WASHINGTON (AP) – The most raucous committee in Congress sat stone-faced, barely speaking.
One by one, the members around the Judiciary Committee dais voted on the articles of impeachment against United States (US) President Donald Trump. Then they bolted for the doors and the airports, in more than one case without a word.
The all-business iciness during those eight gavel-to-gavel minutes reflected the gravity of advancing articles of impeachment to the House floor for only the third time in American history. But it also told much of the story about impeachment’s toll on Congress, Washington and beyond.
Ever since Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukraine’s president sparked official proceedings against the President, impeachment has been a force that’s bent congressional business around it, with severe strain.
No one feels sorry for Congress, and its members generally don’t feel sorry for themselves. But the wear-and-tear of impeachment is becoming clear in the emotional exchanges and frayed relationships left in its wake.
“I have a problem with this whole place. If you can figure out an exit strategy for me I’d appreciate that,” said Representative Ken Buck, R-Colo, a member of the Judiciary panel, on Friday. “This is crazy. The whole thing is crazy,” he added of impeachment. “It will take some time to get over.”
Tempers are short. Members show signs of being sick of each other, like any colleagues who spend too much time together. But they are operating under the glare of a global spotlight and the weight of history.
Trust, or what remained of it after years of obstruction and smashmouth Trump-era politics, appeared to be a casualty in the short-term.
Thursday’s gruelling 14-hour Judiciary Committee markup of the abuse and obstruction charges against Trump ignited the smoldering tension. There was no expectation that the articles would be substantially changed, but Trump’s allies pushed for amendments, each of which took hours to consider. Democrats, meanwhile, did not want to take final votes too late for Americans to see.
Just before midnight, Chairman Jerrold Nadler announced that the committee would not be voting on the impeachment articles until Friday morning – and after he banged his gavel, the microphones were switched off. Livid, Republicans leapt to their feet, yelling “unbelievable” and “sneaky” and talking of a “kangaroo court.” Nadler walked out.
“Chairman Nadler’s integrity is zero. His staff is zero,” fumed ranking Republican Representative Doug Collins of Georgia. “This chairman has made himself irrelevant.”
The personal stab at the powerful New York House veteran was unusual, as even the most mismatched pairs atop committees typically refrain from attacking each other in personal terms.
“I could feel it myself and I know the rest of us did,” said Representative Madeleine Dean, a new member from Pennsylvania, in an interview on Friday with The Associated Press. “That really was sort of the apex of weeks and months of emotional and mental and intellectual toll.”
It turns out that impeachment is not the Democratic morale-booster that some might have thought in the heady first days of the party’s House takeover this year, when Michigan Representative Rashida Tlaib vowed to “impeach him” on her first day in office.
One Democrat involved in the impeachment investigation was so dispirited by it all that he decided this term will be his last.
“The countless hours I have spent in the investigation of Russian election interference and the impeachment inquiry have rendered my soul weary,” said Representative Denny Heck, in his retirement announcement on December 4. “At times, it is as though there are no rules or boundaries. Civility is out. Compromise is out. All or nothing is in.”
There’s a long way to go before knowing which party benefits and which pays for impeachment in the 2020 elections, let alone which fares better in the eyes of history. But trust – by Americans toward Congress – seems to be suffering. And it’s not clear the proceedings are changing minds. Recent polling shows that about half the country supports impeaching and removing Trump from office, fitting the pattern of a deeply polarised nation.
But the proceedings could be costly for both parties.
A plurality of Americans – 44 per cent – said they had no trust at all in the House impeachment proceedings, according to a Monmouth University poll conducted in December. The poll also found that about six in 10 Americans said Democrats in Congress are more interested in bringing down Trump than pursuing the facts. Likewise, about six in 10 said Republicans in Congress are more interested in defending Trump than pursuing the facts.
With the stakes so high, emotions are, too. Dean, whose family has grown by two grandchildren since impeachment began in September, grew emotional on Friday when she talked about the responsibility of weighing the president’s fate.
“I’ve been thinking about the broader horizon,” she said. The same week of Trump’s July phone call, she happened to talk on the floor of the House with Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the Oversight Committee Chairman who died in October.
Cummings, she said, reminded her that people will know she was here for what’s expected to be the third presidential impeachment in American history. “It will matter,” she said.
But it will not have come for free.
By the time Nadler gavelled the committee back into session on Friday morning, the silences and swift proceedings suggested there was nothing left to say, let alone fight about.