The US House of Representatives has voted to open a new phase in the impeachment investigation, setting the stage for dramatic public hearings with former and current officials about President Donald Trump’s efforts to pressure his Ukrainian counterpart to dig up dirt on political opponents.
The measure passed by a vote of 232-196, with support from all but two Democrats and opposition from nearly all 197 Republicans in the chamber. It paves the way for the three House committees leading the investigation to hold open hearings with witnesses who previously testified in private
Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Speaker of the House, decided to hold the historic vote on Thursday in an attempt to rebut Republican criticism of the investigation. The move was also designed to build a body of public evidence that will be critical if the House eventually votes, as expected, on formal articles of impeachment against Mr Trump.
“These open hearings seeking the truth and making it available to the American people will inform Congress on the very difficult decision we will have to make in the future as to whether to impeach the president,” Ms Pelosi said ahead of the vote.
Kevin McCarthy, the top Republican in the House, accused the Democrats of pursuing the impeachment inquiry because they were concerned that Mr Trump would be re-elected in 2020. “Democrats are trying to impeach the president because they are scared that they cannot defeat him at the ballot box,” the California lawmaker said.
Mr Trump has denounced the inquiry and described witnesses who have presented damaging evidence as “Never Trumpers”. But the president is facing an increasingly tough challenge defending his actions, after several current and former officials testified that he had inappropriately tried to put pressure on the Ukrainian president.
Shortly after the vote, Mr Trump said in a tweet: “The Greatest Witch Hunt In American History!”
The White House said the vote showed that the Democrats had an “unhinged obsession” with an “illegitimate impeachment proceeding”.
“The President has done nothing wrong and the Democrats know it,” said Stephanie Grisham, White House press secretary. “With today’s vote . . . the Democrats have done nothing more than enshrine unacceptable violations of due process into House rules.”
Lawmakers are also investigating whether a decision to withhold almost $400m in military aid to Ukraine in order to pressure Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, to take actions that would amount to interference in the US election.
The vote came as Tim Morrison, the White House National Security Council official responsible for Europe and Russia policy, was testifying before the House panels leading the probe. The White House announced on Wednesday that Mr Morrison would soon leave his position.
Bill Taylor, the acting US ambassador in Kyiv, last week testified that Mr Morrison had described having a “sinking” feeling after learning about a conversation between Mr Trump and Gordon Sondland, US ambassador to the EU, in which the president said he wanted the Ukrainian president to publicly say that he would investigate the Bidens.
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