14 Jan 2021

Trump impeached: 'The most dangerous man to occupy the Oval Office'

12:37 pm on 14 January 2021

The House of Representatives voted to make Donald Trump the first United States president ever to be impeached twice, formally charging him in his waning days in power with inciting an insurrection just a week after a violent mob of his supporters stormed the Capitol in Washington.

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 12: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to reporters on the South Lawn of the White House before boarding Marine One on January 12, 2021 in Washington, DC.

The House passed a single article of impeachment - a formal charge - accusing Donald Trump of "incitement of insurrection". Photo: 2021 Getty Images

The vote in the Democratic-controlled House was 232-197 following a deadly assault on American democracy, with 10 Republicans joining the Democrats in backing impeachment.

But it appeared unlikely that the extraordinarily swift impeachment would lead to Trump's ouster before the Republican president's four-year term ends and Democratic President-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated on 20 January.

The Senate's Republican majority leader, Mitch McConnell, rejected Democratic calls to convene the Senate in emergency session to begin an immediate impeachment trial, according to a spokesman.

The House passed a single article of impeachment - a formal charge - accusing Trump of "incitement of insurrection," focused upon an incendiary speech he delivered to thousands of supporters shortly before the pro-Trump mob rampaged through the Capitol.

'No supporter of mine could endorse violence' - Trump

Soon after the result of the vote was announced Trump issued a video message posted to the White House's Twitter account.

He condemned the violence in the Capitol last week, saying "violence and vandalism have absolutely no place in our country and no place in our movement".

He did not make any reference to impeachment.

In a sombre tone addressing his "fellow Americans", President Trump said he "unequivocally" condemns the violence in America's capital.

"No true supporter of mine could ever endorse political violence. No true supporter of mine could ever disrespect law enforcement or our great American flag," he said. "If you do any of these things you are not supporting our movement you are attacking it and you are attacking our country. We cannot tolerate it."

Trump referred to the additional protests planned across the US in the coming days, saying he has been briefed by authorities on potential threats.

"Every American deserves to have their voice heard in a respectful and peaceful way. That is your First Amendment right. But I cannot emphasise that there must be no violence, no law breaking, and no vandalism of any kind."

He ended the video with a call for unity.

"All of us can choose by our actions to rise above the rancour and find common ground and shared purpose. We must focus on advancing the interests of the whole nation, delivering the miracle vaccines, defeating the pandemic, rebuilding the economy, protecting our national security and upholding the rule of law," he said.

"Today I am calling on all Americans to overcome the passions of the moment, and join together as one American people," he said.

Rally speech followed by riot at Capitol

The mob disrupted the formal certification of Biden's victory over Trump in the 3 November election, sent lawmakers into hiding and left five people dead, including a police officer.

During his speech last week, Trump repeated false claims that the election was fraudulent and exhorted supporters to march on the Capitol.

WASHINGTON D.C., USA - JANUARY 6: US President Donald Trump speaks at "Save America March" rally in Washington D.C., United States on January 06, 2021. Tayfun Coskun / Anadolu Agency

Donald Trump addressed the rally that preceded the invasion of Capitol Hill. Photo: AFP

With a large presence of rifle-carrying National Guard troops inside and outside the Capitol, an emotional debate unfolded in the same House chamber where lawmakers had crouched under chairs and donned gas masks on 6 January as rioters clashed with police officers outside the doors.

"The president of the United States incited this insurrection, this armed rebellion against our common country," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, said on the House floor before the vote. "He must go. He is a clear and present danger to the nation that we all love."

No US president ever has been removed from office through impeachment. Three - Trump in 2019, Bill Clinton in 1998 and Andrew Johnson in 1868 - previously were impeached by the House but acquitted by the Senate.

Political turmoil amid a health crisis

The impeachment comes at a time of gaping political divisions in a pandemic-weary United States near the end of a tumultuous presidency in which Trump governed with a right-wing populist message preaching "America First."

