader on the public announcement of the investigations Mr. Trump wanted.
Wednesday’s debate touched on the finer points of criminal law and constitutional standards for impeachment as lawmakers dug into the details of the case, tussling over whether Trump’s “high crimes and misdemeanors” actually met the threshold for his removal. Republicans said they needed to be statutory crimes to warrant impeachment, and accused Democrats of putting forth a vague charge of abuse of power because they had a flimsy factual record to back up their case. They moved to strike the article charging him with abuse of power, but a vote failed on party lines.
“The entire argument for impeachment in this case is based on a charge that is not a crime, much less a high crime, and that has never been approved by the House of Representatives in a presidential impeachment before, ever in history,” said Representative Steve Chabot, Republican of Ohio and one of the managers of the impeachment case against President Bill Clinton in 1998. “If that is the best you’ve got, you wasted a whole lot of time and taxpayer dollars because so many of you, Mr. Chairman, hate this president.”
Democrats rejected that theory, arguing that Mr. Trump’s actions were clearly high crimes because they were offenses against the Constitution itself, but could also be construed as criminal violations of the law. Representative Eric Swalwell, Democrat of California, posited that Mr. Trump could be charged with criminal bribery and honest services fraud.
In seeking to clear Mr. Trump, Republicans returned again and again to statements by the president and Ukrainian leaders since the inquiry began that there was no pressure applied by Mr. Trump or felt in Kyiv. They pointed out that Ukraine did not announce the investigations Mr. Trump wanted and that the $391 million in military aid the president had blocked for months was eventually released and a meeting between the presidents occurred.
“Show me the Ukrainian that was pressured,” said Representative Matt Gaetz, Republican of Florida and a loquacious defender of Mr. Trump. “Show me the Ukrainian that knew that any of this was tied to any conditionality.”
But Democrats said that, too, was fallacious, noting that Mr. Trump allowed the aid to be delivered only after he had been briefed about the whistle-blower complaint. The security assistance funds were released “because the president got caught,” said Representative Val Demings, Democrat of Florida. And she insisted that lawmakers ought not to be persuaded by the fact that Mr. Trump never explicitly said he was tying official acts to political favors.
“I can tell you this,” said Ms. Demings, a former police chief, “when a robber points a gun at you to take their money, they usually don’t walk up and say. ‘I’m robbing you.’”
Very little about Thursday’s debate was a surprise. Since Ms. Pelosi announced the impeachment inquiry in September, it has moved not just with remarkable speed — 79 days as of Thursday — but with uncanny predictability.
Though several House Republicans flirted with openly criticizing Mr. Trump after the transcript of a July phone call between Mr. Trump and Ukraine’s president became public, they quickly fell into line as the president and his most vocal allies on Capitol Hill systematically attacked the Democratic inquiry.
By Halloween, when Democrats sought a vote to move the inquiry forward on the House floor, tribal politics had prevailed: Not a single Republican joined the Democrats to endorse the process moving forward.
Sheryl Gay Stolberg contributed reporting.
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