WASHINGTON – A contingent of Democratic House members from Republican-leaning districts announced one by one Monday that after weeks of extraordinary pressure they have decided to vote to impeach President Donald Trump, as the House hurtles toward historic action later this week.
Monday’s announcements dealt a blow to Trump and his allies, who had been encouraging Democrats to defect to bolster their depiction of impeachment as a crusade by extremist liberals. The White House had mounted an all-out effort to pressure the centrists, many of whom faced a blitz of anti-impeachment ads and are risking significant political damage.
These Democrats characterized their choices as acts of conscience. “The president’s actions violate his oath of office, endanger our national security and betray the public trust,” said Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., a freshman who represents a Richmond-area district that voted for Trump in 2016.
With the outcome in the House increasingly certain, Senate leaders maneuvered Monday to set parameters for a possible trial, which would begin in January. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., demanded the chamber conduct a “full and fair trial,” including live testimony from acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and other administration officials. A trial without witnesses, which many Republicans favor, would amount to “a coverup,” Schumer said.
Republican leaders dismissed Schumer’s request, arguing that decisions about witnesses should not be made before the trial begins. Senate Republicans have largely coalesced around a strategy of calling no witnesses and restricting the length of a trial, although no decisions have been made.
The back-and-forth was prompted by the House’s move to the brink of a momentous vote on two articles of impeachment charging Trump with abusing power and obstructing Congress. House leaders plan Tuesday to begin the process of bringing those articles to the floor, setting up hours of debate Wednesday capped by votes later that night.
Monday’s dynamic solidifies the prospect that those votes will unfold almost entirely along party lines, a reflection of the hard-edge partisan mood in Congress and the country.
Adding to the momentum Monday, the House Judiciary Committee released a 658-page report accusing Trump of criminal bribery and wire fraud. It argued that Trump’s actions in soliciting political probes from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky met the definition of both constitutional and criminal bribery.
The report also argued that Trump’s July 25 call with Zelensky, in which he asked for a probe of former vice president Joe Biden, met the standard of federal wire fraud.
“Although President Trump’s actions need not rise to the level of a criminal violation to justify impeachment, his conduct here was criminal,” the report said.
Trump again proclaimed the impeachment push a “hoax” and defended his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, who has been central to the investigation. Trump praised Giuliani as “a very great crime fighter” and said he was pursuing his theories of wrongdoing in Ukraine out of patriotic duty.
“He’s a great person who loves our country,” Trump said. “And he does this out of love, believe me. He does it out of love.”
But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and her leadership team were buoyed by the steady announcements from an array of centrist Democrats that they would back articles of impeachment. Their position had been in doubt as Republicans tried to ratchet up pressure, especially on those elected in 2018 in districts that supported Trump.
Reps. Ben McAdams of Utah and Joe Cunningham of South Carolina, for example, had been widely expected to be among the half-dozen or so Democrats breaking with their party. Both said Monday they would vote in favor of impeaching Trump.
A trio of women Democrats with backgrounds in national security, who in September came out in favor of opening an impeachment inquiry into the president’s conduct, also said they have decided to vote for impeachment. That includes Spanberger, a former CIA officer, as well as Reps. Elissa Slotkin of Michigan, a former CIA analyst and Defense Department official, and Elaine Luria of Virginia, a former Navy commander.
Slotkin announced her decision at a town hall meeting in Rochester, Michigan, where hundreds of constituents either cheered or booed her as she explained her reasoning.
“I can hear that this is a very controversial decision – and I knew that,” Slotkin said. “And all I can ask from the people who are listening is that while we may not agree, I hope you believe me when I tell you that I made this decision out of principle.”
In New Jersey, Rep. Andy Kim announced his support for impeachment with “a sense of humility,” acknowledging that some of his constituents disagreed but arguing that the House vote “will determine the very framework of our democracy, what constitutes acceptable behavior by future presidents, and the kind of country our children and grandchildren will grow up in.”
The announcements raised hopes among Democrats that they may face fewer defections than originally predicted. Of the 31 House Democrats who represent districts that Trump carried, at least 17 have said they will vote to impeach the president. Only two so far have said they would vote against impeachment.
