The United States House of Representatives gaveled in for a historic session Wednesday to impeach President Donald Trump on charges that he abused his power and obstructed Congress, votes that will leave a lasting mark on his tenure at the White House.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi requested that Democrats, who have the votes to make Trump just the third US president to be impeached, gather on the floor of the chamber "to exercise one of the most solemn powers granted to us by the Constitution."
"During this very prayerful moment in our nation's history, we must honor our oath to support and defend our Constitution from all enemies, foreign and domestic," Pelosi told colleagues in a letter on the eve of the vote.
As soon as the session opened, Republicans tried to halt it.
Andy Biggs, a lawmaker from Arizona, the chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus forced a roll call vote — the first of several procedural efforts expected during the day to try to delay proceedings. It was defeated on a party-line vote.
Then Republicans tried to force a vote condemning the actions of Democratic committee leaders, based on objections to the way the Democrats conducted hearings leading to Wednesday's votes.
Early Wednesday, Trump tweeted his outrage: "Can you believe that I will be impeached today by the Radical Left, Do Nothing Democrats, AND I DID NOTHING WRONG! A terrible thing."
The president fired off a furious letter to Pelosi on Tuesday denouncing the "vicious crusade" against him but acknowledging he was powerless to stop the expected outcome.
"When people look back at this affair, I want them to understand it, and learn from it, so that it can never happen to another president again," he wrote.
The rare undertaking to impeach a president, set to unfold over more than six hours of debate Wednesday, has split the lawmakers in Congress and US voters alike.
According to a tally compiled by The Associated Press, Trump was on track to be formally charged by a House majority. No Republicans were expected to vote for impeachment as the president's party stands firmly with Trump, and the Senate, where the GOP has the majority, is expected to acquit him in a trial next year.
"Help them, and help us all," said the House chaplain, the Rev. Pat Conroy, as he opened the proceedings with morning prayer.
Pelosi, who warned earlier this year against pursuing a strictly partisan impeachment, nonetheless has the numbers from Democrats to approve it.
"Very sadly, the facts have made clear that the President abused his power for his own personal, political benefit and that he obstructed Congress," Pelosi wrote to colleagues. "In America, no one is above the law."
Republican lawmaker and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy suggested his party çould try to undo the vote someday. "Maybe a future Congress would even expunge this vote," he told Fox News, deriding the months-long impeachment proceedings as the quickest in history.
From Alaska to Florida, tens of thousands of Americans marched in support of impeachment Tuesday evening, from a demonstration through a rainy Times Square to handfuls of activists standing vigil in small towns. They carried signs saying "Save the Constitution - Impeach!!!!" and "Criminal-in-Chief."
Trump implores Americans to "read the transcript," but the facts of his July phone call with the Ukraine president were largely confirmed by witnesses in the impeachment inquiry.
Trump asked Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate Democrats and his 2020 political rival Joe Biden. At the time, the newly elected Ukraine leader was hoping for a coveted White House visit to showcase his standing with the U.S., his country's most important ally. He was also counting on nearly US$400 million in military aid as his country confronts a hostile neighbor, Russia.
The question for lawmakers, and Americans, is whether those actions, and the White House's block on officials testifying for the House investigation, are impeachable offenses.
The president appeared to intend his lengthy, accusatory message less for Pelosi than for the broad audience of citizens — including 2020 voters — watching history unfolding on Capitol Hill.
He accused the Democrats of acting out of "Trump Derangement Syndrome," still smarting from their 2016 election losses. "You are the ones bringing pain and suffering to our Republic for your own selfish, personal political and partisan gain," he wrote.
Portraying himself as a blameless victim, Trump compared the impeachment inquiry to the "Salem Witch Trials." Asked later if he bore any responsibility for the proceedings, he said, "No, I don't think any. Zero, to put it mildly."
But the House impeachment resolution says that Trump abused the power of his office and then tried to obstruct the investigation in Congress like "no other'' president in history.
"President Trump, by such conduct, has demonstrated that he will remain a threat to national security and the Constitution if allowed to remain in office," it says.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell set the partisan tone for the next step, as attention will shift to the Senate which, under the Constitution, is required to hold a trial on the charges. That trial is expected to begin in January.
"I'm not an impartial juror," McConnell declared. The Republican-majority chamber is all but sure to acquit the president.
Lawmakers crossing party lines might face consequences in 2020.
Hoping to dispatch with lengthy Senate proceedings, McConnell rejected Senate Democrats' push for fresh impeachment testimony and made a last-ditch plea that House Democrats "turn back from the cliff" of Wednesday's expected vote.
"Impeachment is a political decision," McConnell said. "The House made a partisan political decision to impeach. I would anticipate we will have a largely partisan outcome in the Senate. I'm not impartial about this at all.''
McConnell's remarks Tuesday effectively slammed the door on negotiations for a deal proposed by the Democrat Senate leader, Chuck Schumer, who wants to call top White House officials for the Senate trial.