WASHINGTON — House Democratic leaders on Tuesday formally called for President Donald Trump’s removal from office, asserting that he “ignored and injured the interests of the nation” in two articles of impeachment that charged him with abusing his power and obstructing Congress.
In nine short pages, the draft articles accused Trump of carrying out a scheme “corruptly soliciting” election assistance from the government of Ukraine in the form of investigations that would smear his Democratic political rivals. To do so, Democrats charged, Trump used as leverage two “official acts”: the delivery of $391 million in security assistance and a White House meeting for Ukraine’s president.
“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.”
A second article charges that by ordering across-the-board defiance of House subpoenas for testimony and documents related to the Ukraine matter, Trump engaged in “unprecedented, categorical and indiscriminate defiance” that harmed the House’s constitutional rights.
Democrats unveiled them Tuesday before a meeting of the House Judiciary Committee as soon as Wednesday, where the panel will debate and vote on the charges. The panel could vote by Thursday to recommend them to the full House of Representatives for final approval. If the House follows through as expected next week, days before Christmas, Trump could stand trial in the Senate early in the new year.
Less than a year before the 2020 election, the action sets up a historic and highly partisan constitutional clash between Trump and congressional Democrats — one that is likely to have broad political implications for both parties and exacerbate the divisions of an already polarized nation.
But Democrats argued that the political calendar made their endeavor even more urgent, given the nature of the charges against the president, which they called part of a pattern of behavior that began when Trump welcomed Russia’s help in the 2016 election and would continue into 2020 if they did not act to stop it.
“The argument ‘why don’t you just wait’ amounts to this: ‘Why don’t you just let him cheat in one more election?’” Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the chairman of the Intelligence Committee who oversaw the House’s Ukraine investigation, said at a news conference steps from the Capitol dome to announce the charges. “Why not let him cheat just one more time? Why not let him have foreign help just one more time?”
In announcing a pair of charges that was narrowly focused on the Ukraine matter, Democrats made a careful political calculation designed to project unity and protect moderate lawmakers who face steep reelection challenges in conservative-leaning districts. They left out an article that had been the subject of internal debate among Democrats in recent weeks that would have charged Trump with obstruction of justice based on his attempts to thwart Robert Mueller’s investigation into his campaign’s ties to Russian election interference in 2016.
It had been championed by progressives including Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, but moderate lawmakers, many of them freshmen, had long signaled they would not support impeaching Trump based on Mueller’s report.
Trump responded angrily to Democrats’ announcement, taking to Twitter to proclaim their charge that he pressured Ukraine “ridiculous.”
The White House press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, accused Democrats of “manufacturing an impeachment inquiry and forcing unfounded accusations down the throats of the American people.” Their goal, she said, was to try to use the House’s impeachment power to weaken Trump’s chances of reelection.
“The announcement of two baseless articles of impeachment does not hurt the president, it hurts the American people, who expect their elected officials to work on their behalf to strengthen our nation,” Grisham said in a statement. “The president will address these false charges in the Senate and expects to be fully exonerated, because he did nothing wrong.”
The introduction of formal charges was a major milestone in a more than two-month impeachment inquiry and the long, slow-building partisan showdown that has defined Trump’s presidency.
Speaking earlier in Tuesday morning from a wood-paneled reception room just off the floor of the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and leaders of six key committees said that Trump’s actions toward Ukraine, and his efforts to block Congress’ attempt to investigate, had left them no choice but to pursue one of the Constitution’s gravest remedies. The move will bring a sitting president to the brink of impeachment for only the fourth time in American history.
“Our president holds the ultimate public trust,” Nadler said. “When he betrays that trust and puts himself before country, he endangers the Constitution, he endangers our democracy, and he endangers our national security.”
While individual lawmakers will be able to propose amendments to the articles during this week’s debate and potentially force a committee vote on additional charges, they are not expected to substantively change.
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Though the details differ substantially, the articles of impeachment Democrats outlined Tuesday echo those the Judiciary Committee approved in 1974 charging President Richard M. Nixon with abuse of power, obstruction of justice and contempt of Congress. Nixon resigned before the full House had a chance to vote on the articles, amid clear indications that the charges had broad support from members of both parties.
There is less overlap with the other modern presidential impeachment. In 1998, the House approved impeachment articles charging President Bill Clinton with perjury and obstruction of justice. Two other counts, of perjury and abuse of power, failed in votes on the House floor. It was that kind of split decision that Democratic leaders are determined to avoid this time around.
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With all but a handful of House Republicans firmly united behind Trump, the charges Democrats have settled on are all but certain to face monolithic Republican opposition. If that does not change, and Trump continues a defiant defense, the impeachment vote against him could take place strictly along party lines, save for one independent, Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, who has signaled he will join Democrats.
Rep. Peter T. King, a moderate New York Republican who is retiring and sometimes crosses the aisle to work with Democrats, echoed other members of his party when he decried the articles as “shameless, baseless abuse of congressional power by House Democrats.”
The impeachment effort would also face an uphill battle in the Republican-controlled Senate, where it would take the support of two-thirds of the chamber to convict Trump and remove him from office — a highly unlikely scenario, particularly in an election year.
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Democratic lawyers for the Judiciary Committee and the Intelligence Committee, which carried out the Ukraine inquiry, argued for the abuse of power and obstruction of Congress charges during a hearing Monday.
Citing testimony from senior diplomats and White House officials, they accused Trump and his agents of pressuring Ukraine’s president to announce investigations of former Vice President Joe Biden and an unsupported claim that Democrats conspired with Ukraine to interfere in the 2016 election. As part of the scheme, they asserted, Trump withheld a White House meeting and nearly $400 million in security assistance for the country as leverage.
They also said that Trump had systematically sought to halt their investigation by ordering government officials not to testify and refusing to hand over documents subpoenaed by the House related to the Ukraine matter.
Republicans pushed back against both conclusions, arguing that Democrats had manufactured a scandal to satiate their hunger to impeach Trump, a president whose policies they despise. They argued that the evidence gathered by the House had not proved Trump was acting to benefit himself politically when he pressed Ukraine to announce investigations into his political adversaries.
The decision to forgo a vote on an article of impeachment based on obstruction of justice was not entirely unexpected. Since the public release of Mueller’s report in the spring, House Democrats have debated whether the behavior detailed in it — including 10 possible instances of obstruction — warranted such action. The issue never unified their caucus in the way the Ukraine allegations have.
Progressive lawmakers including Nadler pushed repeatedly to include an article on obstruction of justice in the final impeachment case against Trump. But the resistance by moderates would have risked splitting the party in a vote on the House floor.