Charged exchanges and fist-pounding rants did little to lift the air of inevitability that hung over the House judiciary committee’s day-long debate over whether Donald Trump should be removed from office.
The battle lines drawn, the outcome all but assured, Democrats and Republicans, bitterly divided and deeply cynical, trudged toward a historic vote that would bring an American president to the brink of impeachment for only the fourth time in history.
Jerry Nadler of New York, the chairman of the committee, reconvened the hearing promptly at 9am on Thursday, after hours of primetime testimony the evening prior, by having the clerk’s panel read aloud House resolution 755: “Impeaching Donald John Trump, president of the United States, for high crimes and misdemeanors.”
As she read, a Republican member interrupted and asked that the committee bypass the step. “Given the significance” of the moment, Nadler replied, the text would be read in full. He gestured for the clerk to continue.
The testy start set the tone for the rest of the day, to end with a vote to advance the articles of impeachment to the House floor, setting up a full vote next week, possibly Wednesday.
Lawmakers defaulted to the same arguments they’ve been making for the past five weeks. Democrats argued that the case before the committee was crystal clear and that they had a duty to hold the president accountable. Republicans, by contrast, sought to justify the Trump’s actions and accused the Democrats of blind hatred for the president.
“Facts matter,” declared Joe Neguse, a Democrat from Colorado. “And I hope that each and every one of us can agree at least on that simple point.”
Everyone agreed. Facts do matter. They just couldn’t agree on the facts.
“The facts speak for themselves,” said Jim Jordan, one of the president’s most loyal supporters in Congress. “There was no impeachable offense here.”
Jordan pointed to the first amendment, suggesting lawmakers strike from the resolution article I: abuse of power. In the ensuing debate, Republicans twisted testimony and sought to shift the focus from Trump’s alleged wrongdoing to that of his political rival.
Democrats seethed with incredulity.
“I took theater and drama when I was in college, one course,” said Steve Cohen, a Democrat from Tennessee. “I was told that the first thing you have to do is have the willing suspension of disbelief. The Republicans obviously took that course over and over and over again.”
Indeed, there was plenty of drama in march to the exit.
Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat and the only member of the committee who has participated in all three modern impeachment investigations, accused Republicans of hypocrisy over the standard for impeachment. Why were Republicans once willing to impeach Bill Clinton for lying about a sexual indiscretion yet refusing to hold Trump to account for attempting to extract a political “favor” from a foreign government? she asked.
“If it’s lying about sex, we could put Stormy Daniels’s case ahead of us,” she said, referring to the adult film star allegedly paid $130,000 by Trump’s then consigiliere during the 2016 campaign to keep quiet about their affair, which he denies. “We don’t believe that’s a high crime and misdemeanor. No. And it is not before us. And it should not be for us, because it’s not an abuse of presidential power.”
The debate turned particularly nasty when congressman Matt Gaetz, a Republican from Florida who Trump spent much of the morning enthusiastically retweeting, proposed an amendment to remove a reference to Joe Biden as a “political opponent” of Trump. He suggested that the text instead reflect what he argued should be the real focus of the inquiry: Hunter Biden, the son of Joe Biden, and Burisma, the Ukrainian energy company on which he served while his father was vice-president.
His goal was to make the case that Trump’s actions reflected a deep-seated concern over the prevalence of corruption in Ukraine, not out of self-interest. (A Democratic member later likened Trump leading an anti-corruption campaign to “Kim Jong-un leading a human rights effort”.)
To make his point, Gaetz read from a profile of Hunter Biden in New Yorker magazine. He said he was not making light of Biden’s struggles with addiction, but continued: “It’s a little hard to believe that Burisma hired Hunter Biden to resolve their international disputes when he could not resolve his own dispute with Hertz rental car over leaving cocaine and a crack pipe in the car,” he said.
“The pot calling the kettle black is not something we should do,” said Hank Johnson, a Democrat of Georgia, as he stared at Gaetz. Nervous laughter rippled through the hearing room at the veiled reference to the Gaetz’s past arrest for driving while intoxicated.
“I don’t know what members, if any, have had any problems with substance abuse, been busted in DUI,” Johnson said. “I don’t know, but if I did, I wouldn’t raise it against anyone on this committee. I don’t think it’s proper.”
For the rest of the afternoon, the hearing seesawed between periodic outbursts and the clack of the gavel. Any hope of a breakthrough or a surprise change of heart belonged to another political era. Since the House weighed articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon in 1974, the process has only gotten more partisan and more divisive.
Staring across the dais, the Democratic congressman Cedric Richmond said he was reminded of Judas.
“Judas, for 30 pieces of silver, betrayed Jesus,” Richmond said. “For 30 positive tweets, for easy re-election, the other side is willing to betray the American people.”