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Witch hunt or necessary measure? Differing views on Trump’s impeachment

US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) wields the gavel as the House of Representatives votes on the first of two articles of impeachment against US President Donald Trump, in a still image from video, December 18, 2019.
US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) wields the gavel as the House of Representatives votes on the first of two articles of impeachment against US President Donald Trump, in a still image from video, December 18, 2019. House of Representatives TV, via REUTERS

Donald Trump on Wednesday became the third US president to be charged with high crimes and misdemeanours as the House of Representatives voted to impeach him on abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.

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After a tense 10-hour debate, the House voted 230 to 197 in favour of the first charge and 229 to 198 to approve the second.

"It is tragic that the president's reckless actions make impeachment necessary. He gave us no choice," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. "It is a matter of fact that the president is an ongoing threat to our national security and the integrity of our elections."

"What is at risk here is the very idea of America," Adam Schiff, the lawmaker who headed the impeachment inquiry, said ahead of the vote.

The vote in the Democratic-controlled House fell largely along party lines and sets the stage for a trial in the Republican-controlled Senate – friendlier terrain for Trump – on whether to convict and remove him from office. The trial is expected to be held next month.

Jesus had more rights

Republicans accused Democrats of simply being unwilling to accept the outcome of the 2016 election.

Republicans repeatedly drove the line that the Democrats rushed the investigation; Trump was being treated more unfairly than the men and women accused of and executed for witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts in the 1600s or even than Jesus Christ, they said.

"Pontius Pilate gave Jesus the opportunity to face his accusers. During that sham trial, Pontius Pilate afforded more rights to Jesus than the Democrats afforded this president and this process," said Georgia Republican Barry Loudermilk.

They accused Democrats of being driven by a fringe of socialist extremists and "Trump-haters", and warned that impeaching Trump would result in a backlash against the party in national elections next November.

"This is not about the Ukraine, it's about power," said Republican Matt Gaetz. "Voters will never forget that Democrats have been triggered into impeaching the president because they don't like him, and they don't like us."

What are these ‘articles’?

The articles of impeachment were drafted by House Democrats. On Tuesday, the House Judiciary Committee unveiled a resolution detailing them. Article One accuses Trump of having “abused the powers of the presidency by ignoring and injuring national security and other vital interests to obtain an improper personal political benefit”. Specifically, he is accused of pressuring Ukraine to publicly announce an investigation into Joe Biden, a leading contender for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, as well as into a discredited theory that it was Ukraine rather than Russia that had meddled in the 2016 election.

Democrats said Trump held back $391 million (€351m) in security aid intended to combat Russian aggression and a coveted White House meeting for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as leverage to coerce Kiev into interfering in the 2020 election by smearing Biden.

Article Two accuses Trump of obstruction of Congress by directing administration officials and agencies not to comply with lawful House subpoenas for testimony and documents related to impeachment. The Judiciary Committee’s resolution declared: “In the history of the Republic, no President has ever ordered the complete defiance of an impeachment inquiry or sought to obstruct and impeded so comprehensively the ability of the House of Representatives to investigate ‘high crimes and misdemeanours’.”

The latter phrase is a reference to the US Constitution, which limits impeachable offenses to “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanours”.

Not a first, but a third

Only two previous US presidents have been impeached, Bill Clinton in 1998 on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice arising from a sexual relationship he had with a White House intern, and President Andrew Johnson in 1868 on 11 charges related to his removal of his secretary of war. Both were acquitted in the Senate.

In 1974, President Richard Nixon resigned after the House Judiciary Committee approved articles of impeachment in the Watergate corruption scandal but before the full House could pass them.

Trump defiant

"This lawless, partisan impeachment is a political suicide march for the Democrat Party," Trump told a raucous rally for his re-election campaign in Battle Creek, Michigan as the vote was under way in the House.

"They've been trying to impeach me from day one. They've been trying to impeach me from before I ran," he said.

Trump has denied wrongdoing and called the impeachment inquiry, launched by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in September, a "witch hunt".

"They're the ones who should be impeached, every one of them," he said of Democratic lawmakers.

The White House said it was confident the Senate would exonerate President Donald Trump.

"Today marks the culmination in the House of one of the most shameful political episodes in the history of our nation. Without receiving a single Republican vote, and without providing any proof of wrongdoing, Democrats pushed illegitimate articles of impeachment against the president through the House of Representatives," White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham said in a statement.

"The president is confident the Senate will restore regular order, fairness, and due process, all of which were ignored in the House proceedings. He is prepared for the next steps and confident that he will be fully exonerated," she said.

Impeachment does not equal expulsion

No president in the 243-year history of the United States has been removed from office by impeachment. That would require approval by a two-thirds majority in the 100-member Senate, meaning at least 20 Republicans would have to join Democrats in voting against Trump – and none has indicated they will.

The Senate's top Republican, Mitch McConnell, has predicted there is "no chance" his chamber will remove Trump when it holds its trial.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)

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