A week after President Donald Trump’s supporters stormed the US Capitol, the House of Representatives began debate on Wednesday as lawmakers considered impeaching him for his role in an assault on American democracy that stunned the nation and left five dead.
At least five Republicans have said they would join Democrats in voting for an article of impeachment – a formal charge – of inciting an insurrection just seven days before he is due to leave office and President-elect Joe Biden is sworn in on January 20. If the House approves it, Trump would become the first president impeached twice.
House impeachment of Trump would not immediately remove him from office but would set up a trial in the Republican-controlled Senate. It remained unclear whether such a trial would take place in time to expel Trump from office.
As lawmakers debated the matter, National Guard troops and police were stationed around the Capitol to provide security.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, the No. 2 Democrat, said Democrats intended to send the impeachment charge, once approved, to the Senate “as soon as possible,” and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi named nine impeachment managers who would present the House’s case during a Senate trial.
The extraordinary swiftness with which Democrats were moving reflects the ongoing danger that Trump poses to national security, according to top Democrats. It also increases pressure on Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate leader, to consider holding an immediate trial.
McConnell has said no trial could begin until the chamber returns from its recess on January 19. But Democratic Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who is set to become the majority leader after two newly elected Democratic senators from Georgia are seated and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris is sworn in later this month, told reporters the Senate could be recalled to handle the matter if McConnell agrees.
Washington is on high alert after the Jan. 6 riot, with a week to go in Trump’s term. Thousands of National Guard troops were to be on hand and some service members wearing fatigues, with weapons at hand, could be seen sleeping inside the Capitol building on Wednesday ahead of the session.
The House convened just after 9 a.m. (1400 GMT) in the same chamber where lawmakers hid under chairs last Wednesday as rioters clashed with police in the halls of the Capitol.
“We are debating this historic measure at an actual crime scene,” Democratic Representative Jim McGovern said as the session opened. “This was a well-organised attack on our country that was incited by Donald Trump.”
House Republicans who opposed the impeachment drive argued Democrats were going too far, as Trump was on the verge of leaving office, and argued for the creation of a commission to study the events surrounding the siege.
“Instead of moving forward as a unifying force, the majority in the House is choosing to divide us further,” Oklahoma Republican Tom Cole said on the floor.
Cole was one of 139 House Republicans who voted against certifying the Nov. 3 presidential election results on Wednesday, hours after the violence, after Trump made false claims of widespread voting fraud.
Republican Representative Jason Smith accused Democrats of acting recklessly and urged the House not to impeach Trump in order to help “heal the nation.”
Democrats moved forward on an impeachment vote after Vice President Mike Pence rejected an effort to persuade him to invoke the 25th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution to remove Trump.
As the House prepared for the impeachment vote, there were signs Trump’s hold on the Republican Party was beginning to ebb. At least five House Republicans, including Liz Cheney, a member of her party’s leadership team, said they would vote for his second impeachment – a prospect no president before Trump has faced.
“There has never been a greater betrayal by a President of the United States of his office and his oath to the Constitution,” Cheney, the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, said in a statement.
Trump “summoned this mob, assembled the mob, and lit the flame of this attack” on the Capitol, she said.
Republicans Jaime Herrera Beutler, John Katko, Adam Kinzinger and Fred Upton also said they supported impeachment.
In a break from standard procedure, Republican leaders in the House have refrained from urging their members to vote against impeaching Trump, saying it was a matter of individual conscience.
The New York Times reported that McConnell was said to be pleased about the impeachment push, another sign Trump’s party is looking to move on from him after the attack on Congress.
The House previously voted to impeach Trump in December 2019 on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress stemming from his request that Ukraine investigate Biden and his son Hunter ahead of the election, as Democrats accused him of soliciting foreign interference to smear a domestic political rival. The Republican-led Senate in February 2020 voted to keep Trump in office.
The article of impeachment accused Trump of “incitement of insurrection,” saying he provoked violence against the US government in a speech to thousands of supporters near the White House shortly before the Capitol siege. The article also cited Trump’s Jan. 2 phone call asking a Georgia official to “find” votes to overturn Biden’s victory in the state.
In his first public appearance since last Wednesday’s riot, Trump showed no contrition on Tuesday for his speech shortly before the siege.
“What I said was totally appropriate,” Trump told reporters.
At a meeting to set the rules for Wednesday’s impeachment vote, Democratic Representative David Cicilline, who helped craft the impeachment measure, said it had the support of 217 lawmakers – enough to impeach Trump.
A two-thirds majority of the Senate is needed to convict Trump, meaning at least 17 Republicans in the 100-member chamber would have to vote for conviction.
Democrats could also use an impeachment trial to push through a vote blocking Trump from running for office again.
Only a simple Senate majority is needed to disqualify Trump from future office, but there is disagreement among legal experts as to whether an impeachment conviction is needed before a disqualification vote.
A different part of the Constitution, the 14th Amendment, also provides a procedure for disqualifying Trump from future office with a simple majority of both chambers.