The House’s effort to impeach Donald Trump reached its most contentious phase on Wednesday — debate over the actual charges to remove him from office — in a primetime “markup” hearing that broadcast networks declined to cover.
That left coverage of the House Judiciary Committee proceedings to streaming services, cable news networks, and C-SPAN. Yet as the session started, Fox News stayed with The Story with Martha MacCullum, including an interview with former congressman Trey Gowdy, occasionally with an inset of the proceedings in the corner of the screen. MSNBC initially covered the session, then went to Hardball with Chris Matthews, and then went back and forth with coverage or a screen inset. Only CNN stayed with the proceedings.
Wednesday night’s proceedings were a “markup” hearing, in which members began debate on the articles of impeachment.
The event featured five-minute speeches from each of 40 members of the House Judiciary Committee (one member, Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA) was not present because of a medical procedure). The markup included no witnesses, but several hours of member statements, much of what has already been said before. That apparently was enough of a disincentive for broadcasters to pre-empt their primetime lineups.
Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-NY), though, started the markup session by calling it a “somber” occasion and then urged Republicans to view their place in history.
“I hope every member of this committee will withstand the political pressures of the moment. I hope none of us attempt to justify behavior that we know in our heart is wrong,” he said.
He added, “President Trump will not be president forever. When his time has passed, when his grip on our politics is gone, when our country returns, as surely it will, to calmer times and stronger leadership, history will look back on our actions here today. How would you be remembered?”
The Judiciary Committee is considering two articles of impeachment — one for abuse of power, one for obstruction. The charges are related to Trump’s alleged efforts to pressure the president of Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden and his son, Hunter. The White House then refused to comply with congressional subpoenas after they launched the impeachment inquiry in September.
Nadler argued that “there can be no serious debate about what President Trump did,” reciting from the transcript summary of the July 25 phone call he had with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky.
The ranking member of the committee, Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA), continued to rail against the process.
“The real legacy of this impeachment hearing will not be the removal of Donald Trump,” he said, adding that the real “institutional damage” will be to the House.
“My heart breaks for a committee that has trashed this institution, and this is where we are now,” he said.
The strategy of Republicans has been to characterize the process as illegitimate, and a common refrain is that Democrats have had it out for Trump since the start of his term. Rep. Ken Buck (R-CO) even mentioned the fact that Kathy Griffin appeared in a video with a mock Trump severed head, and Robert De Niro blurted of “f— Trump” at the Tony Awards.
Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) recited the name of the person who Republicans believe is the whistleblower, the figure who first filed a complaint about Trump’s July 25 phone call, as he went through a list of people to call as witnesses.
Other Republicans said impeachment was an action not just against Trump, but those who voted for him.
“It’s not just that they don’t like the president. They don’t like the 63 million people who voted for this president. All of us in flyover country,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH).
The speakers had varying cadences as they argued for or against articles of impeachment. But they shared in common their tones of indignation that the political situation in Washington had led to this. The speeches showed the wide gulf between the two parties: Democrats say they have no choice given the threat of Trump; Republicans say it’s a sham to try to prevent Trump’s reelection. Lawmakers gave no hint of wavering from their positions.
Most viewers likely will see only clips of remarks or short segments that go viral on Twitter. Many of the members framed their votes as one of the most important of their careers; others tried to frame their pending decision with their own personal narratives.
Rep. Lucy McBath (D-GA) recounted the shooting death of her son, Jordan, that led her to become a gun reform activist and eventually to run for Congress.
Rep. Val Demings (D-FL) talked of growing up in the 60s, the daughter of a janitor and a maid, before explaining that “We have only one option. That is to hold this president accountable.”
Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) noted that she participated in three different impeachment processes. She was a Judiciary Committee staffer in 1974, during the Nixon impeachment proceedings. She was a congresswoman during the Clinton impeachment in 1998.
“The power to impeach is not to punish a president,” Lofgren said. “It is to protect Americans from a president who would abuse his power, upend the constitutional order, and threaten our Democracy.”
The nighttime hearing brought a smaller crowd to the Ways & Means hearing room at the Longworth Office Building, with plenty of seats still available in the public gallery. In an odd moment, a baby was heard crying.
The broadcast and cable networks covered the five public House Intelligence Committee hearings and the two previous House Judiciary Committee hearings. The high profile nature of the proceedings has put some focus on what gets covered and what does not. On Wednesday, the Trump campaign sent out an email blasting CNN for not covering the opening statement of Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), at a hearing featuring Justice Department inspector general Michael Horowitz, who did a review of the way that the FBI conducted the Russia investigation. CNN did not carry the opening statement of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), but did cover Horowitz’s remarks.
It’s unclear how the networks will cover the next “markup” hearing on Thursday, which are expected to go for hours of extensive debate over proposed amendments. That will lead to a final vote, after which the articles would go to the full House.
If the House passes one or more of the articles, the Senate would then hold a trial. If 2/3 of the Senate votes to convict, Trump is removed from office. That seems highly unlikely, as it would take 20 Senate Republicans joining 47 Democrats and independents.