WASHINGTON — The House Judiciary Committee opened debate Wednesday evening on two articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump, starting a sharply partisan confrontation over Democrats’ charges that the president abused his power and obstructed Congress.
In a rare and solemn evening session that was only the third time in modern history the panel has met to consider removing a president, Democrats and Republicans clashed over the Constitution, the allegations against Trump and the political consequences of ousting him less than a year before the next election. The debate unfolded at the start of a two-day meeting that is expected by both sides to culminate Thursday with approval of the articles, along party lines, which will send them to the full House for a final vote.
Leaning with equal weight on the Constitution and the findings of their 2 1/2-month inquiry, Democrats made their case that Trump put the 2020 election and the nation’s security at risk by using his office to pressure Ukraine to investigate his political rivals, and then trampled on his oath of office and the separation of powers by seeking to conceal his actions from Congress.
“The highest of high crimes is abuse of power,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., and the chairman of the committee. He described the facts of the case against Trump as “overwhelming” and said the threat to the nation is urgent. “President Trump both betrayed our national security and attempted to corrupt our elections.”
He added: “We cannot rely on an election to solve our problems when the president threatens the very integrity of that election.”
Republicans on the panel argued that the case against Trump is overstated, insufficiently proven and the product of a desperate attempt by Democrats to remove from office a president they do not like. They denounced the impeachment inquiry, saying it was unfair to Trump and his Republican allies.
“The big lie is that a sham impeachment is OK, because the threat is so real and so urgent and so great,” said Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the top Republican on the panel. Collins accused Democrats of being a “party that has lost all moorings of fairness and good taste.”
“This is as much about political expediency as anything else,” Collins added.
The rancorous back-and-forth was expected to stretch into the night as all 41 members on the notoriously partisan panel had the chance to deliver their opening remarks in one of the most consequential deliberations in more than two decades. Nadler noted at the start that the process was unusual — such statements are often allowed only from the chairman and the senior minority member of the committee — but said the historic nature of the proceeding warranted taking the time to hear from each member.
The gathering unfolded exactly 21 years to the day after the Judiciary Committee voted to approve articles of impeachment against former President Bill Clinton.
Seated at the wood-carved dais of the Ways and Means Committee room, the grandest meeting chamber in the House of Representatives, lawmakers appeared to feel the weight of the occasion, refraining from some of the more raucous tactics that have suffused the impeachment process in favor of passionate statements of principle.
Even as the outcome in the committee appeared clear, Nadler used his statement Wednesday to appeal to Republicans to reconsider their position before it was too late.
“You still have a choice,” Nadler told the Republicans, adding, “President Trump will not be president forever.”
“When his time has passed, when his grip on our politics is gone, when our country returns — as surely it will — to calmer times and stronger leadership, history will look back on our actions here today,” the Democratic chairman said. “How would you be remembered?”
Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., one of the managers of the impeachment case against Clinton, had an appeal of his own to Democrats: “Put aside your partisan politics and don’t listen to what Pelosi, Schiff and Nadler are telling you, because the future of our country and the viability of our Constitution as the framers decided are at stake.”
Along with the committee chairman, he was referring to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has kept remarkably tight control over the impeachment inquiry, and Rep. Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., and the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, who led the investigation.
Nadler planned to call a recess after the opening statements late Wednesday evening before reconvening the panel Thursday to begin the protracted process of allowing members to propose edits and amendments to the two articles.
The first article accuses Trump of “ignoring and injuring national security and other vital national interests” by carrying out a scheme to corruptly solicit election assistance from Ukraine through investigations to smear his Democratic political rivals. The second article charges that the president obstructed Congress by engaging in “unprecedented, categorical and indiscriminate defiance” of House subpoenas.
By Thursday afternoon, the panel is expected to conclude by approving both articles and recommend them to the House for action. No lawmaker is expected to cross party lines, and House Democratic leaders are eyeing a final vote to impeach the president for high crimes and misdemeanors as early as Tuesday.
