Rioters were still ransacking the halls of the US Capitol when two Democrats stuck in lockdown together in the House office buildings across the street started drafting the impeachment resolution that led to the unprecedented second impeachment of President Donald Trump almost exactly one week later.
California Rep. Ted Lieu was forced to evacuate his office in the Cannon Office Building as insurrectionists converged on the Capitol. Grabbing a ProBar energy bar in his office, Lieu said he and his chief of staff called the top aide to Rhode Island Rep. David Cicilline while wandering the halls and asked if they could hunker down in Cicilline’s office in the Rayburn House Office Building.
Cicilline quickly agreed, and it was there that the two Democrats began watching the events unfold in the Capitol as their colleagues were forced to flee the House chamber with a mob outside. Lieu and Cicilline’s aides, meanwhile, were texting with a top aide for Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, who was in hiding with Raskin’s family as the siege unfolded. As Trump failed to call off the mob with his tweets, the Democrats vowed to try to remove the President from power for a second time.
Lieu quickly sent a message to a chain including the Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee.
“First it said, ‘I pray everyone is safe.’ And second, I said, ‘The House Judiciary Committee should start drafting articles of impeachment now, regardless of what leadership says,’” Lieu said in an interview.
Several lawmakers, locked down elsewhere in the Capitol, quickly texted their agreement, and Lieu and Cicilline got to work with input from Raskin drafting the text that would serve as the basis of the House’s 232-197 vote Wednesday to impeach Trump for “incitement of insurrection.” Ten Republicans joined with the Democrats to support Trump’s impeachment, in a stark break from the first impeachment of Trump in 2019. The co-authors, Cicilline, Lieu and Raskin, are three of the nine House impeachment managers who will argue their case against Trump in the upcoming Senate trial.
Democratic lawmakers and aides told CNN that Trump’s impeachment was the only feasible option to channel the fury and terror that lawmakers felt after their lives were placed in danger by a pro-Trump mob. As the hours and days progressed, the new information that was revealed – the rioters’ desire to kill Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the violent attacks on Capitol Police leading to the death of an officer and the sinister aims of taking hostages – only strengthened their resolve to make Trump the first president in United States history to be impeached twice.
“This is right in your face, easier for everyone to understand, including members of his own party, who also had to hide behind barricades and be evacuated,” said Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, a Pennsylvania Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee.
Pelosi spent much of 2019 at odds with the wing of House Democrats pushing for impeachment, before Trump’s attempts to pressure Ukraine to investigate his political opponent – and now President-elect – Joe Biden pushed Pelosi and nearly the entire Democratic caucus toward impeachment.
But Pelosi had little hesitation the second time around, after her office was ransacked and her staff at risk when rioters broke into her ornate office just off the Capitol rotunda. Pelosi was still deliberate in her actions ahead of the impeachment vote, saying she wanted Pence to use the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from power. But she made clear the day after the riots the House would act if Pence did not.
And there was no dissent in her ranks.
“My phone is exploding with ‘impeach, impeach, impeach,” Pelosi said of her members. “The President must be held accountable.”
It was a unified front that never wavered. In fact, several members said, the steadfast desire to move forward only hardened in the days that followed in the wake of briefings from law enforcement officials that underscored just how catastrophic the events of January 6 – already deadly – could have been.
“I don’t think I can make this any more clear,” said one Democratic member who participated in several detailed briefings that outlined the possibility of a concerted and coordinated attack with a motive driven by bloodshed. “It was far worse than any of us imagined, far more dangerous than any of us could’ve fathomed and positively terrifying in hindsight.”
‘Never been a greater betrayal’
For House Republicans, who were united against Trump’s first impeachment, this round exposed not only the deep divisions over Trump’s conduct but a real schism over how and if the party should move ahead without him.
Rep. Liz Cheney, the No. 3 Republican, voted to impeach Trump, charging there had “never been a greater betrayal by a President of the United States of his office and his oath to the Constitution.” Nine Republicans joined her to vote to impeach Trump, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is leaving open the possibility he could support conviction.
It was a small minority of the conference, but it represented the most impeachment votes a president received from within his own party in US history. Those that chose to vote yes – a mix of mostly moderates and new members – made clear that they viewed Trump’s actions as leaving with them with no choice, even as they grappled with the repercussions.
“I have backed this President through thick and thin for four years,” South Carolina GOP Rep. Tom Rice said in a statement after his vote to impeach – one that stunned many of his colleagues. “I campaigned for him and voted for him twice. But, this utter failure is inexcusable.”
Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, a second-term Ohio Republican, said in a statement his process mirrored that of members across the Capitol – one that included days of walking through memories of the events, participating in harrowing law enforcement briefings and watching videos that underscored the real severity of the moment, something many acknowledge they had no grasp of as they were rushed to undisclosed locations or their offices to shelter during the attack.
What his vote came down to, however, was Trump’s specific actions. “These are fundamental threats not just to people’s lives but to the very foundation of our Republic,” he said.
