House Judiciary Committee grinds through Republican objections to impeachment articles against Donald Trump

Washington: The House Judiciary Committee trudged toward a historic impeachment vote Thursday, turning back Republican attempts to kill the charges that President Donald Trump abused his power and obstructed Congress.

Amid Republicans’ cries of outrage, Democrats were poised to approve along party lines an article of impeachment that accused Trump of abusing the powers of his office by pressuring Ukraine to announce investigations of his political rivals, using official acts as leverage as he sought advantage for his 2020 reelection campaign. They were also on track to adopt a second article of impeachment against Trump for obstructing Congress, based on an across-the-board defiance of their subpoenas that Democrats branded an attempt to conceal the Ukraine scheme.

Gathered in the 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 debated dragged into the night on amendments proposed by the Republicans to gut the articles or embarrass Democrats. As the Republicans were rebuffed in one lopsided vote after another, the only question was when the president’s defenders would sheath their swords for the day and allow the final roll-call vote that would push the articles to full House.

The charges on the cusp of approval stemmed from an investigation by the House Intelligence Committee that concluded that Trump had used the levers of government to pressure Ukraine into investigating former vice-president Joe Biden, his political rival, and a theory that Democrats conspired with Ukraine to interfere in the 2016 election. The president, Democrats asserted, conditioned nearly $400 million in security assistance for the former Soviet republic and a White House meeting for its leader on the public announcement of the investigations Trump wanted.

“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, D-Rhode Island.

 House Judiciary Committee grinds through Republican objections to impeachment articles against Donald Trump

The House Judiciary Committee during markup on the articles of impeachment. By Pete Marovich © 2019 The New York Times

The Judiciary Committee vote would make Trump, whose unorthodox and polarising 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 misdemeanours.” Though the charges allude to a pattern of past conduct, they do not explicitly mention his embrace of Russian election interference in 2016 or efforts to thwart a special counsel investigation of it.

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 trial in the Republican-controlled Senate would begin 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 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.

Trump 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 Trump asked his Ukrainian counterpart to “do us a favor though” with regard to the investigations.

Later at the White House, speaking at the congressional Christmas ball as debate on impeaching him raged in the Judiciary Committee, Trump projected confidence about his future. “We’re going to have a fantastic year,” he said.

Determined not to lend the proceedings legitimacy, 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. Pat A Cipollone, the White House counsel, and Eric Ueland, the legislative affairs director, met Thursday at the Capitol with Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, the majority leader, to strategise for the coming trial.

The vote expected 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 statements of fact and principle about the presidency, the Constitution, the country and 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 Trump’s removal.

“This impeachment is going to fail,” said Representative Mike Johnson, R-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 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, D-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 CIA whistleblower complaint alleging a systematic campaign by 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 US 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 whistleblower’s complaint, uncovering a broad scheme by Trump and allies inside and outside the government to supplant long-held US policy toward Ukraine in line with the president’s personal political interests.

Thursday’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 the president’s actions 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 did not concede any wrongdoing.

“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, R-Ohio, one of the managers of the impeachment case against 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 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, D-California, posited that Trump could be charged with criminal bribery and honest services fraud.

In seeking to clear 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 Trump or felt in Kyiv. They pointed out that Ukraine did not announce the investigations Trump wanted and that the 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, R-Florida. “Show me the Ukrainian that knew that any of this was tied to any conditionality.”

But Democrats said that, too, was fallacious, noting that Trump allowed the aid to be delivered only after he had been briefed about the whistleblower complaint. The security assistance funds were released “because the president got caught,” said Representative Val Demings, D-Florida. She insisted that lawmakers ought not to be persuaded by the fact that Trump never explicitly said he was tying official acts to political favors.

“I can tell you this,” said 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.’ ”

Despite the seriousness of the proceedings, the debate took turns for the tawdry and personal. Around noon, Gaetz proposed an amendment highlighting unproven corruption allegations around Hunter Biden, the former vice president’s son, and proceeded to read aloud from a news article graphically describing the younger Biden’s history of substance abuse. Democrats shook their heads and one of them, Johnson of Georgia, offered a word of caution to Gaetz with a veiled reference to the Florida Republican’s own past arrest on charges of driving under the influence.

“The pot calling the kettle black is not something we should do,” Johnson said.

Very little about Thursday’s debate was a surprise. Since 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 Trump after the transcript of a July phone call between 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.

Nicholas Fandos c.2019 The New York Times Company

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Updated Date: Dec 13, 2019 08:48:06 IST