WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives on Friday took Republican President Donald Trump to the brink of impeachment by approving two charges against him over his efforts to pressure Ukraine to investigate Democratic political rival Joe Biden.
A divided House Judiciary Committee voted 23-17 along party lines to approve articles of impeachment charging Trump with abusing the power of his office over the Ukraine scandal and obstructing House Democrats’ attempts to investigate him for it.
Trump is expected to become the third U.S. president to be impeached when the full Democratic-led House votes on the charges, likely next week, setting up a trial in the Republican-controlled Senate. Trump’s fellow Republicans have shown no signs of wanting to remove Trump from office.
In congressional hearings that have gripped Washington, Democrats accused the president of endangering the U.S. Constitution, jeopardizing national security and undermining the integrity of the 2020 election by asking Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in a July phone call to investigate Biden.
“Today is a solemn and sad day,” said Representative Jerrold Nadler, the judiciary committee’s Democratic chairman. “For the third time in a little over a century and a half, the House Judiciary Committee has voted articles of impeachment against the president.”
Republicans have defended Trump and accused Democrats of a politically motivated farce aimed at overturning his surprise 2016 presidential election victory.
“Impeachment is a hoax. It’s a sham,” Trump told reporters at the White House after the committee’s vote. “There was nothing done wrong. To use the power of impeachment for this nonsense is an embarrassment to this country.”
If impeached, Trump is due to go on trial in the Senate in January just as the 2020 presidential campaign, in which he is seeking re-election, picks up speed.
He said he thought Americans “are absolutely disgusted” with the process, but that it was benefiting him. “It’s a very sad thing for our country, but it seems to be good for me politically,” Trump said.
Biden, a former U.S. vice president, is a leading Democratic candidate to face Trump in the Nov. 3 election. Trump has alleged that Biden was involved in corruption in Ukraine and should be investigated there, but has offered no evidence. Biden has denied wrongdoing.
The abuse of power charge also accuses Trump of freezing nearly $400 million in U.S. security aid to Ukraine and offering a possible White House meeting to Zelenskiy to get him to publicly announce investigations of Biden and his son Hunter, who was on the board of a Ukrainian gas company.
Trump also asked Ukraine to investigate a debunked theory that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 U.S. election.
The obstruction charge against Trump is based on his directives to current and former administration officials such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo not to cooperate with the impeachment inquiry, even if that meant defying subpoenas.
A senior Democratic aide said the tentative plans are for a debate as soon as Wednesday on the floor of the House followed by a vote that same day or Thursday on whether to approve the articles of impeachment and send Trump for trial.
There must be 216 votes in favor for impeachment to go ahead. Democrats hold 233 seats, compared with 197 Republicans and one independent.
Republicans say the president did nothing improper in his call with Zelenskiy, and that there is no direct evidence he withheld aid or a White House meeting in exchange for a favor.
The upheaval has not seemed to concern investors. U.S. stocks hit fresh record highs on Friday on optimism over a possible trade deal between China and the United States before paring gains.
No U.S. president has been removed as a direct result of impeachment. Republican Richard Nixon resigned before he could be impeached for the Watergate scandal, and Democrats Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton were impeached by the House but not convicted by the Senate.
Twenty Republican senators would have to join all 45 Democrats and two independents who caucus with the Democrats to vote to remove Trump from office.
The trial would be presided over by U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts. The length of the proceedings would depend on whether witnesses were called, a decision that is up to a majority vote in the chamber.
Trump has signaled an interest in calling many witnesses, including Biden and Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, believing a big trial would be good for Republicans.
A lengthy trial would eat up weeks of time ahead of the first Democratic presidential nominating contests in Iowa and New Hampshire in early February.
Influential Republican senators have said they want to keep any trial as short as possible.
“This needs to come to a quick end,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, a Republican who is a staunch defender of Trump, wrote on Twitter.
Trump said on Friday he was open to either a short or long process in the Senate.
“I’ll do whatever I want ... So I’ll do long or short,” he said.
“I wouldn’t mind a long process, because I’d like to see the whistleblower, who’s a fraud,” Trump said, referring to the anonymous intelligence official who set off the House impeachment investigation by raising a flag about Trump’s call with Zelenskiy in a whistleblower complaint.
A Democratic lawmaker called on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, to recuse himself from the trial after he said on Thursday he was coordinating his approach with the White House counsel.
“He has effectively promised to let President Trump manage his own impeachment trial. The Senator must withdraw,” Representative Val Demings said in a statement.
Reporting by Susan Cornwell; Additional reporting by David Morgan and Lisa Lambert, Jeff Mason and Susan Heavey; Writing by Alistair Bell and Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Paul Simao, Sonya Hepinstall and Tom Brown
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