WASHINGTON, DC – Democrats propelled President Donald Trump’s impeachment toward a historic vote by the full U.S. House as the Judiciary Committee on Friday approved charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. It's the latest major step in the constitutional and political storm that has divided Congress and the nation.
The House is expected to approve the two articles of impeachment next week, before lawmakers depart for the holidays.
The partisan split in the committee vote — 23 Democrats to 17 Republicans — reflects the atmosphere in Congress. The Democratic-majority House is expected to approve the charges against Trump next week, but the Republican-controlled Senate is likely to acquit him after a January trial.
Trump is accused, in the first article, of abusing his presidential power by asking Ukraine to investigate his 2020 rival Joe Biden while holding military aid as leverage, and, in the second, of obstructing Congress by blocking the House's efforts to probe his actions.
"Today is a solemn and sad day," Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., told reporters after the session, marking the third time in U.S. history the panel has voted to recommend impeaching a president. He said the full House would act ''expeditiously."'
At the White House after the votes, Trump denounced the inquiry and actions against him, using the terms he's relied on for months. He referred to the impeachment effort four times as a hoax, twice as a sham and once each as a scam, a witch hunt and a disgrace. He described his actions as perfect three times and said four times he did nothing wrong.
When he had asked Ukraine to “do us a favor” in the July phone call that sparked the impeachment inquiry, he said, the “us” referred to the U.S., not a political favor for himself.
Trump noted that he watched “quite a bit” of the previous day's proceedings, and he derided the government officials who testified that he pressured Ukraine. He claimed he actually was benefiting politically from impeachment.
Voting was swift and solemn Friday, with none of the fiery speeches and weighty nods to history that defined the previous two days of debate, including 14 hours that stretched nearly to midnight Thursday. Nadler abruptly halted that rancorous session so voting could be held in daylight, for all Americans to see.
Nadler, who had said he wanted lawmakers to “search their consciences” before casting their votes, gaveled in the landmark but brief morning session at the Capitol. Lawmakers responded “aye” or “yes” for the Democrats, simply "no' for the Republicans. There was no new debate.
Trump is only the fourth U.S. president to face impeachment proceedings and the first to be running for reelection at the same time. Next week's House votes pose potentially serious political consequences for both parties ahead of the 2020 elections, with Americans deeply divided over whether the president indeed conducted impeachable acts and whether it should be up to Congress, or the voters, to decide whether he should remain in office.
Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Ariz., defended the president against what she called "unfair, rigged'' proceedings. “They had no proof, no evidence, no crime, but they went ahead anyway and they’re tearing the country apart,” she said.
Democrats countered they had no choice but to protect the 2020 election from further Trump outreach for foreign interference.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., who held up a copy of the Constitution as she voted, called impeachment "a very necessary thing to save our democracy.”
The president has refused to participate in the proceedings and instructed U.S. officials not to as well, tweeting criticisms from the sidelines and mocking the charges against him in the House's nine-page resolution as “impeachment light.” But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the president was wrong and the case against him was deeply grounded.
Democrats contend that Trump has engaged in a pattern of misconduct toward Russia dating back to the 2016 election campaign that special counsel Robert Mueller investigated. And they say his dealings with Ukraine have benefited its aggressive neighbor Russia, not the U.S., and he must be prevented from "corrupting" U.S. elections again and cheating his way to a second term next year.
"It is urgent,” Pelosi said.
With impeachment almost certain in the House, even with a smattering of defections from Democrats, particularly the freshman lawmakers seeking re-election in districts where Trump remains popular, the pressure will be on Republicans in the Senate to hold the line in support of the president.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Thursday on Fox News, “There is zero chance the president will be removed from office.” On Friday as he filed for his own reelection in Kentucky, he said the Democrats have a “weak case.”
Republican senators have been advocating for a swift trial next year. But Trump is eager for a showdown in the Senate that will not only acquit him of the charges but provide vindication while inflicting political pain on Democrats.
“I’ll do whatever I want,” Trump told reporters. The president has indicated he wants a parade of witnesses at the Senate, including the still-anonymous government whistleblower who first alerted Congress to the Ukraine call. He tweeted favorably about the GOP “warriors” on the House committee. “I wouldn’t mind a long process,” Trump said.
McConnell said Friday it's no surprise he'll be taking his cues from the White House, saying “we're on the same side," even as he stresses the risks of a drawn-out trial for Trump and the party, with a narrow 53-47 GOP Senate majority. It will take just 51 votes in the Senate to accept or reject witnesses, or take other actions, and McConnell could lose control.
“You could certainly make the case for making it shorter rather than longer,” he said earlier.
The Judiciary Committee session drew out over two days, much of time spent in bitter fights through failed Republican amendments aimed at killing the impeachment charges.
Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., argued there was “overwhelming evidence” that the president with his lawyer Rudy Giuliani, in pushing Ukraine to investigate rival Biden, was engaged in an abuse of power “to corrupt American elections.″
Bringing even more attention to the situation, Giuliani showed up at the White House on Friday. Just back from Ukraine, he was expected to brief Trump on his search for information on Biden that Trump discussed in the July call. Many GOP lawmakers are trying to ignore Giuliani's investigations, blaming him for Trump's predicament.
Emotions were still on display Friday.
“My vote is no,” said Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas , during the roll call. Then, before the tally was announced, he inquired how his vote was recorded by the clerk: “I want to make sure.”
Associated Press writers Laurie Kellman, Alan Fram, Jonathan Lemire and Padmananda Rama in Washington and Bruce Schreiner in Frankfort, Kentucky., contributed to this report.