Republicans were preparing to use the meeting Thursday — called a “markup” because it is a chance for lawmakers to edit the impeachment articles — as a chance to try to water down the charges with amendments. Progressive Democrats could try to insert tougher language or even add additional charges. But any changes are subject to a vote of the committee, which is skewed heavily in favor of Democrats, and Nadler expected few, if any, of his own members to try to change what were carefully worded texts.
With the outcome in the Judiciary Committee all but certain, Democratic leaders were also looking ahead to the timing of the final debate and impeachment vote in the House next week. Nadler met Wednesday to try to pin down a date with Pelosi, Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., and the chairman of the Rules Committee, and others.
Earlier in the day, Pelosi also assembled a group of Democrats from across her caucus to lay out how they would discuss impeachment with the public. And individually, lawmakers have begun privately appealing to the speaker to win appointments as impeachment managers, essentially prosecutors of the case against the president, when the charges are put before the Senate for trial.
Democrats are confident they have the votes to pass both articles. Some moderate Democratic lawmakers, uneasy with the prospect of a partisan impeachment, have held private discussions this week about trying to build bipartisan support to censure Trump instead. But time is running short, Republicans have shown no sign they would be willing to break with the president, and the Democrats concede an eleventh-hour change is unrealistic.
In the Senate, where the parties’ respective leaders ticked through their year-end to-do list Wednesday, the prospect of hosting an impeachment trial when they return from the year-end break was weighing heavily on their thinking.
Some Senate Republicans appeared to be eager for a streamlined trial without testimony by witnesses, ensuring that the spectacle of deciding on Trump’s impeachment would be over quickly so that the chamber could move on to other issues in an election year.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the majority leader, hinted at that preference in comments to reporters Tuesday when he described the possibility that a trial could be brought to an end after the presentation of the charges by Democrats and a rebuttal by Trump’s lawyers.
He said at that point, a majority of senators could decide that “they’ve heard enough and they believe they know what would happen and could move to vote on the two articles of impeachment sent over to us by the House.”
On Wednesday, McConnell chastised the House for what he called “the least thorough and most unfair impeachment inquiry in modern history.”
“The House Democrats’ denigration of their solemn duty will not cause the Senate to denigrate ours,” McConnell said on the Senate floor. “If the House continues down this destructive road and sends us articles of impeachment, the Senate will take them up in the new year and proceed to a fair trial.”
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the minority leader, had a different warning. He urged the president to provide evidence he withheld from House investigators and make government officials who could shed further light on the events in question available for questioning.
“The House has made an extremely strong case,” Schumer said. “The burden now lies on the president to rebut it if he can.”
Over lunch Wednesday, Republican senators invited Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, who has played a leading role in Trump’s defense in the House, and his lawyer, Stephen R. Castor, to privately offer their theory of the case for Trump’s defense.
The articles of impeachment include two counts against Trump and run for nine pages that were carefully crafted by lawyers for the Judiciary and Intelligence Committees in recent days. Thursday’s session will begin with a committee clerk reading the articles aloud.
The first article, abuse of power, accused Trump of withholding $391 million in military aid and a coveted White House meeting for Ukraine’s president as leverage for extracting public announcements of investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, as well as an unsubstantiated theory that Ukraine conspired with Democrats to swing the 2016 election against Trump.
“In all of this, President Trump abused the powers of the presidency by ignoring and injuring national security and other vital national interests to obtain an improper personal political benefit,” according to a draft of the first article. “He has also betrayed the nation by abusing his office to enlist a foreign power in corrupting democratic elections.”
The second article, obstruction of Congress, charges that Trump sought to cover up his own wrongdoing by systematically blocking administration officials from speaking to House investigators and refusing to comply with any subpoena for relevant records.
“In the history of the republic, no president has ever ordered the complete defiance of an impeachment inquiry or sought to obstruct and impede so comprehensively the ability of the House to investigate ‘high crimes and misdemeanors,’” the obstruction article says.