WASHINGTON — On the eve of the House Judiciary Committee scheduled vote on articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump, Democrats argued late Wednesday that Congress must hold the president accountable, while Republicans charged that the only abuse of power was by the Democrats.
Speaking at a more than three-hour meeting of the House Judiciary Committee, Democratic lawmakers said that they didn't come to Congress wanting to impeach a president, but they pointed to detailed evidence since the inquiry began in late September that has now given rise to two impeachment articles — one for abuse of power and the other for obstruction of Congress.
Trump, they said, abused his power by pressuring Ukraine to announce an investigation into a 2020 political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, and a debunked conspiracy theory about the 2016 presidential election by conditioning them on nearly $400 million in U.S. aid and a White House meeting with his Ukrainian counterpart. Democrats said that Trump also obstructed Congress by blocking lawmakers from obtaining key documents and testimony.
Republicans, on the other hand, fiercely defended the president on Wednesday night, saying that Trump did nothing wrong and they ridiculed Democrats for speeding through the impeachment process.
The evening hearing was largely free of the partisan rancor that has characterized earlier impeachment hearings. That is expected to change Thursday when the House Judiciary Committee meets again to vote to send the two articles to the floor for a full House vote, possibly next week.
In his opening statement, Judiciary Committee chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., said that three questions frame the debate over impeaching the president.
"First, does the evidence show clearly that the President committed these acts? Second, do they rise to the level of impeachable high crimes and misdemeanors? Third, what are the consequences for our national security, for the integrity of our elections, and for our country if we fail to act?" he asked.
Referring to the article of obstruction of Congress, Nadler said that during the Watergate hearings, President Nixon turned over tapes of his conversations in the Oval Office, and in the 1990s, President Clinton handed over his DNA.
"President Trump's obstruction was, by contrast, absolute," said Nadler.
Ranking Member Doug Collins, R-Ga., shot back, and said in his remarks that the only abuse of power is Democrats racing against the clock to impeach Trump.
The real legacy of their impeachment effort, he said, "will not be the removal of Donald Trump as president," which only the Senate has the power to do. Instead, it will be about "a three-year vendetta to get somebody that they couldn't beat and they're desperate to do it before he beats them against next year."
In addition to Nadler, several other veterans of the impeachment process spoke for and against the articles.
"The power to impeach is not to punish a president. It is to protect Americans from a president who abused his power, upend the constitutional order and threatened our democracy," said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., a staffer for a member of the Judiciary Committee during Watergate and who sat on the committee herself during the Clinton impeachment. "Regrettably, President Trump has engaged in the abuse of power. His failure does not permit us to fail to fulfill our oath."
On the other side of the dais, Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., who served as an acting House manager during the Clinton impeachment, said that his colleagues are now debating "the weakest case in history." He said that the articles of impeachment don't allege that any crimes like bribery, treason or extortion were committed by the president.
Ignoring Democrats' calls to protect the identity of the whistleblower who first made a formal complaint about the president's alleged misconduct, Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, named a person alleged by some Republicans and conservative media to be the whistleblower.
Conservative firebrand Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, said during the markup Wednesday night that the effort by Democrats to impeach Trump is really about how they "never accepted the will of the American people."
"They're never going to stop. And it's not just because they don't like the president," he said. "They don't like us. They don't like the 63 million people who voted for this president, all of us in flyover country, all of us common folk in Ohio Wisconsin Tennessee and Texas."
Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., later turned to Republicans, and said, "Wake up. Stop thinking about running for re-election. Stop worrying about being primaried. Stop deflecting and distracting and treating those you represent as if they don't see what's going on, like they're not smart enough to realize that you are willfully ignoring the facts to protect a corrupt and dangerous president."
Democratic leaders have not yet revealed when the floor vote for the House will be held, but lawmakers have signaled that they expect it to happen by the end of next week, ahead of their holiday break. If one or more of the articles are adopted, the Senate would then hold a trial to consider removing Trump. That would take a vote by at least two thirds of the Senate, most likely some time in January.