McConnell has yet to make up his mind
Those positions set the stage for the next step, and the next chamber, where Republicans have largely kept their views on impeachment close to the vest. But one has, at least somewhat, tipped his hand: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
In a message to his members just hours before the House vote, McConnell pledged he had yet to make up his mind and would listen to all the evidence presented.
The Kentucky Republican, Trump’s most ardent defender in the Senate in the first impeachment trial, has told associates he believes Trump committed impeachable offenses. He was also furious in the wake of not just the attack, but Trump and fellow Republicans’ efforts to undercut Biden’s electoral victory on the Senate floor.
But McConnell, in a statement, also made clear there will be no rush toward a trial with the Senate out of session until January 19. That, largely, is due to the current security situation.
“I believe it will best serve our nation if Congress and the executive branch spend the next seven days completely focused on facilitating a safe inauguration and an orderly transfer of power to the incoming Biden Administration,” McConnell said. By the time the trial comes to pass, McConnell will be in the minority, with Democrats set to take the majority in the days ahead.
The backlash to those who split from Trump was quick to rise, however. Trump’s defenders criticized Cheney and some urged her removal from her leadership position. Those arguing against impeachment said it was divisive, political and rushed, but few defended Trump’s conduct outright. It’s a position that will likely be echoed by Senate Republicans opposed to impeachment in the days ahead, aides say.
“I believe impeaching the President in such a short timeframe would be a mistake,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said. “No investigations have been completed. No hearings have been held,” he added, but also said that Trump bore responsibility for the rioters.
But while 196 Republicans joined McCarthy in opposing impeachment, several told CNN their own outrage wasn’t lacking. Another element had come into play. Threats to offices, members and staff had increased in the days leading up to the vote.
“It may not have changed any votes, but it’s hard not to weigh the potential to your family when you see some of this stuff,” one Republican who opposed impeachment told CNN.
‘Should we do this?’
Cicilline and Lieu were not on the floor when the House abruptly went into recess as hundreds of violent protesters surrounded the chamber due to to social distancing rules that limited how many lawmakers were present.
But they kept in touch with those members who fled the chamber just steps away from the mob trying to break through the doors of the speaker’s lobby onto the House floor.
One of the members they were in touch with was Raskin, a constitutional law professor who was a leader for Democrats in the House debate to certify the Electoral College votes that the insurrectionists were trying to stop. Raskin – who had buried his 25-year-old son the day before – had brought family to the House to watch the debate Wednesday, who were evacuated along with the lawmakers and reporters in the chamber.
The lawmakers continued working on the draft and consulting with Raskin as he returned to the chamber more than six hours after evacuating to finish the Electoral College debate. They looped in aides on the House Judiciary Committee, which handled the first impeachment resolution, and had buy-in from House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, a Democrat from New York.
The impeachment resolution included both Trump’s false rhetoric about the election as well as Trump’s call to the Georgia secretary of state where he pushed him to “find” votes that would make Trump the winner.
“I think there were some people who initially thought, ‘Should we do this?” Cicilline said. “But I think as events became clearer and people got over the horror of the moment and reflected on it, the caucus really quickly decided we have got to do something. We can’t simply allow someone who led an insurrection against the US government to disrupt the Electoral College and subvert the will of the American people.”
There was a similar effort afoot in another part of the Capitol, as Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota put together her own impeachment resolution while in lockdown. The effort underscored the visceral reaction to the Capitol siege throughout the caucus, though Omar’s draft wasn’t the one the House ultimately moved forward with as the Judiciary Committee was already focused on the resolution from Lieu, Cicilline and Raskin.
‘The momentum was powerful’
By the time the House held its first vote last Wednesday on an objection to Arizona’s votes, Cicilline was ready to show a draft to House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. The lawmakers released a public draft the next day – with a single article of “abuse of power” for Trump’s role in the riots – and by Friday, the article had been tweaked to charging Trump with “incitement of insurrection.”
Unlike the 2019 impeachment push, there was almost no deviation within the House Democratic caucus on the need to impeach Trump. While there were some concerns raised about the precedent being set and the challenge posed to Biden’s agenda, once Pence made clear he wouldn’t try to remove Trump himself, Democrats said they were left with no choice.
“I’ve never seen our caucus so unified. I never saw It until this event,” said one Democratic member. “The individual needs drained out.”
Democrats set in motion a cumbersome process to get to the impeachment vote. First they would vote on a resolution from Raskin urging Pence to invoke the 25th Amendment, before voting on impeachment. But that resolution became all but symbolic, after Pence released a letter saying that he would not do so. One House Democrat called it a “total waste of time.”
Still, Democrats became more resolute about the need to impeach Trump as details continued to emerge about the events of January 6. The concerns, fears and determination to push forward spilled out on a nearly three-hour private caucus conference call just days before the vote. While leaders would need to move to address security concerns, there was nothing they needed to do to ensure the caucus stuck together on the vote itself.
“As the hours progressed and more and more people were speaking within the text threads and talking to one another by phone and every other means available, there seemed to be really broad agreement,” said Rep. Veronica Escobar, a Texas Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.
“The momentum,” she said, “was powerful.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated that Rep. Ted Lieu grabbed a crowbar before leaving his office. He grabbed a ProBar energy bar.