In a dramatic procession across the U.S. Capitol, House Democrats carried the formal articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump to the Senate late Wednesday, setting the stage for only the third trial to remove a president in American history.
Trump complained anew it was all a “hoax,” even as fresh details emerged about his efforts in Ukraine.
The ceremonial pomp and protocol by the lawmakers prosecuting the case against Trump moved the impeachment out of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s Democratic-run House to the Republican-majority Senate, where the president’s team is mounting a defence aiming for swift acquittal.
“Today we will make history,” Pelosi said as she signed the documents, using multiple pens to hand out and mark the moment. “This president will be held accountable.”
Moments later the prosecutors walked solemnly through the stately hall, filing into the Senate back row as the Clerk of the House announced the arrival: “The House has passed House Resolution 798, a resolution appointing and authorizing managers of the impeachment trail of Donald John Trump, President of United States.”
The Senate will transform itself into an impeachment court at noon Thursday. The Constitution calls for Chief Justice John Roberts to preside at the trial, administering the oath to senators who will serve as jurors and swear to deliver “impartial justice.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pledged to have the Senate “rise above the petty factionalism” and “factional fervour and serve the long-term, best interests of our nation.” He called it “a difficult time for our country.”
Technically, the House was simply notifying the Senate of its delivery of the articles, with a more formal presentation Thursday. Opening arguments are to begin next Tuesday after the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
Earlier Wednesday, the House voted 228-193, almost entirely along party lines to deliver the charges. The split reflected the deeply divided nation at the start of this presidential election year. It came one month after the House impeached Trump alleging he abused his presidential power by pressuring Ukraine to investigate Democratic rival Joe Biden, using military aid to the country as leverage. Trump was also charged with obstructing Congress’ ensuing probe.
“This is what an impeachment is about,? Pelosi said before the vote. “The president violated his oath of office, undermined our national security, jeopardized the integrity of our elections.”
Trump’s political campaign dismissed the House effort as “just a failed attempt to politically damage President Trump leading up to his re-election.”
The top Republican in the House, Kevin McCarthy of California, said Americans will look back on this “sad saga” that tried to remove the president from office with the “weakest case.”
The president’s team expects acquittal with a Senate trial lasting no more than two weeks, according to senior administration officials unauthorized to discuss the matter and granted anonymity.
That’s far shorter than the last presidential impeachment trail, of Bill Clinton, in 1999, or the first one, of Andrew Johnson, in 1868.
As McConnell sets the rules for the trial, Trump has given mixed messages about whether he prefers lengthy or swift proceeding, and senators are under pressure with the emerging new evidence to call more witnesses for testimony.
The seven-member prosecution team was led by the chairmen of the House impeachment proceedings, Reps. Adam Schiff of the Intelligence Committee and Jerry Nadler of the Judiciary Committee, two of Pelosi’s top lieutenants.
“President Trump gravely abused the power of his office,” Nadler said. “He did all this for his personal political gain.”
Ahead of Wednesday’s session, Schiff released new records from Lev Parnas, an associate of Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, about the Ukraine strategy, including an exchange with another man about surveilling later-fired Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch.
Schiff said the new evidence should bring more pressure on McConnell, who is reluctant to allow witnesses to testify and prefers swift acquittal.
“The challenge is to get a fair trial,” Schiff said in an interview with The Associated Press. “It shouldn’t be a challenge – if the senators are really going to live up to their oath to be impartial, they’ll want a fair trial. That’s obviously not where Mitch McConnell is coming from.”
Trump’s trial will be only the third presidential impeachment trial in U.S. history, and it comes against the backdrop of a politically divided nation in an election year.
The managers are a diverse group with legal, law enforcement and military experience, including Hakeem Jeffries of New York, Sylvia Garcia of Texas, Val Demings of Florida, Jason Crow of Colorado and Zoe Lofgren of California.
Two are freshmen lawmakers – Crow a former Army Ranger who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, Garcia a former judge in Houston. Demings is the former police chief of Orlando and Jeffries is a lawyer and member of party leadership. Lofgren has the rare credential of having worked on the congressional staff investigation of then-President Richard Nixon’s impeachment – he resigned before the full House voted on the charges – and then being an elected lawmaker during Bill Clinton’s.
For the roll call, all but one Democrat, Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, voted to transmit the articles. All Republicans voted against. One former Republican-turned-independent, Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, joined Democrats.
McConnell faces competing interests from his party for more witnesses, from centrists who are siding with Democrats on the need to hear testimony and conservatives mounting Trump’s defence.
Senate Republicans signalled they would reject the idea of simply voting to dismiss the articles of impeachment against Trump, as Trump himself has suggested. McConnell agreed he does not have the votes to do that.
Sen. Susan Collins of Maine is leading an effort among some Republicans, including Mitt Romney of Utah, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee to consider Senate witnesses. She told reporters she was satisfied the rules will allow votes on that.
Romney said he wants to hear from John Bolton, the former national security adviser at the White House, who others have said raised alarms about the alternative foreign policy toward Ukraine being run by Giuliani.
Those four senators could force votes. Republicans control the chamber, 53-47, and are all but certain to acquit Trump. But it takes just 51 votes during the trial to approve rules or call witnesses. It also would take only 51 senators to vote to dismiss the charges against Trump.
Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and other Republicans want to subpoena Biden and his son, Hunter, who served on the board of a gas company in Ukraine, Burisma, while his father was vice-president.
McConnell prefers to model Trump’s trial partly on the process used for Clinton’s impeachment trial in 1999. It, too, contained motions for dismissal or calling new witnesses.
McConnell is hesitant to call new witnesses who would prolong the trial and put vulnerable senators who are up for re-election in 2020 in a bind with tough choices. At the same time, he wants to give those same senators ample room to show voters they are listening.
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