At precisely 9am, with only a handful of lawmakers present and the public gallery nearly empty, a voice boomed across the decorous chamber: “All rise.”
From atop the tiered speaker’s rostrum, Congresswoman Diana Degette, a Democrat from Colorado, who was chosen to preside over the day’s hearings, rapped the gavel once. “The House will be in order.”
So began the extraordinary process of impeaching the president of the United States for only the third time in American history on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.
The sparsely attended early stage of Wednesday’s solemn event belied the drama that was to come later, as the dry procedural process would give way to full-blooded debate, culminating in the historic vote after nightfall.
Father Patrick Conroy, the chaplain of the House of Representatives, opened the debate 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, raising his hands in blessing. “Help them to realize that your constituency is wider and broader than ever we could imagine or reach. Help them and help us all.”
But in the age of political tribalism, those words were quickly washed away, erased by the carpeted-aisle splitting the House chamber in two: Democrats on the right, Republicans on the left, depending on one’s perspective.
Under the gaze of a portrait of George Washington, the nation’s first president, Congressman Andy Biggs, a Republican of Arizona and a staunch ally of Donald Trump, motioned to adjourn the proceedings, a dilatory tactic meant to forestall the inevitable.
“So we can stop wasting America’s time on impeachment, I move that the House do now adjourn,” he asked, calling for a vote. The Democratic-controlled House summarily rejected the request.
Then, after some parliamentary maneuvering, the House voted 228 to 197 to clear the way for six hours of debate. The vote offered a glimpse of how members will vote on the articles of impeachment, scheduled for Wednesday evening, an early sign that Democrats had largely unified behind the House’s effort to remove the president from office.
“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 chamber, Democrats sat quietly in their seats, while the Republican side remained largely empty.
The Speaker laid out the case for an impeachment trial she had hoped to avoid. 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,” Pelosi said, “we would be derelict in our duty. 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 chanted: “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.”
One by one, representatives from one side of America’s political divide rose to debate on the merits of impeachment.
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 scattered among excessively-punctuated praise for his 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!”