At precisely 9am, with only a handful of lawmakers present and the public gallery nearly empty, a voice boomed across the decorous chamber, where the House of Representatives was preparing to impeach the president of the United States for only the third time in US history: “All rise.”
The rap of a gavel from atop the tiered speaker’s rostrum brought to order a daylong floor debate over the two articles of impeachment against Donald Trump on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.
The subdued start – though in contrast to the public gallery, the press gallery was standing room only – belied the drama that was to come later, as the dry procedural process gave way to impassioned speech-making, culminating in the historic vote after nightfall.
Patrick Conroy, the chaplain of the House of Representatives, opened the session with an appeal to America’s better angels.
“As the members take this time to consider far-reaching legislation and consider historic constitutional action, give them wisdom and discernment,” Conroy said in prayer. Help them and help us all.”
In the age of political tribalism, his words did little to heal the partisan breach, underscored by the carpeted-aisle splitting the House chamber in two: Democrats on the right, Republicans on the left, depending on one’s perspective. Nearly three months after the start of a formal impeachment inquiry – that included weeks of dramatic testimony, charged debate, and significant revelations – there were no major change of hearts or minds.
And so on Wednesday, one by one, under the gaze of a portrait of George Washington, the nation’s first president, representatives from one side of America’s political divide rose to decry the circumstances that brought them to this very moment.
“I solemnly and sadly open the debate on the impeachment of the president of the United States,” said House speaker Nancy Pelosi, dressed in black in the somberness of the hour.
Democrats sat quietly in their seats, while the Republican side remained largely empty, as the Speaker made her closing argument in favor of an impeachment she never wanted. The articles of impeachment assert that Trump abused his office by pressuring Ukraine to target his US political rivals in order to help his 2020 reelection campaign, and then obstructed Congress by refusing to cooperate with its inquiry.
“If we do not act now we would be derelict in our duty,” she said. “It is tragic that the president’s reckless actions make impeachment necessary. He gave us no choice.”
When she finished speaking, Democrats gave her a standing ovation as Republicans sought to quiet them, shouting: “Regular order!”
Doug Collins, the ranking member of the House judiciary committee, spoke first for Republicans, denouncing what he called a “poll-tested impeachment” that is “based on presumption” rather than fact.
“Today is going to be a lot of things,” he said. “What it is not is fair. What it is not is about the truth.”
At this stage, members mostly returned to the arguments they had been making for months, but with amplified indignation to match the spirit of the occasion.
“Before you take this historic vote today, one week before Christmas, I want you to keep this in mind,” congressman Barry Loudermilk implored, “When Jesus was falsely accused of treason, Pontius Pilate gave Jesus the opportunity to face his accusers. During that sham trial, Pontius Pilate afforded more rights to Jesus than the Democrats have afforded this president.”
Chris Stewart, a Republican from Utah insisted that Democrats not only hate the president but hate those who voted for him.
“They think we made a mistake,” he said. “They think Hillary Clinton should be the president and they want to fix that.”
“I would remind the gentleman if President Trump is impeached and removed, the new president would be Mike Pence, not Hillary Clinton,” quipped Jerry Nadler, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
After remarks by Texas congressman Louie Gohmert, one of the president’s fiercest allies, Nadler said it was “deeply concerned that any member of the House would spout Russian propaganda on the floor of the House.” Gohmert returned to the podium, shouting angrily and then approach Nadler. The men exchanged words and the tension eased.
From the opposite end of Pennsylvania Avenue, the morning of the House vote – which arrived on the 1,062nd day of Trump’s presidency and almost 21 years to the day since the chamber voted to impeach president Bill Clinton – began like so many others in this new age of the presidential twitter-verse: with a stream of defiant Trump Tweets. They yelled excessively-punctuated praise for the president’s allies and all-caps condemnation of his political enemies, real and perceived.
“Can you believe that I will be impeached today by the Radical Left, Do Nothing Democrats, AND I DID NOTHING WRONG!” he tweeted at 7:34am. “A terrible Thing. Read the Transcripts. This should never happen to another President again. Say a PRAYER!”