The US House of Representatives has pressed towards historic votes to impeach President Donald Trump, arguing about the charges he faces and the legitimacy of the probe that brought Congress and the nation to this point.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi has the Democratic votes needed to make Mr Trump just the third US president to be impeached, exercising what she called “one of the most solemn powers granted to us by the Constitution”.
“This is a democracy defining moment,” said Representative Jim McGovern, the chairman of the Rules Committee, as the proceedings began.
“This is about protecting our democracy.”
Can you believe that I will be impeached today by the Radical Left, Do Nothing Democrats, AND I DID NOTHING WRONG! A terrible Thing. Read the Transcripts. This should never happen to another President again. Say a PRAYER!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 18, 2019
Democrats overwhelmingly approved the rules for the debate, 228-197, with just two defections from Ms Pelosi’s ranks, an early indication of how the votes will eventually fall on the articles of impeachment.
No Republicans supported the procedural vote, but Democrats picked up backing from Representative Justin Amash, the Michigan conservative, who left the Republican party this year to become an independent over his support for impeachment.
Mr Trump tweeted his outrage: “Can you believe that I will be impeached today by the Radical Left, Do Nothing Democrats, AND I DID NOTHING WRONG! A terrible thing.”
The rare undertaking to impeach a president, set to unfold over more than six hours of debate, has split the politicians in Congress much the way Americans have different views of Mr Trump’s unusual presidency and the articles of impeachment against him.
According to a tally compiled by The Associated Press, Mr Trump was on track to be formally charged by a House majority.
No Republicans were expected to vote for impeachment as the president’s party stands firmly with Mr Trump, and the Senate, where the Republican party has the majority, is expected to acquit him in a trial next year.
“Very sadly, the facts have made clear that the President abused his power for his own personal, political benefit and that he obstructed Congress,” Ms Pelosi wrote to colleagues ahead of the vote. “In America, no one is above the law.”
As the debate was under way, one Democrat, Representative Joe Kennedy III of Massachusetts, read a letter to his young children explaining his vote to impeach.
“This is a moment you will read about in your history books,” he told them.
Republican Representative Tom Cole called it “a very sad day” with the partisan voting to come.
“Democrats have been searching for a reason to impeach President Trump since the day he was elected,” he said.
As the House gavelled the start, the House chaplain, the Rev Pat Conroy, opened the session with morning prayer.
“Help them, and help us all,” he said.
As soon as the session opened, Republicans tried, and failed, to halt what one called the “unfair, rigged” process.
The president, who is expected to depart later for a rally in the election battleground state of Michigan, fired off a furious letter to Ms Pelosi on Tuesday denouncing the “vicious crusade” against him but acknowledging he was powerless to stop the expected outcome.
Mr Trump implores Americans to “read the transcript,” but the facts of his July phone call with the Ukraine president were largely confirmed by witnesses in the impeachment inquiry.
Mr Trump asked Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate Democrats and his 2020 political rival Joe Biden.
At the time, the newly elected Ukraine leader was hoping for a coveted White House visit to showcase his standing with the US, his country’s most important ally.
He was also counting on nearly 400 million dollars (£303 million) in military aid as his country confronts a hostile neighbour, Russia.
The question for members of congress, and Americans, is whether those actions, and the White House’s block on officials testifying for the house investigation, are impeachable offences.
Republicans swiftly started offering the first of several procedural motions expected during the day to halt or delay the proceedings.
“So we can stop wasting America’s time on impeachment, I move that the House do now adjourn,” said Representative Andy Biggs, the chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus.
It was defeated on a party-line vote.
Then Republicans then tried to force a vote condemning the actions of Democratic committee leaders, based on objections to the way the Democrats conducted hearings leading to Wednesday’s votes. That also went nowhere on a party-line vote.
Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy suggested that Republicans çould try to undo the vote someday.
“Maybe a future Congress would even expunge this vote,” he told Fox News, deriding the months-long impeachment proceedings as the quickest in history.
From Alaska to Florida, tens of thousands of Americans marched in support of impeachment on Tuesday evening, from a demonstration through a rainy Times Square to handfuls of activists standing vigil in small towns.
They carried signs saying “Save the Constitution – Impeach!!!!” and “Criminal-in-Chief”.
Mr Trump appeared to intend his lengthy, accusatory message less for Ms Pelosi than for the broad audience of citizens — including 2020 voters — watching history unfolding on Capitol Hill.
He accused the Democrats of acting out of “Trump Derangement Syndrome,” still smarting from their 2016 election losses.
“You are the ones bringing pain and suffering to our Republic for your own selfish, personal political and partisan gain,” he wrote.
Portraying himself as a blameless victim, Mr Trump compared the impeachment inquiry to the “Salem Witch Trials”.
Asked later if he bore any responsibility for the proceedings, he said, “No, I don’t think any. Zero, to put it mildly.”