Patrick Semansky/AP

Trump Becomes the Third President in U.S. History to Be Impeached

The voted capped a two-month investigation, but it was years in the making.

When the time came for the House of Representatives to give Donald Trump his ignominious place in presidential history, lawmakers flooded into the well of the chamber. They had endured six hours of fiery debate. Votes in the House have long occurred electronically, but on this historic day, members of both parties wanted a keepsake: the written record of their vote. Some took selfies, while others chatted amiably as the clerks set about the more tedious task of counting the votes by hand. As Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the result, a few Democrats started to clap. She flashed a glare and gestured sharply in their direction. Under the speaker’s carefully laid plans, there would be no celebration of impeachment—at least not on the House floor, and not in front of her.

There was the 230–197 tally itself—nearly all Democrats voting in favor of making Trump the third president in history to be impeached by the House of Representatives, with every single Republican, as expected, in opposition. But there was also the sense that this moment—rancorous yet solemn, dramatic yet not suspenseful—had been building for much longer than the two and a half months since Pelosi dropped her long-standing opposition to impeachment and formally opened the Democrats’ case against Trump. It began before the July 25 phone call in which Trump infamously asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for the “favor” of investigating his political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden. And maybe it even began before last year’s midterm elections, when voters across the country handed Democrats the House majority and, with it, the power to confront the president.

In truth, the inexorable march toward impeachment probably began on January 20, 2017.

That is, of course, the main Republican talking point. In speech after speech, hour after hour, GOP lawmakers this afternoon weaponized the Democratic “resistance” to blunt the wound of impeachment. “This should surprise no one,” declared Representative Doug Collins of Georgia, who, as the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, has led the GOP’s defense of the president. “From the very moment that the majority party in this House won, the inevitability that we would be here today was only a matter of what date they would schedule it. Nothing else.”

Representative Mike Kelly of Pennsylvania reached for a different comparison, likening the Democrats’ December impeachment of Trump to the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, which drew the U.S. into World War II. “Today, December 18, 2019, is another date that will live in infamy,” he said.

Republicans said the Democrats had had it in for Trump from the minute he took office; that they could not countenance an election in which the states, through the Electoral College, overruled the popular vote of the people; that they would gin up any controversy as an excuse to impeach a president they just plain didn’t like.

There was some truth in this. There were Democrats who saw Trump as a threat to the constitutional order from the outset, who called for his ouster for all manner of actions and statements, from the corporate profits he continued to rake in as president, to his various racist outbursts, to his drive to ban travel from majority-Muslim countries, to the allegations of obstruction of justice documented by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

If there was a mandate in Trump’s slim 2016 victory, it wasn’t for a particular set of policies but for a tough-talking dealmaker to dispense with the stale niceties of official Washington. The new president delivered on that promise with his Twitter feed alone, and if it were only a few cherished norms that he’d abandoned, perhaps today’s vote would never have happened.

Opening the six-hour floor debate shortly after noon today, Pelosi said Trump was “an ongoing threat to our national security and the integrity of our elections.” Standing alongside an image of the American flag and a quote from the Pledge of Allegiance, Pelosi struck the same somber, more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger tone that she has throughout the process. Impeachment was not a desire but an obligation. “If we do not act now, we would be derelict in our duty,” she said. “It is tragic that the president’s actions make impeachment necessary.”

That message became a theme among Pelosi’s members. “I did not come to Congress to impeach the president” was the refrain, uttered as a rebuttal to the GOP’s argument that the whole thing was precooked and as a reminder that Democrats waited nine months before even launching their inquiry.

As the debate wore on and the votes drew close, Republicans began heckling Democrats, drawing reprimands for order in the chamber from the presiding officer. They jeered Representative Adam Schiff of California, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, and they audibly scoffed as Majority Leader Steny Hoyer recounted the Democrats’ reluctance to pursue impeachment until recently. “We did not want this,” Hoyer said somberly. A Republican on the floor replied, “Oh, come on!”

It wasn’t Trump’s shirking of norms but his obvious and outspoken disdain for rules and even laws that made his impeachment, at least with the benefit of hindsight, inevitable. That, and his refusal to quit when he was ahead. Pelosi was ready to give Trump a pass for his profiteering, for his defiance of Congress in directing money to his border wall and in stonewalling Democratic oversight investigations, for his alleged misdeeds in the Mueller report. But it was lost on no one that Trump’s call with Zelensky came on the day after Mueller’s lackluster performance on Capitol Hill lifted, once and for all, the two-year cloud that had cast his presidency in shadow.