Forever marked as the first American president to be twice impeached, Trump would end the day a shadow of the political force that dominated Washington through most of his four years
On one end of Pennsylvania Avenue, members of the House of Representatives gathered solemnly in a chamber that just a week earlier had been besieged to cast their vote to impeach President Donald Trump. Protected by thousands of soldiers deployed to the Capitol grounds, the largest – and most bipartisan – group of lawmakers to impeach a president in US history registered their condemnation.
At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, Trump was at a private ceremony in the East Room of the White House pinning the National Medal of Arts on a trio of recipients that included Toby Keith, a country singer who performed at his inauguration.
Forever marked as the first American president to be twice impeached, Trump would end the day a shadow of the political force that dominated Washington through most of his four years, his last days in office passing away from the cameras, his political future under a cloud.
Stripped of his social media presence and with aides eyeing the exits, there were no television appearances by top surrogates, no talking points distributed to allies and reporters, and no rapid response operation set up to defend what many in Washington - and many in the White House - saw as indefensible.
Signs of a tectonic shift in American political life were everywhere Wednesday, starting in the morning as reporters and lawmakers arrived at the US Capitol to find American armed forces bivouacked in the Rotunda for the first time since the Civil War.
Hundreds of National Guard troops clung to rifles and riot shields as they napped on cold marble floors. Early-risers lined up at a 24-hour snack shop on the Senate side of the building.
A week before, angry Trump supporters, egged on by the president's baseless claims of voter fraud in the presidential election, stormed the very same space, forcing lawmakers to flee for safety. Five people died, including a Capitol Police officer.
The president's impeachment was never in doubt. Against the backdrop of a fortified Capitol, his supporters in Congress got to work early to try to keep Republican defectors to a minimum, looking to prevent a jailbreak of party lawmakers dismayed with Trump's role inspiring the insurrection.
Ohio Representative Jim Jordan – who himself had received the Medal of Freedom at a White House event closed to the media earlier this week – tried to organize an effort to denounce Wyoming's Liz Cheney, the No. 3 House Republican who came out in support of impeachment. Jordan called for a vote to remove Cheney from the party's leadership.
But Cheney was unbowed, in a signal that Trump was facing a previously unthinkable challenge to his authority from institutionalists and moderates in the House. In the end, 10 Republican representatives voted for Trump's impeachment and another four did not cast votes – the largest dissent from the president's party on an impeachment vote in US history.
"I'm not going anywhere," Cheney said. "This is a vote of conscience."
Democrats began the impeachment proceedings by arguing Trump posed an immediate danger to the nation – a theme the party's leaders repeatedly reinforced.
Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat, said the session was taking place at an "actual crime scene and we wouldn't be here if it were not for the president of the United States."
Soon after, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi emerged on the Eastern side of the Capitol to thank the soldiers standing guard in flak jackets, helmets and camouflage.
Pelosi handed the guardsmen coins emblazoned with an image of the building and her signature, mere feet from where rioters smashed windows and forced open doors.
By afternoon, the notion of a continuing threat was reinforced as lawmakers received a security briefing from law enforcement officials, including representatives of the Secret Service and Federal Bureau of Investigation. Following the meeting, their concern was palpable. Aides explained they had been warned that armed groups could attempt to disrupt President-elect Joe Biden's Jan. 20 inauguration.
As debate over impeachment wound down and a vote neared, Republican leaders sought a middle ground -- between the anger and fear voiced by some of their members and the desire by others to protect the party and president.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called Democratic counterpart Chuck Schumer – who will soon take control of the upper chamber – and said he would not agree to bring the Senate back early for an impeachment trial. Doing so effectively eliminated the possibility that Trump would be removed from office before the Jan. 20 expiration of his term.
The decision was remarkable following a New York Times report the previous evening that McConnell had concluded Trump committed impeachable offenses. While McConnell aides denied coordinating with the White House, his decision suggested McConnell was still offering some leeway to the Republican president.
Minutes later, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy took to the House floor to speak. McCarthy, a California Republican, said that while he opposed impeachment, "the president bears responsibility for Wednesday's attack" and erred in not immediately denouncing the mob. He called on Trump to take "immediate action" to accept his share of responsibility.
As if on cue, Trump soon issued a statement that stopped short of accepting blame, but called on Americans "to help ease tensions and calm tempers."
"In light of reports of more demonstrations, I urge that there must be NO violence, NO lawbreaking and NO vandalism of any kind," the president said in the statement.
Jordan read Trump's comments on the House floor as he urged his colleagues to vote against impeachment. And just over a half an hour later, McConnell sent a letter to Republican colleagues saying he had "not made a final decision" on how he would vote once impeachment reached the Senate.
Yet the effort – which appeared carefully choreographed – could only do so much to help the president. Just before 4 p.m., members of the House began their vote. Just 23 minutes later, enough lawmakers had voted against the president to make him the first in US history to be twice impeached. When the vote was gaveled closed less than 15 minutes after that, 10 Republicans had joined 222 Democrats in voting for impeachment, with 197 GOP members voting against.
'Only by the Grace of God'
Several Republicans who supported impeachment cited Trump's lack of response during the attack as part of their decision to vote against him. Even South Carolina Representative Tom Rice -- who joined Trump's challenge to the election results -- said he voted for impeachment in part because the president offered "weak requests for restraint" during the riot.
"I was on the floor of the House of Representatives when the rioters were beating on the door with tear gas, zip tie restraints, and pipe bombs in their possession," Rice said after the vote. "It is only by the grace of God and the blood of the Capitol Police that the death toll was not much, much higher."
Back at the White House, aides said Trump was preparing a video message in response to the vote, leaving Washington in suspense over what – if even recent past was prelude – would certainly be an angry tirade against the "witch hunt" to which he had been subjected.
When it was released, however, the president's message did not even mention the impeachment vote. He offered an unequivocal denunciation of the violence, and asked his supporters to "calm tempers and help promote peace in our country."
By the end of the day, the page was already turning. Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and a United Nations ambassador under Trump, announced she had created a political action committee -- almost certainly a first step for a favorite in what now looks like a wide-open field for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.
Disclaimer: This opinion first appeared on Bloomberg, and is published by special syndication arrangement.