One of them, Rep. Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey, has often lambasted the impeachment inquiry on Fox News and is now preparing to join the Republican Party, spurring a mass resignation of staffers from his office. The other, Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, argued that Trump “has not committed a crime” and said if Americans do not approve of the president’s conduct, they can vote him out of office next year.
Van Drew had lost support from his Democratic base, jeopardizing his reelection and raising the prospect of a primary challenge. Republicans have warned swing-district Democrats about the potential blowback if they support impeachment, but Van Drew’s experience served as a reminder of an alternative backlash – the reaction by angry Democrats whose votes they need to win reelection in 2020.
Monday’s developments unfolded as the House looked ahead to a rapid-fire series of events this week to formally accuse Trump of wrongdoing.
The House Rules Committee meets Tuesday to debate how the articles of impeachment will be debated and voted on by the full chamber. Set to take place in a cramped room just off the House gallery, that session could last late into the night if Republicans offer numerous amendments. But the outcome is not in doubt, since Democrats hold a 9-to-4 majority on the panel.
Next will come a procedural vote by the full House, around midday Wednesday, launching the debate, which is expected to last for several hours and culminate in an evening vote on the articles of impeachment. The House also is planning to vote on a resolution formally naming House managers, or prosecutors, for the Senate trial, who will be selected by Pelosi.
Meanwhile, jockeying is underway in the Senate for the expected likely trial. Schumer held a news conference to press his case for testimony by four officials who were asked to appear in the House inquiry but declined – Mulvaney; John Bolton, former national security adviser; Robert Blair, a senior adviser to Mulvaney; and Michael Duffey, associate director for national security at the Office of Management and Budget.
All have direct knowledge of the president’s actions, Schumer said. “In the coming weeks, senators – particularly Republicans senators – will have a choice: Do they want a fair, honest trial that examines all the facts? Or do they want a trial that doesn’t let the facts come out?” he said.
Republicans responded that Schumer was being hypocritical, since in 1999 he opposed calling witnesses during the Senate impeachment trial of then-President Bill Clinton.
Schumer said the situations were fundamentally different: In 1999, the House had already heard from the witnesses in question, while none of those named Monday by Schumer have testified yet.
The trial’s parameters will be determined largely by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who could begin negotiating with Schumer as early as this week. The key decisions include the starting date for the proceedings, likely in early January; the length of time each side gets for opening arguments; and how much time will be set aside for senators to ask questions.
Top Senate Republicans spoke about witness strategy in their weekly leadership meeting Monday evening and will almost surely discuss it again at the regular Senate GOP luncheon Tuesday.
Several said decisions about witnesses should not be made before the trial begins. “I don’t think that can be decided in advance of this thing getting underway,” said Senate Majority Whip John Thune, R-S.D.
By the time House impeachment managers and Trump’s attorneys finish making their case in a Senate trial, Republican leaders hope a majority of senators will be ready to vote without hearing witnesses.
Schumer and Senate Democrats are zeroing in on a handful of Republican senators who may be willing to break from McConnell and insist on hearing from more administration officials with insight into the decision to hold up nearly $400 million in military assistance to Ukraine. Republicans hold a 53-to-47 majority in the Senate, but several GOP senators are up for reelection in swing states.
One Republican closely watched by Democrats – Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah – declined to comment Monday. Another, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, did not elaborate beyond saying she hoped McConnell and Schumer can work together.
A third Republican who occasionally departs from the party line, Susan Collins of Maine, said she would reserve comment until McConnell and Schumer have had a chance to speak privately. It was “unfortunate” that Schumer spoke publicly before sitting down with McConnell, she added.
Still, Collins distanced herself from her party’s leadership. Referring to McConnell’s comments last week on Fox News saying he was closely coordinating trial strategy with the White House, Collins told reporters, “That would not be the approach that I’ve taken.”
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The Washington Post’s Rachael Bade, Mike DeBonis, Paul Kane, Jenna Portnoy, Elise Viebeck, John Wagner and Griff Witte contributed to this report.
Video: With the House days away from a vote on impeachment articles against President Trump, Democrats and Republicans made their cases in TV interviews on Dec. 15.(The Washington Post)