WASHINGTON — It’s not as if anyone was expecting a normal Wednesday to materialize on Capitol Hill. Presidents don’t get impeached every day, just as they generally don’t write six-page harangues charging Democrats with “declaring open war on American Democracy” (that was Tuesday) or tweet that Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s “teeth were falling out of her mouth” (that was Sunday).
This is what Washington is dealing with now: the daily acceptance that whatever notions of normal and not normal that used to exist have been scrambled beyond recognition. It has been like this for nearly three years.
Still, Wednesday — a clear and cold December morning — hit with a special punch. It was one of those “step back” days when history stands out from the pile of routine chaos. The 45th president of the United States would be impeached Wednesday. Even in a nonstop news cycle, that’s a full-stop sentence. “Impeachment” can’t be brushed off like a subpoena.
It has happened only twice before. President Trump seemed especially haunted by the “very ugly word, impeachment,” as he put it in his letter to the Democrats. He likened his coming impeachment to an “attempted coup,” an “election-nullification scheme” and a “lynching,” among other things. On Dec. 18, it would become part of his official ledger.
Remarkably, Congress nailed some of its orderly lawmaking duties this week, and not insignificant ones. While pro-impeachment rallies were held in several cities Tuesday, the House managed to pass a $1.4 trillion spending package, averting a government shutdown and tossing candy at both parties. (Here’s $1.37 billion for your border wall and $425 million in grants for election security.) The chamber was also expected to vote on Trump’s signature trade bill, the USMCA, this week. There were whiffs of ordinary business.
But the stench of something momentous was hard to miss. For starters, it was unusually crowded at the Capitol. There were protesters of various persuasions, including a few hundred pro-impeachment people gathered on the Senate side of the Capitol, on a patch of grass known as “the Swamp,” named by television crews in the 1970s because the area was constantly wet. A hatless Santa Claus stood on the corner of Constitution Avenue holding a hard-to-read “Save Money, Impeach the Impeachers” sign. Another asserted “Virginia Is for Lovers, Not for Liars.”
House members started ambling toward their seats at 9 a.m., Democrats on the left, Republicans on the right. The center aisle might as well have been a moat.
Everyone was checking their phones. The president kept tweeting. His topics included something that pleased him on “Fox & Friends” (“Well said Brian!”), nice things he’d heard about himself (“Good marks and reviews on the letter I sent to Pelosi”), things he will not accept (“Can you believe that I will be impeached today. . . . I did nothing wrong”). He re-tweeted Sean Hannity and Jeanine Pirro, two of his favorite Fox News personalities.
Pelosi, dressed in black, emerged from her office just after 10 a.m. and walked through Statuary Hall toward the House floor. She was trailed by a rush of media but said nothing, at least nothing audible but for the word “sad.” Representative Debbie Dingell, Democrat of Michigan, walked alongside, clutching the speaker’s hand, her eyes moist.
Sad and somber and solemn were once again the day’s watchwords. The message came down from the Democratic leadership that no members, under any circumstances, should cheer when the final votes were announced. Solemn, keep it solemn.
Members took turns throughout the morning, giving two-minute statements, variations on things their colleagues on the Judiciary and Intelligence committees had been saying for weeks. Republicans: Democrats have been determined to impeach this president from Day 1. Democrats: No president is above the law.
By noon, resignation had fallen over Washington as the day crawled toward a predictable ending, to come at a late hour. Trump would be impeached by the House. Nearly all members would vote with their parties. The haggling had already commenced in the Senate.
At the White House, the president and his press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, stayed away from reporters, perhaps saving their energy for a “Merry Christmas”-style Trump rally to be held in the evening in Michigan. A senior official observing the House debate likened the mood inside to “Election Day: Hurry Up and Wait.”
In the early afternoon, Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, appeared before reporters in the White House briefing room to dismiss the articles of impeachment as “spare” and offer a jab at Pelosi: “She pretends it’s a solemn, sad moment and absorbs the applause.”
Over at the Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue, the House debate on impeachment was playing silently on Fox News as instrumental Christmas music swelled and guests with “Keep America Great” hats meandered through the lobby, taking pictures against trees made of Champagne bottles.
Stefan Hull, 42, who works in software and lives in Bethesda, Md., was sitting at the bar drinking bourbon and eating jelly beans, barely paying attention to what was unfolding on television. He said he knew how it would end.
“If the guy didn’t tweet, his presidency would actually be looked at as fairly positive,” Hull said. He paused. “But he loves to piss people off.”
Just outside the hotel, Pelosi had a fan.
“She’s wielding real power in service to the Constitution,” said Danusha Goska, a 60-year-old teacher who drove to the capital from Paterson, N.J., and was planning to attend a demonstration on Capitol Hill. “It makes me want to cry.”
Back up on Capitol Hill, Republicans derided the process as a sham and a farce.
“Pontius Pilate afforded more rights to Jesus than the Democrats have afforded this president,” said Representative Barry Loudermilk, Republican of Georgia. Republican Representative Mike Kelly of Pennsylvania reminded everyone that the attack on Pearl Harbor also occurred in December, and just like that dreadful event, which killed 2,400 people, so too would the date Dec. 18, 2019, be recalled as “a day that would live in infamy” by some latter-day Franklin Roosevelt.
It’s not as if votes were left to change. The voting could have commenced at any moment but of course did not. So everyone waited, with more tedium than suspense.