Article II: Inside Impeachment
Steve Kornacki: From NBC News, this is Article II: Inside Impeachment. I'm Steve Kornacki. Today is Wednesday, January 13th. And, no, you didn't suddenly travel back in time. We're back. We thought we had done the final episode of this podcast back on February 7th of 2020. But here we are again. Because less than a year after President Trump was acquitted...
Archival Recording: The clerk will report the resolution.
Archival Recording: To consider in the House, House Resolution 24: Impeaching Donald John Trump, president of the United States, for high crimes and misdemeanors.
Kornacki: ...he has now been impeached for the second time. And that has never happened before. But after that attack on the Capitol last week, (CROWD SHOUTING) the Democrats and this time some Republicans too insist the president must be held accountable for encouraging that mob scene.
President Donald John Trump: We're gonna walk down to the Capitol. (SCREAMING) And we're gonna cheer on our brave senators and congressmen and women. And we're probably not gonna be cheering so much for some of them. Because you'll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength. And you have to be strong.
Kornacki: And so on Wednesday, in the very chamber where those Trump loyalists ran wild, where some lawmakers say they literally feared for their lives, the House of Representatives spent Wednesday debating and then voting on a single article of impeachment: inciting an insurrection.
Archival Recording: There are consequences to actions. And the actions of the president of the United States demand urgent, clear action by the Congress of the United States.
Kornacki: President Trump has just a week left in office. And yes, he still has some staunch supporters.
Archival Recording: It's always been about getting the president no matter what. It's an obsession. An obsession that has now broadened. It's not just about impeachment anymore. It's about canceling, as I've said, canceling the president and anyone that disagrees with them.
Kornacki: But by a vote of 232 to 197, he has been impeached again. So now what? I've got Leigh Ann Caldwell here. She's a Capitol Hill correspondent for NBC News and an old friend of Article II. She was on the Hill during the insurrection. And she's been following this impeachment closely. Leigh Ann, here you are back today for the second impeachment of Donald Trump. I think it was a little bit more than a year ago that you were in the House chamber dealing with the first one. Obviously, a lot has changed since then in the world. What was it like in that building today?
Leigh Ann Caldwell: Today was much different than the last impeachment. This was an impeachment during a pandemic. So actually, access to the House chamber was extremely limited not only for reporters but for members of Congress too. There wasn't a lot of debate on the floor relatively speaking. It was just about three to four hours of debate total.
And the reason it took all day, part of it, is because it had series of votes that take a long time now because of COVID. Groups of members have to come in at certain times to vote. Some members were voting by proxy because they either have COVID or are quarantining. And as far as the impeachment is concerned, it was also different.
Because around the entire Capitol complex, there's this sadness and frustration and anger and bewilderment that there are now troops just walking through the Capitol grounds. It is something that I have never seen before, Steve.
Kornacki: I was just seeing some of the pictures, just watching on the air. And it just seemed surreal to watch. Can only imagine being there. We remember the last impeachment. Extensive hearings beforehand, kind of a slow process before you got to the vote. Here you have one article of impeachment. And it gets through in a day. Talk about what the one article was and what the sort of strategic thinking there was on the part of Democrats in doing it this way.
Caldwell: There was a lot of debate within the Democratic caucus on if they should have more than one article. There was a discussion to have two articles, one talking specifically about the president's interference in the counting of the election by calling the lawmakers in Michigan, calling officials in Pennsylvania, of course that well-known phone call now with the Georgia secretary of state.
Trump: All I want to do is this. I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have. Because we won the state.
Caldwell: And then having another article, which is the one that there was that is about last Wednesday, the incitement of an insurrection. So what they actually did do though is they put in just one paragraph about the Georgia secretary of state call.
It was just used as evidence. And there was some frustration, I will say, among Republicans, including in the Senate that wished that it was just really, really narrow and really simple. A very simple article that talks about incitement of insurrection and be done with it.
And there was some thought that that might gain more Republicans if it was a simpler article. But you also have the Democrats, who are furious about not only the insurrection but also how the president dealt with the aftermath of the election and wanted that component in there.
Kornacki: The Republicans who were making the case on the president's behalf against impeachment, what was the case they were making? Was there a unified argument there that emerged?
