U.S. legislators have ratcheted up their impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, passing a motion that will launch a new, more public phase of the investigation.
The vote Thursday morning marks just the fourth time in United States history that the House of Representatives has formally approved an inquiry that could result in a president getting kicked out of office.
And it signals an escalation of the probe, setting up televised hearings in which both parties and Mr. Trump’s lawyers will grill witnesses – certain to turn the smouldering fire already consuming Washington’s political oxygen into a raging inferno.
“Today, the House takes the next step forward,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said from the chamber floor shortly before the vote, as she stood next to a cardboard cutout of an American flag. “It’s about the truth and what is at stake in all of this is nothing less than our democracy.”
The inquiry is centred on accusations Mr. Trump abused his power by trying to ransom nearly US$400-million in military aid to Ukraine to pressure that country to investigate his political opponents.
“The Impeachment Hoax is hurting our Stock Market. The Do Nothing Democrats don’t care!” Mr. Trump tweeted during the vote. “The Greatest Witch Hunt In American History!”
The motion, which passed by a 232-to-196 margin that largely fell along party lines, was not technically necessary, as the Democratic-controlled House has already been pursuing an impeachment inquiry for more than a month. But Ms. Pelosi opted to hold it to counter Republican accusations that the investigation had not been formally authorized.
The resolution sets out the rules for public hearings, granting some legislators more time to question witnesses, allowing the Republicans to call witnesses themselves, and providing for the President’s legal team to take part in the proceedings.
The House is expected to start hearings in November. So far, witness testimony in the inquiry has taken place behind closed doors. The motion also provides for the release of full transcripts of those private depositions.
Even as the House was voting Thursday, a key witness reportedly bolstered the accusations against Mr. Trump. Tim Morrison, an adviser on the President’s national security council, corroborated last week’s account from diplomat William Taylor that the White House blocked the money for Ukraine in order to trade it for a probe of Joe Biden, one of Mr. Trump’s would-be opponents in next year’s election, The Washington Post reported.
Mr. Taylor last week had testified that Mr. Morrison and Gordon Sondland, a Trump donor and ambassador to the European Union, told him about the attempted quid pro quo. Mr. Morrison, according to the Post, confirmed Thursday that he had informed Mr. Taylor of this.
Republican leaders argued the motion was unfair because it will still allow Democratic committee chairs to veto Republican witnesses.
“This is Soviet-style rules,” Republican Whip Steve Scalise said as he stood next to a poster of Red Square in Moscow emblazoned with a hammer and sickle. “This is the United States of America. Don’t run a sham process, a tainted process.”
Moving to public hearings could mark a turning point if the increased attention changes popular opinion.
Rebecca Eissler, a political scientist at San Francisco State University, pointed to the Watergate hearings: Televised questioning of witnesses turned the public against then-president Richard Nixon and caused enough of his Republican Senate caucus to defect that he opted to resign rather than risk getting thrown out of the White House.
By contrast, she said, the private depositions in Mr. Trump’s case, whose details have mostly emerged through sporadic media leaks, have not dramatically changed the political dynamics.
“There’s something about the performance of public hearings versus learning this in dribs and drabs,” Prof. Eissler said. “Seeing this happen in public is a kind of political theatre that can be more persuasive than the facts alone.”
Once the investigation is finished, House Democrats will have to decide whether to draft articles of impeachment spelling out the accusations against Mr. Trump. If one or more of these articles passes the House, Mr. Trump would face a trial in the Republican-controlled Senate. A two-thirds majority of senators would have to vote to convict Mr. Trump for him to be removed from power.
Of three previous presidents who faced impeachment proceedings, Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton were acquitted by the Senate, while Mr. Nixon quit before the articles could be voted on by the House.
How much longer the inquiry will last is unclear. The Democrats largely want to have the inquiry finished before the first primaries in the presidential nominating contest begin early next year. But much will likely depend on public opinion.
“Members of Congress are beholden to their electorates, so they need to know that they aren’t risking their careers,” by voting for articles of impeachment, Prof. Eissler said. “They are going to need to paint such a clear picture for the public.”
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