Nearly a month after the House passed the two articles — on abuse of power and obstruction of Congress — without a single Republican vote, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, held an “engrossment ceremony” to sign the bill before it was walked over to the Republican-controlled Senate, which will hold the president’s trial.
Pelosi’s office said she was following “precedent” — a fuzzy word considering only two presidents before Trump have been impeached, with all the accompanying ignominious pomp.
Half an hour before the parade was set to begin, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office dispatched a rain cloud, telling reporters that according to congressional rules the impeachment articles could not be “formally” delivered until the following day.
Formal or not, Pelosi (Calif.) and an entourage of high-level Democrats walked into the Rayburn Reception Room at 5:15 p.m. to find several dozen photographers already thronging the impeachment articles, which had been laid out on a table beside a sign that read “#DEFENDOURDEMOCRACY.”
“So sad, so tragic for our country that the actions taken by the president undermined our national security,” she said, speaking from a lectern between a pair of six-foot ornamental vases. “Today, we will make history when the [impeachment] managers walk down the hall.”
Pelosi sat down and signed the bill, which took several minutes, as she used a different pen for every stroke, plucking them from gold-colored trays and distributing them afterward to the other Democrats in Congress. “We’re done! We’re done! We’re done!” cried Rep. Maxine Waters (Calif.), who had been calling for Trump’s impeachment since 2017, before walking out of the Rayburn room holding her commemorative pen aloft.
The procession began. House Clerk Cheryl L. Johnson carried the articles out of the room and through the Capitol’s main corridor alongside House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and followed by seven impeachment managers Pelosi chose to prosecute the case at trial. Directly behind her were House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), their faces as impassive as the statues that flanked their route: Rosa Parks and Chief Standing Bear and Alexander Hamilton Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy.
The procession followed a route first laid out on Feb. 25, 1868, one day after the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson. That time the bills were delivered to the Senate by Rep. Thaddeus Stevens (R-Pa.), who was so weak from an illness that attendants had to carry him through the Capitol in a chair.
“Every eye followed Thad Stevens as he limped down the center aisle of the crowded Senate chamber,” David O. Stewart wrote in his book “Impeached.”
“He invoked the authority of the House of Representatives and the people of the United States, then announced, ‘We do impeach Andrew Johnson, President of the United States, of high crimes and misdemeanors in office.’”
That first ceremony was even more haphazard than those to come. House Republicans had not yet decided which crimes and misdemeanors they were impeaching the president for, so Stevens hobbled back into the Senate Chamber a week later with nearly two dozen handwritten and hole-punched pages, charging Johnson with 11 articles, including an attempt “to bring into disgrace, ridicule, hatred, contempt, and reproach the Congress of the United States.”
Stevens’s walk created a sort of tradition — like a sparser, rarer and far less celebrated version of the ceremonial march to open Parliament in Britain.
One-hundred thirty years later — on Dec. 19, 1998 — Republicans repeated the impeachment walk, this time carrying articles accusing President Bill Clinton of obstructing justice and lying under oath. That parade, which included then-Rep. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), concluded in the cramped office of Senate Secretary Gary Sisco, who accepted the document from the House members, set it on his desk near his family photos and TV remote, and watched the procession immediately leave through a door decorated with Christmas wreaths.
For all the pageantry, both Johnson’s and Clinton’s impeachments ended in acquittal. Trump’s probably will, too, given that his Republican allies control the Senate and thus his trial. But Democrats got to walk the articles beneath the heavenly mural of the Capitol dome on Wednesday, and straight into the Senate Chamber, where Johnson, the House clerk, announced the coming “impeachment trial of Donald John Trump,” and Senate President Pro Tempore Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) replied in a deadpan tone: “The message will be received.”
A bust of President Richard M. Nixon looked on outside the chamber doors. He had avoided similar formalities by resigning first.