Caldwell: There was a series of arguments, actually. The most popular argument was that the country is extremely divided and impeachment will further divide the country. And that is why impeachment should not happen. Instead, the country needs to heal, to unify. And the best way to do that is to move forward, seven, six more days until the Biden administration and start fresh.
And then there were some arguments, who said that the Democrats are to blame, that the Democrats have been inciting violence around the country, that it is antifa and Black Lives Matter who have been burning cities and that should be punished for what they are saying is inciting violence across the country. That was a minority of the Republican party's argument today. But it exemplifies the fissures in the Republican party that are running extremely deep right now.
Kornacki: The headline is the impeachment passed. But what was the vote here? What was the tally on the floor when they took that vote?
Caldwell: So 222 Democrats voted for impeachment, that was every single Democrat, and 10 Republicans. So it was 232. And it was more than the number of members who voted for impeachment the last time the president got impeached. There were 230 Democrats then. They all voted for impeachment. This time it surpassed because of the help of Republicans. And it was pretty phenomenal to go, I think, to get 10 Republicans to back this.
Kornacki: Who are they? Is there a profile of the Republican member that did this? Is it kind of all over the map? Was something that was expected at the start of the vote?
Caldwell: About 24 hours ago, when Liz Cheney, who is the third ranking Republican in the House, when she came out in support of impeachment. She was just the second Republican to publicly say so. And her statement was strong and harsh and a complete repudiation of the president. And I was wondering if that was going to break the dam, that that was gonna lead to dozens and dozens of Republicans who came out in support of impeachment.
It didn't. In the end, there were 10 total, including Cheney. It did give some of these Republicans cover though, including people like Representative Peter Meijer of Michigan. But I will say though, Steve, the one I am most surprised by is Representative Tom Rice of South Carolina. He is in a very conservative district, not one to buck the party, not one to rebuke the president ever.
And he came out in support of impeachment. And we were all, our entire Hill team, was very surprised by that.
Kornacki: Yeah, I was watching along on Twitter. And I even remember when there was some speculation that maybe it was a mistake, that Rice had pressed the wrong button. But it did, as you say, it did not switch. That's the vote he intended to cast.
Caldwell: Uh-huh (AFFIRM).
Kornacki: We have to take a quick break. When we come back, Leigh Ann breaks down what happens next.
So this will now move to the Senate. There is one week left in Donald Trump's term. And as this vote was passing the House today, Mitch McConnell, who as of this moment is still the Senate majority leader, made an announcement on timing that suggests this won't be adjudicated in the Senate until Joe Biden is president. Is that right?
Caldwell: That's exactly right. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said publicly that there is a loophole, that actually in an emergency situation, McConnell can bring the Senate back in even if he does not have the support of all 100 senators to do so. McConnell said that he was not going to use that option.
The Senate is scheduled to come back on January 19th. That is the first time they can accept the impeachment article from the House of Representatives. Because that's the first time they will be back in session. That is also the day before Joe Biden's inauguration. And as far as the Senate rules are concerned, the Senate has to take up the impeachment trial at 1:00 p.m. the day after it receives them from the House of Representatives.
So that means at the exact same time Joe Biden is being inaugurated, the Senate would have to start an impeachment trial. It is blowing my mind, the fact that this could be happening all next week. And so even if the trial starts on Thursday the 21st, you do have an impeachment trial of the last president in the very first days of the new president's term, which is going to be very difficult for him if he wants to stand up his government very quickly.
Because as we know, this transition has been a disaster because the Trump administration has done very little to help usher in a Joe Biden administration.
Kornacki: So, okay, there's not gonna be a Senate trial until Joe Biden's president, also until Donald Trump is a former president. How can you have an impeachment trial for somebody who's no longer president?
Caldwell: So apparently, legal experts are split on the entire idea if this could happen. But majority leader McConnell and Schumer are operating in a way that makes it seem like they are accepting that an impeachment trial can take place even though the president is not in office.
We have seen no statements from either one of them, especially McConnell, saying that it is actually not constitutional. So that is also a really important sign that they do perhaps think that you can move forward with an impeachment trial. One of the incentives for moving forward on the impeachment trial in the Senate is because there's another component to that that the Senate would have to vote on. And that is barring the president from ever running for office again.
