WASHINGTON — Texans serving in the U.S. House moved in a party-line vote to impeach President Donald Trump on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, the third time in the nation's history the chamber took such action.
There was little suspense in the proceedings, as the larger chamber mostly reflected the Texas delegation's partisan split. But U.S. Rep. Michael Cloud, a Victoria Republican, briefly voted yes on impeachment and then quickly switched his vote to no. Given his past statements on impeachment, this was likely an error and the Tribune has sought comment from his office.
At issue were two articles of impeachment related to a late July phone call with the Ukrainian president and obstructing Congress’ efforts to investigate the context of that conversation. U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz are likely to serve as fierce defenders of Trump amid a Senate trial in the new year.
A tourist visiting the Capitol could easily have mistaken Wednesday as just another day of legislating.
As debate raged over Trump’s fate, the chamber was only about a third full for much of the day. There were no lines to enter the Capitol and a mere handful of pro-impeachment protesters could be seen on the campus when debate began in the early afternoon.
Inside the chamber, Texans cycled in and out to observe the proceedings. U.S. Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee and Lizzie Pannill Fletcher — both Houston Democrats — kept a quiet vigil throughout much of the day on the Democratic side of the aisle. On the Republican side, U.S. Rep. Chip Roy of Austin and Randy Weber of Friendswood similarly monitored debate.
Most — but not all — of the Texans in the House took to the floor to deliver speeches on why Trump should or should not be removed from office.
Democrats argued Trump’s actions posed an existential threat to both the integrity of the 2020 election and to the future of American democracy. Republicans counter-charged that Democrats merely aimed to undermine the results of the 2016 election. But in this toxic moment, it was hard to find a member of the House deluded enough to think there were any minds left to persuade.
That did not deter an especially caustic debate.
U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, is one of the most senior Texas Republicans and he repeatedly compared House Democrats to Joseph McCarthy. U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, an Austin Democrat, called Trump "a wannabe dictator."
But nothing was quite like the moment U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, the most bombastic of all Texans, took to the floor. The Tyler Republican shouted through much of his allotted time, suggesting that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 presidential election. It's a notion widely disputed by the United States intelligence community. Former Trump national security aide Fiona Hill warned members of Congress against pushing that theory in testimony last month.
U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, the New York Democrat who was tasked with managing the Democratic debate schedule, interjected once Gohmert concluded.
"I am deeply concerned that any member of the House would spout Russian propaganda on the floor of the House," he said.
Gohmert returned to the podium and shouted until the presiding officer gaveled him into silence. Gohmert then crossed over to the Democratic side of the chamber and appeared to rip into Nadler, gesticulating in the House Judiciary Committee chairman's face. That conversation was not audible beyond the House floor.
"It would be the epitome of inanity to conclude a president can only be impeached once," the Houston Democrat told CNN.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi presided over Wednesday's votes. Upon her declaring the passage of the first article, scattered applause broke out among Democrats. Republican members responded with howls and boos, implying that clapping undermined the seriousness of the process.
Moments later, as members began voting on the second article, the Republican side broke out into scattered cheers of "Four more years!"
The members of the Texas delegation who were once perceived to be capable of crossing party lines made their positions known in recent weeks. U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes, the retiring Republican who spent his career as the Texan most likely to cross the aisle, announced in a House Intelligence hearing last month that he would not vote for impeachment.
U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a senior Democrat from Laredo, is known for a rebellious streak and there was some question over where he would land. That was put to rest Wednesday morning, when he made his intention to back both articles known.
Late last week, the state’s two most vulnerable Democrats, U.S. Reps. Colin Allred of Dallas and Fletcher, announced they would vote for impeachment. Each of those freshmen have the party designation of “Frontliner,” meaning the party is concerned enough about their reelections that they direct donors to their campaigns.
"This is a decision I don’t take lightly, but it is plain to me that the President has engaged in a clear abuse of power and committed an impeachable offense,” Allred wrote in an email to supporters on Wednesday.
“As a member of the House, I must fulfill my oath to uphold the rule of law and defend the Constitution — regardless of political consequences," he aded. "I ran for Congress not to impeach a president, but to be a voice and advocate for North Texans in Washington.”
Fletcher expounded on her support for both articles in a Friday news release.
“I do so knowing that you have placed your trust in me to represent you,” she wrote. “I am grateful for and honored by that privilege.”
“I also do so knowing that not all who live in our district answer these questions in the same way. I respect the views of all who have shared their thoughts with me.”
U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer, the chairman of the House Republican reelection campaign, accused Democrats of prioritizing disdain for Trump over representing their constituents.
“By voting to impeach President Trump, the socialist Democrats threw their majority out the window and showed the American public they care more about their hatred for this president than delivering on their campaign promises," Emmer said. “Democrats’ impeachment sham will be remembered as the beginning of the end of their short-lived and unproductive time in the majority."
Republicans have been delighted since September at the news of Allred and Fletcher's impeachment positions.
But Congressional Leadership Fund, the GOP super PAC aligned with House leadership, has yet to spend significant money attacking either Texan. Instead, the Republican focus at this point appears to be squarely on House Democrats who represent districts Trump carried in 2016. Hillary Clinton earned more votes than Trump in the districts of both Allred and Fletcher.
It remains unclear to many political operatives privy to polling whether impeachment will have a serious effect on incumbents of either party. Operatives in both parties privately predict the public’s attention span in the Trump era is decidedly short. A Democratic operative involved in Texas races quipping “this has a shelf-life of two weeks after [the] final vote,” a sentiment to which a Texas Republican counterpart concurred. Both strategists were not authorized by campaigns to speak on the record.
For instance, the government shutdown that commenced nearly a year ago to the day is a mostly vague and forgotten drama to most Americans.
As for the proceedings at hand, the day played out according to expectations. Capitol Hill veterans recalled the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, which resulted in the surprise resignation of the speaker-designate on the House floor and a subsequent leadership race.
Most Senate insiders anticipate a January Senate trial to determine whether Trump ought to be removed from office. Given the scale of Washington partisanship and the two-thirds threshold needed to oust a president, it is highly unlikely Trump is in much political danger.
The state’s two Republican senators, Cornyn and Cruz, have staunchly defended the president in recent weeks, and are expected to vote to acquit Trump.