A solemn impeachment day on Capitol Hill

Greg Nash

Nancy Pelosi was dressed for a funeral.

Donning a black dress and her custom gold mace brooch, the Speaker of the House on Wednesday led a small procession of staffers and reporters out of her office and through Statuary Hall, past the statues of Rosa Parks, Thomas Edison and other American giants.

The California Democrat clasped hands with her good friend Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) and the two women walked silently to the House floor like two mourners.

They were going to impeach President Trump.

“It is tragic that the president’s reckless actions make impeachment necessary,” Pelosi said in a solemn floor speech, opening debate on two articles of impeachment. “He gave us no choice.”

Usually at this time of year there would be holiday cookies and candy in the Democratic cloakroom, but not today. Democrats and Republicans would normally be exchanging smiles and pleasantries — “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” — but there was little holiday cheer in the Capitol.

Everyone agreed it was a sad day. But what exactly had died was in dispute.

Republicans said it was fairness and due process and minority-party rights. They accused Democrats of ramming impeachment through the House and trying to overturn the results of the 2016 election.

In a floor speech, Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio) asked his colleagues to rise and observe a moment of silence “to remember the voices of the 63 million American voters” who backed Trump. 

“It’s a sad — in fact I have my funeral attire on today — it’s a sad day. It really is,” added Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.), a member of the GOP leadership team. “It’s not a day to be snarky. This is an abuse of the system.”

But if Congress did not act to check the president’s power, Democrats argued, then it would mean that American democracy and the Constitution would be on life support. 

“The president and his men plot on. The danger persists. The risk is real. Our democracy is at peril,” said House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), who spearheaded the impeachment investigation into Trump’s dealings with Ukraine. 

“This is a democracy-defining moment,” added Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.). “History will judge us by whether we keep intact that fragile republic handed down to us by our forebears more than 200 years ago. Or whether we allow it to be changed forever.”

The solemn tone was fractured at times, with Republicans cheering remarks made by some of their party leaders and a handful of Democrats applauding passage of the first article of impeachment. Pelosi quickly motioned for those lawmakers to cease their celebration.

Outside on the clear, crisp December day, anti-Trump protesters set up row after row of mock cardboard headstones on the Capitol lawn, representing the “Senate legislative graveyard” of House-passed bills that have gone on to die in the GOP-controlled upper chamber.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has proudly called himself the “Grim Reaper” of progressive proposals passed by the House, and the Kentucky Republican has vowed to kill off the Democrats’ impeachment push in much the same way, pledging that there was “zero chance” Trump would be convicted in the forthcoming trial. 

Just as a funeral brings all walks of life together, so did impeachment. Rep. Justin Amash, the Republican-turned-Independent congressman from Michigan, was spotted sitting in the back of the House chamber, chatting up progressive freshman firebrand Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). Both endorsed Trump’s impeachment early on.

Across the House floor was Rep. Jefferson Van Drew, the New Jersey Democrat who is planning to join the GOP over his opposition to impeachment. The dapper lawmaker could be seen huddling on the other side of the aisle with his future GOP colleagues, shaking hands with Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.).

His New Jersey colleague, Democratic Rep. Bill Pascrell, predicted Van Drew’s political career was dead on arrival and could not be resuscitated. “He doesn’t have a chance to win as a Democrat or a Republican,” Pascrell said. 

The ghosts of impeachments past also could be found haunting the ornate halls of the Capitol. 

There was Rep. Donna Shalala (D-Fla.) on the House floor, warning that Trump must be stopped or he would invite other foreign powers to meddle in next year’s election. Shalala, who was former President Clinton’s secretary of Health and Human Services, had famously called out the 42nd president’s lack of moral leadership during an emotional 1998 Cabinet meeting over his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

Rep. Darin LaHood (R-Ill.) showed a reporter an image of The New York Times front page on Dec. 20, 1998, the day after Clinton was impeached. The above-the-fold photo that day was of LaHood’s father, former Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), who was in the Speaker’s chair two decades earlier and tasked with presiding over that historic impeachment debate.

For Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), this represented the third presidential impeachment she’s been a part of. As a Judiciary Committee staffer during the 1970s, she helped draft articles of impeachment against former President Nixon, then defended Clinton against impeachment as a Judiciary lawmaker in 1998.

“I’ve worked on presidential impeachments as part of the Judiciary Committee twice before. This third time brings me no joy,” said Lofgren, a close Pelosi ally who is now 71. 

“What is before us is a serious abuse of power and obstruction of Congress,” she said. “These abuses strike at the heart of our Constitution.”

Juliegrace Brufke and Cristina Marcos contributed.

Tags Adam Schiff Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Articles of impeachment Bill Johnson Bill Pascrell Darin LaHood Debbie Dingell Donald Trump Donna Shalala Impeachment Justin Amash Kevin McCarthy Mark Walker Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi Steve Scalise Zoe Lofgren

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