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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - WASHINGTON: US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi called Donald Trump an ongoing threat to American democracy as the bitterly divided chamber engaged in an impeachment debate before historic votes on two charges accusing the Republican president of abusing his power and obstructing Congress.
The Democratic-controlled House launched a planned six hours of debate on the two articles of impeachment — formal charges — arising from the president’s actions toward Ukraine, with time equally divided between the parties and no amendments.
Trump would become only the third US president to be impeached.
“Today we are here to defend democracy for the people,” Pelosi, the top Democrat in Congress, said in a speech on the House floor after reading the pledge of allegiance, drawing applause from lawmakers in her party.
As the debate unfolded, Trump on Twitter called the Democratic-led proceedings “AN ASSAULT ON AMERICA” and on his party.
In a series of speeches on the House floor, Republicans defended the president and accused Democrats of seeking to topple him from power using an unfair and rigged process to nullify the results of the 2016 election.
Separate votes on the two charges are expected in the early evening. The votes are expected to fall almost entirely along party lines, with Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed.
“If we do not act now, we would be derelict in our duty. It is tragic that the president’s reckless actions make impeachment necessary,” Pelosi added.
“He gave us no choice. What we are discussing today is the established fact that the president violated the Constitution. It is a matter of fact that the president is an ongoing threat to our national security and the integrity of our elections — the basis of our democracy,” Pelosi said.
Following Pelosi, Representative Doug Collins, top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, said, “This an impeachment based on presumption. This is basically also a poll-tested impeachment on what actually sells to the American people. Today’s going to be a lot of things. What it is not, is fair. What it is not, is about the truth.”
Republican Representative Jim Sensenbrenner then called the articles of impeachment pursued by Democrats “a bunch of bunk.”
The debate underscored the deep divide in Congress over Trump’s conduct during his tumultuous presidency and the larger political schism within the United States.
Impeachment is an extraordinary check on presidential power spelled out in the US Constitution enabling Congress to remove presidents who commit “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
“The founders’ great fear of a rogue or corrupt president is the very reason why they enshrined impeachment in the Constitution,” Pelosi added.
The vote would set the stage for a trial expected next month in the US Senate on whether to convict Trump and remove him from office. While the House twice previously has voted to impeach presidents — Bill Clinton in 1998 and Andrew Johnson in 1868 — no president has ever been removed from office via impeachment.
The Senate is controlled by Trump’s fellow Republicans, who have shown little interest in ousting him. During the trial, House members would act as prosecutors as the senators as jurors.
House Democrats accuse Trump of abusing his power by asking Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden, a former US vice president and a leading contender for the Democratic nomination to face Trump in the November 2020 election. Trump is also accused of obstructing the House investigation by directing administration officials and agencies not to comply with subpoenas for testimony and documents related to impeachment.
“This is a democracy-defining moment. History will judge us by whether we keep intact that fragile republic handed down to us by our forebears over 200 years ago — or whether we allow it to be changed forever,” Democratic Representative Jim McGovern, chairman of the House Rules Committee, said on the House floor.
Representative Tom Cole, that committee’s top Republican, countered, “Today after a truncated investigation that denied the president due process, cherry-picked evidence and witness testimony to fit their narrative, and trampled on Republicans’ minority rights, Democrats in the House are pressing forward with a partisan impeachment vote.”
’SAY A PRAYER’
Denying wrongdoing, Trump, 73, has called the impeachment process “a total sham,” and on Tuesday sent Pelosi a letter in which he accused her of engaging in a “perversion of justice” and an “attempted coup.” The businessman-turned-politician argued that Democrats are trying to undo the results of the 2016 election in which he defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton.
“Can you believe that I will be impeached today by the Radical Left, Do Nothing Democrats, AND I DID NOTHING WRONG! A terrible thing,” Trump wrote on Twitter on Wednesday morning. “Say a prayer!” He later added a Twitter post attacking Pelosi, writing, “Will go down in history as worst Speaker.”
On the House floor, Republican Representative and Trump ally Debbie Lesko said, “This is a sad day. I believe that the Democrats are tearing the country apart.”
The House vote to approve the rule and formally begin debate was 228-197.
Republicans signaled as soon as the day began that they intended to try to stall the proceedings, calling for the House to adjourn, then presenting a motion accusing senior Democrats of violating House rules. Republicans lost votes on both issues.
Fearful of political blowback, Democrats were long resistant to an impeachment inquiry, even after Special Counsel Robert Mueller outlined episodes of Trump seeking to impede the federal investigation that documented Russian interference in the 2016 election to boost his candidacy.
But after a whistleblower from the US intelligence community brought to light a July 25 phone call in which Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate Biden, House Democrats launched an impeachment inquiry in September and moved swiftly to take testimony from current and former administration officials.
Democrats said Trump held back $391 million in security aid intended to combat Russia-backed separatists and a coveted White House meeting for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy as leverage to coerce Kiev into interfering in the 2020 election by smearing Biden.
On the July telephone call, Trump asked Zelenskiy to investigate Biden and his son Hunter Biden as well as a discredited theory promoted by the president and beneficial to Russia that Democrats conspired with Ukraine to meddle in the 2016 election. Hunter Biden had joined the board of Ukrainian energy company Burisma while his father was US vice president. Trump has accused the Bidens of corruption without offering evidence. They have denied wrongdoing.
The Senate has yet to set its procedures for a trial on the charges, which would be overseen by US Chief Justice John Roberts. Removing Trump from office would require a two-thirds majority of those present and voting in the 100-member Senate, meaning at least 20 Republicans would have to vote to convict the president.
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