WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump was impeached for the second time on Wednesday (Jan 13) by the House of Representatives, in a bipartisan vote that saw all 222 Democrats and 10 Republicans vote to charge him with incitement of insurrection following the attack on the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob.
Mr Trump is the first United States president to be impeached twice, following his first impeachment in 2019 for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.
Unlike in 2019, when not a single Republican voted to impeach Mr Trump, Wednesday’s vote had 10 Republicans break from the President, and a number of senior Republicans level significant criticism at his actions. Some 197 Republicans voted against impeachment.
The impeachment vote sets up a trial in the Senate to convict or acquit Mr Trump, who has seven days left in office, and possibly bar him from future office.
But the Senate trial will not take place until after Mr Trump has left office, said Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell in a statement, noting that the Senate's previous three presidential trials lasted 83 days, 37 days and 21 days.
Rebuffing calls by Democrats to bring the Senate back early for an immediate impeachment trial, Mr McConnell said: “There is simply no chance that a fair or serious trial could conclude before President-elect Biden is sworn in next week.
“Even if the Senate process were to begin this week and move promptly, no final verdict would be reached until after President Trump had left office,” he said.
Mr McConnell added that it would best serve the nation if Congress and the White House spent the next seven days completely focused on facilitating a safe inauguration and an orderly transfer of power to the incoming Biden administration.
This means the Senate could be occupied with an impeachment trial in the initial days or weeks of President-elect Joe Biden’s term, concerning some Democrats who worry that Mr Biden’s ability to carry out his agenda may be hamstrung.
Democrats will control the next Senate. Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer, who will helm the party in the Senate, vowed that Mr Trump would face an impeachment trial.
“Make no mistake, there will be an impeachment trial in the United States Senate; there will be a vote on convicting the president for high crimes and misdemeanours; and if the president is convicted, there will be a vote on barring him from running again,” Mr Schumer said in a statement on Wednesday.
Mr Biden said in a statement that the House had exercised the constitutional power granted to them and voted to impeach and hold Mr Trump accountable for the Capitol attack, which he called an armed insurrection.
But, he said, America remained in the grip of a deadly virus and a reeling economy.
“I hope that the Senate leadership will find a way to deal with their constitutional responsibilities on impeachment while also working on the other urgent business of this nation,” he said.
Wednesday’s debate took place a full week after a mob stormed and occupied the Capitol in an effort to overturn Mr Biden’s electoral victory, which Congress had been in the middle of certifying, forcing lawmakers to flee for shelter.
Five died in the attack, including one police officer.
Democrats sought to tie the attack to Mr Trump's incendiary words, which they argued was not covered by the Constitution’s protection of the right to free speech, and said that his repeated false claims of election fraud had radicalised the mob.
“We know that the President of the United States incited this insurrection, this armed rebellion, against our common country. He must go. He is a clear and present danger to the nation that we all love,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in opening remarks.
“Since the presidential election in November, an election the President lost, he has repeatedly lied about the outcome, sowed self-serving doubt about democracy and unconstitutionally sought to influence state officials to repeal reality. And then came that day of fire we all experienced,” she added.
“Those insurrectionists... did not appear out of a vacuum. They were sent here, sent here by the President, with words such as a cry to ‘fight like hell’,” said Ms Pelosi, directly quoting Mr Trump’s speech at a rally hours ahead of the Capitol attack.
Democrats also argued that Mr Trump constituted “a clear and present danger” who had to be removed from power immediately instead of waiting for the seven remaining days in his term to play out.
House minority leader Kevin McCarthy unequivocally condemned the violent attack as an attempt to interfere with America’s constitutional law, and put blame on Mr Trump for it.
“The President bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on Congress by mob rioters. He should have immediately denounced the mob, when he saw what was unfolding,” said Mr McCarthy.
But he disagreed with impeachment, saying that the public wanted neither inaction nor retribution - rather a “durable bipartisan justice”.
Impeaching the President in such a short time frame would be a mistake and too divisive, said Mr McCarthy, who called instead for a censure resolution and a fact-finding mission.
In their counter-arguments, Republicans sought to distance the President from the Capitol attack and accused Democrats of stoking divisions instead of uniting the country.
“This doesn't unite the country. There's no way this helps the nation deal with the tragic and terrible events of last week that we all condemn,” said Ohio Republican Jim Jordan, a vocal supporter of Mr Trump who was awarded the presidential medal of freedom last week.
“It’s always been about getting the President, no matter what. About cancelling the President and anyone that agrees with them,” he added.
Republicans also denied that Mr Trump was a clear and present danger, saying the Democrats had too hastily rushed into impeachment.
But most did not defend the President’s false claims of electoral fraud or his Wednesday speech, apart from a handful such as California congressman Tom McClintock, who highlighted another line in which Mr Trump had urged supporters to demonstrate “peacefully and patriotically”.
Mr McCarthy also shot down false claims, some of which were made by his party colleagues, that the anti-fascist movement had been involved in the attack.
“Some say the riots were caused by Antifa. There is absolutely no evidence of that, and conservatives should be the first to say so,” he said.
The impeachment moves come after Vice-President Mike Pence rebuffed lawmakers' formal call for him to remove Mr Trump from office.
House majority whip James Clyburn, the third-highest ranking Democrat in the House, argued that the survival of America’s democracy depended on defeated candidates accepting their defeat.
“This president's refusal to participate in the peaceful transfer of power and his role in inciting last week's violence pose an existential threat to our constitutional democracy. This threat must be extinguished immediately. This President must be impeached and convicted, and he must be prevented from ever attempting to seize power again,” said the South Carolina Democrat.
The nation is bracing for more violence in state capitols and Washington, DC ahead of Mr Biden’s inauguration, driven by pro-Trump supporters aggrieved by his electoral defeat.
Mr Trump denounced violence in a statement issued as the impeachment debate was ongoing.
He said: “In light of reports of more demonstrations, I urge that there must be NO violence, NO lawbreaking and NO vandalism of any kind. That is not what I stand for and it is not what America stands for. I call on ALL Americans to help ease tensions and calm tempers. Thank You.”