Impeachment Leaves the House and Enters the Unknown

A day of ceremonial excess in the House as impeachment officially becomes the Senate’s problem.

House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and House clerk Cheryl Johnson hold the two impeachment articles as they lead the seven impeachment managers to the Senate on January 15, 2020.
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and House clerk Cheryl Johnson hold the two impeachment articles as they lead the seven impeachment managers to the Senate on January 15, 2020. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Hell is an inter-branch congressional procedural dispute over protocol. It was thought on Wednesday afternoon that the House of Representatives would deliver two impeachment articles to the Senate for a trial. No. The Senate, instead, insisted it would only receive notice from the House that it had impeached “Donald John Trump,” as he is required to be called in the stuffy context of impeachment, and then get back to the House about when it was ready to accept the delivery. (Thursday, mid-morning.)

Wednesday was an afternoon of pomp and circumstance regarding the physical transmission of paper to the other side of a building. There was first a photo-op—sorry, an “Engrossment Ceremony”in a House reception room, in which Nancy Pelosi, using at least a dozen collector’s-item pens, signed off on the articles. The seven impeachment managers whom Pelosi had named earlier Wednesday morning to try the case in the Senate stood above her, and then arranged themselves in formation, by seniority, behind the House Clerk and Sergeant at Arms, for a processional across the Capitol. The Clerk, carefully carrying the articles that the Senate would get around to reading in the morning, entered the Senate and read the message that Trump had been impeached. The message was received. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell scheduled the swearing-in of senators for the following day and arranged for senators to escort Chief Justice John Roberts into the chamber.

The scripting of the handoff may have been so intricate because it was, really, the last piece of the impeachment process that congressional leaders, who are used to scripting every second of action in the Capitol, can control to their satisfaction. No one knows what will happen during the Senate trial; Republicans still haven’t released the rules for it that they’ve been deciding amongst themselves. There’s uncertainty about whether witnesses will be called later in the proceedings—and whether the Republican majority, should Democrats fulfill one of their requests to bring in fresh fact witnesses, might drag in Hunter Biden. Senators don’t know if they’ll be able to survive days and days of hearings in which they’re not permitted to speak or use their cell phones; presidential candidates in the Senate don’t know if their campaigns will survive this time-suck, either. The outcome—a near-party-line acquittal of the president—is scripted, sure. Everything between then and now, though, is eerily up in the air. Spontaneity is anathema to the Senate. Press access is being sharply restricted, lest something happen.

Pelosi, finally revealing her managers after weeks of speculation, didn’t take many risks or offer many surprises. She named seven: Reps. Adam Schiff and Jerrold Nadler, chairmen of the Intelligence and Judiciary committees, respectively; Rep. Val Demings, a former Orlando police chief who serves on both the Intelligence and Judiciary Committees; Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a senior member of the Judiciary Committee who’s served, in one way or another, during the impeachments of Nixon, Clinton, and now Trump; Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, the caucus chairman and no. 5 ranking Democrat in the chamber; and freshmen Reps. Sylvia Garcia and Jason Crow.

“The emphasis,” Pelosi said in her announcement, “is on litigators. The emphasis is on comfort level in the courtroom. The emphasis is making as strong as possible a case to protect and defend our Constitution, to seek the truth for the American people.”

The emphasis is also about managing her caucus, and rewarding certain members with valuable appointments while not offending others. There was no use, then, in spending a golden ticket on ex-Republican independent Rep. Justin Amash, a conservative and fierce supporter of impeachment whom a bloc of freshmen Democrats had been pushing as a manager to lend the case a sheen of nonpartisanship.

The managers had to be approved through a House vote midday Wednesday, giving the band one last opportunity to get together before impeachment became the Senate’s burden. There were Nadler and Judiciary Committee ranking member Rep. Doug Collins on the floor, leading debate on the measure and talking past each other with all the chemistry that the lifelong New Yorker and north Georgia pastor have become known for. Republican leader Kevin McCarthy and Pelosi gave the final, dueling speeches. When McCarthy talked about Pelosi’s recent interview, in which she stated that the stain of impeachment would be with President Trump “forever,” Pelosi—not known to listen closely the minority party’s frequent ranting against her—raised a fist in the air, in triumph.

“As soon as tomorrow, the senators will take an oath of office,” Pelosi said during the Engrossment Ceremony. “They will take a special oath of office to do ‘impartial justice according to the Constitution and the laws.’

“Let’s hope they uphold that oath they take tomorrow.”