Kornacki: And that would have obvious implications for any comeback attempt for Donald Trump that he might have on his mind for 2024. What's your read on the politics of the Senate? Does there seem to be a realistic possibility that enough Republicans would join with Democrats in the Senate to potentially convict Donald Trump?
Caldwell: So the number that is needed to convict the president is 17. Looking at the politics of it, Leader McConnell has not indicated that he's opposed to impeachment. Even today-- the first time members of his conference have heard from him about this. It was in a letter that he sent to them.
He did not close the door on impeachment. He siad he was going to weigh the facts. The fact that he is not closing the door on impeachment is pretty significant. So why would McConnell not close the door on impeachemtn? There's a few reasons.
McConnell is done with Trump. Sources are telling me that he has not spoken to the president since December 15th, which is the day that he went to the Senate floor and congratulated Joe Biden for winning the election and called Joe Biden the president-elect .
He has no plans, sources tell me, to ever talk to Donald Trump again. He is completely over the president. So there's that. The second thing is McConnell, this is very likely going to be his last term. He just won reelection. He's in his late-seventies. He probably is not going to have to face voters again.
So he doesn't have to worry about that. McConnell is also horrified, we're told. We're told he's furious. And we're told he's disgusted by what happened and how the president has been behaving.
Kornacki: You talk about the political thinking and the political calculations here. Is the fact that so many Republicans in the House, the vast majority of them voted against impeaching him today, a signal that they think he's gonna continue to hold sway in their party for the next few years? Or is that overreading it?
Caldwell: I think we don't know yet, Steve. The president and Republicans have just spent the last two months energizing their voters and their base with this false fraudulent election talk that people are really bought into it. You know, the base is very bought into it around the country. And so they're still hearing from their constituents, I'm told, some of these members anyway, to stand with the president.
Kornacki: There's been some talk, you know, that the president might issue before leaving office some kind of pardon for himself. All sorts of questions, I think, about whether he could do that, how expansive that could be. Could something like that potentially intersect with this? Or is the impeachment just on a different track where it's not touched by any pardon?
Caldwell: I'm not totally sure. And I think that if he does issue a pardon for himself, especially because the Senate trial doesn't start until there's another seven days of evidence that can still come out. I think that will carry a lot of weight very negatively for these senators and the Republican senators who are having to carefully weigh this.
For the first time really, the president is so weakened that he doesn't have this stranglehold on these lawmakers in any way that he has in the past. Really, Mitt Romeny had been the only Republican, well, and Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski sometimes, had been the only Republicans that would separate themselves in a real way from the president. But now, his grip on the party is gone, completely loosened.
And so then you have the very real impact of what actually happened here to people personally. And that has caused a lot of consternation and concern and soul searching for a lot of members up here.
Kornacki: So as this is all playing out today, as Donald Trump is being impeached again, we know he's not on Twitter anymore, which is where we would normally go to I think look for his reaction in these situations. What do we know about what he was up to today, how he was reacting to this?
Caldwell: So he, like you said, was not on Twitter, which he would normally be throwing out 1,000 tweets a day. That's an exaggeration, mostly. But he gave out a Medal of Honor at the end of the day today. And he put out a statement in the middle of these impeachment proceedings where he said that there should be no violence and that that is not him, that does not represent America. And his close confidant, Jim Jordan of Ohio, read that statement on the floor during the impeachment debate saying, "See this statement. The president doesn't want violence."
We are also told by our White House colleagues that the White House is a completely ghost town. There's no one there out defending the president. So it was very deserted. And the president seems very alone on his White House island.
Kornacki: All right. Leigh Ann Caldwell, it was great to have you back on. I really appreciate you taking us through everything that happened in the second impeachment in as many years. Thank you for being part of it today.
Caldwell: Of course. Thanks so much, Steve.
Kornacki: Leigh Ann Caldwell is a Capitol Hill correspondent for NBC News. And after we talked to Leigh Ann, the White House released a five-minute video of President Trump in which he tried to distance himself from the violence that led to his second impeachment.
Trump: I want to be very clear. I unequivocally condemn the violence that we saw last week. Violence and vandalism have absolutely no place in our country and no place in our movement. No true supporter of mine could ever endorse political violence.
Kornacki: Article II: Inside Impeachment is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Bryson Barnes, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Adam Noboa, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. I'm Steve Kornacki. Thanks for coming back to us.