Democratic congressman Julian Castro, a former presidential candidate, called Trump "the most dangerous man to ever occupy the Oval Office". Congresswoman Maxine Waters accused Trump of wanting civil war and fellow Democrat Jim McGovern said the president "instigated an attempted coup".

Julian Castro.

Julian Castro who called Donald Trump "the most dangerous man to ever occupy the Oval Office". Photo: AFP

Some Republicans argued that the impeachment drive was a rush to judgment that bypassed the customary deliberative process such as hearings and called on Democrats to abandon the effort for the sake of national unity and healing.

"Impeaching the president in such a short time frame would be a mistake," said Kevin McCarthy, the House's top Republican. "That doesn't mean the president is free from fault. The president bears responsibility for Wednesday's attack on Congress by mob rioters."

Trump's closest allies, such as Ohio Republican Jim Jordan, went further, accusing Democrats of recklessly acting out of pure political interest.

"This is about getting the president of the United States," said Jordan, who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Trump in a private White House ceremony this week. "It's always been about getting the president, no matter what. It's an obsession."

'I'm choosing truth'

A handful of Republicans backed impeachment, including Liz Cheney, the No 3 House Republican.

"I am not choosing a side, I'm choosing truth," Republican Jamie Herrera Beutler said in announcing her support for impeachment, drawing applause from Democrats. "It's the only way to defeat fear."

In a break from standard procedure, Republican House leaders refrained from urging their members to vote against impeachment, calling the vote a matter of individual conscience.

Under the US Constitution, impeachment in the House triggers a trial in the Senate. A two-thirds majority would be needed to convict and remove Trump, meaning at least 17 Republicans in the 100-member chamber would have to join the Democrats.

McConnell has said no trial could begin until the Senate was scheduled to be back in regular session on 19 January, one day before Biden's inauguration. The trial would proceed in the Senate even after Trump leaves office. McConnell said in a memo to his fellow Republicans he has not made a final decision on how he will vote on impeachment in the Senate.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell gives election remarks in Louisville, Kentucky.

Republican leader Mitch McConnell said in a memo to his fellow Republicans he has not made a final decision on how he will vote. Photo: AFP/ Getty Images

The Capitol siege raised concerns about political violence in the United States once considered all but unthinkable. The FBI has warned of armed protests planned for Washington and all 50 US state capitals ahead of Biden's inauguration.

Trump on Wednesday urged his followers to remain peaceful, saying in a statement, "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."

'High crimes and misdemeanours'

Impeachment is a remedy devised by America's 18th century founders to enable Congress to remove a president who has, according to the Constitution, committed "treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors." If Trump is removed, Vice President Mike Pence would become president and serve out his term.

The House impeached Trump after he ignored calls for his resignation and Pence rebuffed Democratic demands to invoke a constitutional provision to remove the president.

The House previously voted to impeach Trump in December 2019 on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress stemming from his request that Ukraine investigate Biden and his son, Hunter, ahead of the election, as Democrats accused him of soliciting foreign interference to smear a domestic political rival. The Senate in February 2020 voted to keep Trump in office.

The latest article of impeachment accused Trump of "incitement of insurrection", saying he provoked violence against the US government in his speech to supporters. The article also cited Trump's 2 January phone call asking a Georgia official to "find" votes to overturn Biden's victory in the state.

During his 6 January speech, Trump falsely claimed he had defeated Biden, repeated unfounded allegations of widespread fraud and irregularities in a "rigged" election, told his supporters to "stop the steal," "show strength," "fight much harder" and use "very different rules" and promised to go with them to the Capitol, though he did not.

"If you don't fight like hell, you're not going to have a country anymore," Trump told his supporters.

Follow RNZ's blog on the Trump impeachment

Democrats could also use a Senate impeachment trial to try to push through a vote blocking Trump from running for office again.

Lawmakers delivered speech after speech, wearing masks amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

"This is a moment of truth, my friends," Democratic congressman Gerry Connolly told his colleagues ahead of the vote. "Are you on the side of chaos and the mob or are on the side of constitutional democracy and our freedom?"

- Reuters /BBC

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