19 Dec 2019

Trump impeachment: US House ready for historic vote

6:34 am on 19 December 2019

Donald Trump is today expected to become only the third US president in history to be impeached by the House of Representatives.

The Democrat-controlled House is debating two impeachment charges against the Republican president before a final vote, which is expected to fall along party lines.

US President Donald Trump

Donald Trump Photo: AFP

Trump would then face a Senate trial next month, but members of his party control that chamber and it is unlikely to remove him from office.

The president has called the process an "attempted coup" and a "scam".

In a six-page letter on the eve of the vote, the 45th president of the United States argued he had been treated worse than "those accused in the Salem witch trials".

Democratic Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, called his letter "really sick".

On Tuesday, she wrote to colleagues that impeachment was "one of the most solemn powers granted to us by the Constitution", and called it a "very prayerful moment in our nation's history".

Surveys suggest the country is split on the process. US political website FiveThirtyEight's collection of national polls shows just over 47 percent back impeachment, while 46.4 percent oppose it.

Members of the House are debating the matter before taking a vote on both articles of impeachment.

Trump was flying to Battle Creek, Michigan, for a 'Merry Christmas' rally along with Vice-President Mike Pence.

The vote in the Democratic-controlled House is expected to fall almost entirely along party lines. Before the vote, all but a handful of the 232 House Democrats said they would back impeachment. Nearly 200 Republicans were united in opposition.

What are the charges?

The House Judiciary Committee approved two articles of impeachment against Trump last week.

The first is abuse of power. It accuses the president of trying to pressure Ukraine to smear his political rival, Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden.

Trump and his conservative allies have alleged without evidence that while he was US vice-president, Biden encouraged Ukraine to fire its top prosecutor in order to stop him investigating a Ukrainian gas company that employed his son, Hunter Biden, as a board member.

Democrats say Trump dangled $400m of US military aid and the prospect of a coveted White House meeting for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as bargaining chips to prod the US ally into announcing a corruption inquiry into the Bidens.

The second charge is obstructing Congress. Trump, who blocked his aides from testifying, is accused of failing to co-operate with the House impeachment investigation.

The president has denied withholding US aid to benefit himself politically and maintains it was appropriate to ask Ukraine to look into alleged corruption.

Under the US constitution, a president "shall be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes or misdemeanours". It is a political process, not a legal one.

People rally in support of the impeachment of US President Donald Trump in front of the US Capitol, as the House readies for a historic vote on December 18,  2019  that would trigger his trial in the Senate.

People rally in support of impeachment in front of the US Capitol, as the House readies to vote. Photo: AFP

What will happen in the Senate?

Once Trump is formally impeached by the House, proceedings will go on to the Republican-controlled Senate for a trial in January.

If two-thirds of senators voted to convict the president, he would be removed from office. But Democrats can only muster 47 votes in the 100-seat upper chamber, and they need 67 to pass the measure.

No-one expects at least 20 of Trump's fellow Republicans to join with Democrats and end his presidency.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said on Tuesday he was under no obligation to be even-handed in his handling of the proceeding.

"I'm not an impartial juror," the Kentucky senator told reporters. "This is a political process. I'm not impartial about this at all."

McConnell rebuffed calls from the Senate's Democratic leader, Chuck Schumer, to summon top White House officials for the trial.

What is the precedent?

Two US presidents have been impeached - Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998 - but in both cases the Senate did not vote to force them from office.

Richard Nixon resigned the presidency in August 1974 when it became clear he would be impeached and ousted by Congress in the wake of the Watergate scandal.


Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs