In historic moment, US House impeaches Donald Trump for abuse of power

Susan Cornwell, Richard Cowan and David Morgan, Reuters

Posted at Dec 19 2019 09:35 AM | Updated as of Dec 19 2019 09:53 AM

US President Donald Trump looks on during a campaign rally in Battle Creek, Michigan, US, Dec. 18, 2019. Leah Millis, Reuters

WASHINGTON - Donald Trump became the third US president to be impeached on Wednesday, as the House of Representatives formally charged him with abuse of power in a historic step that will inflame partisan tensions across a deeply divided America.

The Democratic-led House passed the abuse of power article of impeachment on a largely party-line 230-197 vote. The House then proceeded with a vote on a second article of impeachment charging him with obstruction of Congress.

The House action sets the stage for a trial next month in the Republican-controlled Senate - friendlier terrain for Trump - on whether to convict him and remove him from office. As the House voted, Trump was addressing a rally in Battle Creek, Michigan.

No president in the 243-year history of the United States has been removed from office by impeachment. That would require a two-thirds majority in the 100-member Senate, meaning at least 20 Republicans would have to join Democrats in voting against Trump - and none have indicated they will.

Trump, who is seeking another 4-year term in the November 2020 presidential election, has called the impeachment drive an "attempted coup" by Democrats seeking to nullify his 2106 election victory. The Senate's top Republican, Mitch McConnell, has predicted there is "no chance" his chamber will remove Trump when it holds its trial.

The first of the articles accused Trump, 73, of abusing his power by pressuring Ukraine to investigate political rival Joe Biden, a leading contender for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, as well as a discredited theory promoted by the president and beneficial to Russia that Democrats conspired with Ukraine to meddle in the 2016 election.

Democrats said Trump held back $391 million in security aid intended to combat Russia-backed separatists and a coveted White House meeting for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy as leverage to coerce Kiev into interfering in the 2020 election by smearing Biden.

The second article accuses Trump of obstruction of Congress by directing administration officials and agencies not to comply with lawful House subpoenas for testimony and documents related to impeachment.

Trump has denied wrongdoing and called the impeachment inquiry, launched by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in September, a "witch hunt."

During a daylong debate before the vote, Pelosi read the US Pledge of Allegiance and said: "We are here to defend democracy for the people."

"If we do not act now, we would be derelict in our duty. It is tragic that the president's reckless actions make impeachment necessary," Pelosi said.

As the debate unfolded, Trump on Twitter called the proceedings "AN ASSAULT ON AMERICA" and on his party. On the House floor, Republicans accused Democrats of seeking to use an unfair, rigged process to nullify the 2016 election.

"The matter before the House today is based solely on a fundamental hatred of our president. It's a sham, a witch hunt - and it's tantamount to a coup against the duly elected president of the United States," Republican Representative Mike Rogers said.

Republican Representative Mike Kelly compared the impeachment to the Japanese attack on Hawaii's Pearl Harbor in 1941, calling the House proceedings another "date that will live in infamy" - similar to the words Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt used to describe the raid that killed about 2,400 people and led to America's entry into World War 2.

POLARIZED COUNTRY

Trump's election has polarized the United States, dividing families and friends and making it more difficult for politicians in Washington to find middle ground as they try to confront pressing challenges like the rise of China and climate change.

The impeachment vote comes ahead of Trump's 2020 re-election campaign, which will pit him against the winner among a field of Democratic contenders, including Biden, who have repeatedly criticized Trump's conduct in office and promised to make it a key issue.

Reuters/Ipsos polls show that while most Democrats want to see him impeached, most Republicans do not. Televised hearings last month that were meant to build public support for impeachment appear to have pushed the two sides further apart.

The House vote on Wednesday was just the latest, but also unquestionably the biggest, in a string of controversies that have buffeted the turbulent presidency of the New York real estate mogul and former reality TV personality.

Central to the impeachment inquiry was a July 25 telephone call in which Trump asked Zelenskiy to investigate Biden and his son Hunter Biden, who had joined the board of Ukrainian energy company Burisma while his father was US vice president.

Trump has accused the Bidens of corruption without offering evidence. They have denied wrongdoing.

A rough transcript of the call released by the White House showed Trump asking Zelenskiy, elected only 3 months earlier and eager for American support, to "do us a favor" and conduct the investigations in coordination with his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani.

Giuliani in the prior months had engaged in a concerted effort to persuade Ukraine to carry out the investigations. Testimony before House committees showed that Giuliani helped engineer Trump's removal last May of the US ambassador to Ukraine, who was perceived as a roadblock to those investigations.

Impeachment is a remedy devised by the United States' founders, wary of a monarch on American soil after breaking away from Britain and King George III in the 18th century, to enable Congress to remove a president who has committed "high crimes and misdemeanors."

Only 2 previous presidents have been impeached.

The House in 1998 impeached President Bill Clinton on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice arising from a sexual relationship he had with a White House intern, but the Senate acquitted him.

The House impeached President Andrew Johnson in 1868, focused on his removal of the secretary of war, but he was acquitted by one vote in the Senate.

In 1974, President Richard Nixon resigned after the House Judiciary Committee approved articles of impeachment in the Watergate corruption scandal but before the full House could pass them.