The US House of Representatives on Wednesday began debating articles of impeachment against Donald Trump ahead of an expected partisan vote that would make him only the third president to be impeached.
The votes on two articles of impeachment — after six hours of scheduled debate — would set the stage for a trial this January in the Senate, where Republican control makes it unlikely that Mr Trump would be convicted and removed from office.
Democrats have accused Mr Trump of abusing his office for personal gain by pressing Ukraine to announce an investigation into Joe Biden, the former vice-president running for the Democratic presidential nomination, and into a debunked conspiracy theory that Ukraine — and not Russia, as US intelligence concluded — interfered in the 2016 election.
The second article accuses him of obstructing the impeachment inquiry by blocking administration officials from testifying.
Wednesday’s scheduled vote will mark the first time that lawmakers have used what Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic House speaker, called their “most solemn powers” since the House impeached Bill Clinton in 1998. The first impeachment of a US president was of Andrew Johnson 151 years ago. Richard Nixon resigned as president in 1974 over the Watergate scandal as the House was about to impeach him. Mr Clinton and Johnson were both acquitted in the Senate.
“This is the fourth time an impeachment proceeding has been launched against a president, and it’s by far the most serious,” said Brendan Boyle, a Democratic congressman from Philadelphia. “There’s just no comparison to the previous three, even Nixon.”
The proceeding represented a milestone in the three-year war between Mr Trump and the Democrats since his election. The president went on the offensive ahead of the debate by sending a letter to Ms Pelosi that accused the Democrats of “declaring open war on American democracy”.
“You dare to invoke the Founding Fathers . . . yet your spiteful actions display unfettered contempt for America’s founding,” Mr Trump wrote in the fiery six-page missive that Ms Pelosi described as “ridiculous” and “really sick”.
Given the Democratic majority in the House, there is almost no chance that Mr Trump will not be impeached. In recent days, several dozen Democrats who were elected in 2018 in Republican-leaning districts, signalled that they would vote for impeachment even though they could be jeopardising their re-election changes in 2020.
The odds are equally low that Mr Trump will be convicted in the Republican-controlled Senate, where a two-thirds majority is needed to remove a president from office. He would have to lose 20 Republicans to be convicted, which Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican majority leader, said had “zero” chance of occurring.
Mr Trump sparked the current crisis when he urged Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky in a July 25 phone call to investigate Mr Biden and his son Hunter who served on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company.
A CIA whistleblower raised concerns about the call, sparking the Democratic investigation into the president. Ms Pelosi had previously resisted calls from her party to launch an impeachment inquiry into Mr Trump over issues raised by the special prosecutor Robert Mueller, who investigated Russian interference in the 2016 election.
The California Democrat worried that such a move would energise Mr Trump’s supporters and help him get re-elected. But she changed her mind after the revelations about the Ukraine call and a related allegation that Mr Trump withheld $391m in military aid to Ukraine in an effort to pressure Mr Zelensky to probe the Bidens.
Mr Trump has castigated the impeachment investigation, claiming that the July 25 call was “perfect”. But Gordon Sondland, a former Trump donor who serves as US ambassador to the EU, told Congress in dramatic public testimony that there was a “quid pro quo”, undermining the denials from Mr Trump and his top officials.