US President Donald Trump stood on the verge of impeachment yesterday after a House panel approved charges that he abused his power and obstructed Congress, setting up a historic vote in the chamber next week.
In a grave moment for a deeply divided nation, Democrats and Republicans in the Judiciary Committee voted along strict party lines, 23 to 17, to approve two articles of impeachment against the president.
“Today is a solemn and sad day,” committee chairman Jerry Nadler said after the votes, which were called with surprising speed the day after a 14-hour debate pitting the warring parties against one another.
The panel recommended that the Democratic-led House ratify both articles, ahead of a vote by the entire chamber that is expected to make Trump only the third US president in history to be impeached.
One article charges the president with abuse of power for conditioning $391mn in critical military aid and a White House meeting on Ukraine launching investigations into Democrats ahead of the 2020 election.
The other charges him with obstruction of Congress for his blanket refusal to co-operate with any aspect of the inquiry, a development that Democrats say is unprecedented in American history.
“The House will act expeditiously,” Nadler said in brief remarks.
Impeachment by the House would trigger a trial early next year in the Senate, where the solid Republican majority is expected to protect the president by voting against conviction and removal.
Trump, who insists there is a witch hunt against him, called the panel’s impeachment vote “an embarrassment to our country”.
However, he also insisted the divisive process will be “very good for me politically” as Americans gear up for the presidential election next November.
The White House said that Trump “looks forward to receiving in the Senate the fair treatment and due process which continues to be disgracefully denied to him by the House”.
The panel’s fractious debate session on Thursday came to a surprising late-night end when Nadler abruptly postponed the votes, saying that he wanted to give members time to “search their conscience” over the evidence presented against the president.
Startled Republicans accused Nadler of running a “kangaroo court”, but Democrats said they did not want to be accused of taking such momentous action against the president in the dead of night.
Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, who appeared to hold up a pocket copy of the US Constitution as she cast her votes, said she was not acting against Trump as a person.
“It is a vote for the Constitution and for ‘We, the People’,” she said, quoting the charter’s preamble.
Republicans have circled the wagons around their president, insisting he has done no wrong and accusing Democrats of dangerous overreach.
“This is really a travesty for America and it’s really tearing America apart,” Republican Debbie Lesko said after voting against advancing impeachment. “I have never, in my entire life, seen such an unfair, rigged railroad job against the president of the United States.”
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy denounced “a political hit-job”.
Both sides were already girding for Trump’s trial in the Senate, where conviction and removal would require two-thirds of votes.
“There is zero chance that the president will be removed from office,” said Senate leader Mitch McConnell, whose Republicans hold 53 of the 100 seats.
McConnell also told Fox News he will be in lockstep with Trump, “co-ordinating with the White House counsel” regardless of his expected role as impartial juror in the trial.
Trump has signaled to aides that he wants a full-throated defence in the Senate, with witnesses testifying in person.
Republican leaders, mindful of political fallout, indicated that they would rather not see the process turn into a drawn-out spectacle.
“I’ll do long or short,” Trump said yesterday when asked whether he wants an extended trial.
But he added that he “wouldn’t mind a long process” because he wants to hear testimony from the whistleblower who triggered the process earlier this year.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi launched the impeachment inquiry in September after an unidentified whistleblower warned in a complaint that Trump, on a telephone call with his Ukrainian counterpart, used the power of his office to “solicit interference” from the foreign leader in the 2020 election.
In the July 25 call Trump asked President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to launch an investigation of former US vice-president Joe Biden, Trump’s potential election rival.
A subsequent House Intelligence Committee investigation concluded that there was “overwhelming evidence” Trump put his personal political benefit above the national interest.
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