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Impeachment rules process approved in House as another U.S. official testifies

The U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday approved the rules for its impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump, as House committees heard from a National Security Council official about the administration's contacts with Ukraine.

Saw nothing illegal in Trump's call to Ukrainian president, ex-White House official testifies

Speaker Nancy Pelosi announces on Thursday that the House of Representatives has voted 232-196 to pass a resolution on the impeachment procedure against President Trump. (Andrew Harnik/The Associated Press)

The Democratic-controlled U.S. House of Representatives approved the rules for its impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump, which sets the stage for outlining the process for public hearings and possibly drafting articles of impeachment.

The 232-196 roll call vote overwhelmingly along party lines was the chamber's first formal vote on a process that's likely to take months, possibly stretching into the early weeks of the 2020 election year. Two Democrats voted against party lines, while one Independent voted in favour. 

Underscoring the gravity of the vote, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi presided over the chamber as it voted on the rules package.

In a floor speech before the vote, Pelosi said, "This is not any cause for any glee or comfort."

Standing next to a large U.S. flag in the well of the House, the top Democrat in the chamber said the impeachment inquiry was necessary to defend the Constitution and prevent an abuse of power by Trump.

"The times have found each and every one of us in this room," Pelosi said. She urged lawmakers to vote in favour of the impeachment rules "to protect the Constitution of the United States. What is at stake in all of this is nothing less than our democracy."

The investigation is focused on Trump's efforts to push Ukraine to investigate Democratic political rival Joe Biden by withholding military aid and an Oval Office meeting craved by the country's new president.

Democratic freshman congressman Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey and 15-term veteran Collin Peterson of Minnesota went against their party, both complaining that the process so far has been overly partisan and is further dividing the country.

Republicans have said that the Democratic-run process has been secretive and tilted against them. All voted against the resolution, while Michigan's Justin Amash — a Republican until recently and now an independent — voted in favour.

Democrats say their plan follows how impeachment efforts against presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton were run. The public impeachment hearings for Nixon took place after months of investigative work, and years in the case of Clinton's impeachment.

The White House in a statement said the vote was a violation of "due process."

"The Democrats want to render a verdict without giving the administration a chance to mount a defence. That is unfair, unconstitutional, and fundamentally un-American," the statement read.

Also on Thursday, a former top White House official testified in the impeachment inquiry that he saw nothing illegal in Trump's phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelensky that is at the centre of the Democrat-led investigation.

Tim Morrison, who stepped down from the National Security Council the day before his appearance, is the first White House political appointee to testify and could be central to the effort to remove Trump from office.

"I want to be clear, I was not concerned that anything illegal was discussed," Morrison said.

Tim Morrison, the former top national security adviser to President Donald Trump, arrives for a closed-door meeting to testify as part of the House impeachment inquiry. (J. Scott Applewhite/The Associated Press)

Morrison has been in the spotlight since August, when a government whistleblower said multiple U.S. officials had said Trump was "using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election."

Three concerns

Morrison largely confirmed much of what acting U.S. ambassador in Ukraine, William Taylor, said in earlier testimony, as the two had multiple phone conversations raising concerns about the Trump administration's approach toward Ukraine, according to his prepared remarks obtained by The Associated Press.

"I can confirm," he wrote, that the substance of the diplomat's testimony "is accurate."

As a national security adviser, Morrison was among those listening to Trump's call with the Ukrainian leader. He said he had three concerns if word of the discussion leaked: how it would play out in polarized Washington, how it would affect bipartisan support in Congress for Ukraine and how it would impact U.S.-Ukraine relations.

Morrison was brought on board by then national security adviser John Bolton, who is also being asked to testify at a future date. It has been alleged through testimony that Trump's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, had been conversing with Ukrainian leaders outside of traditional U.S. diplomatic circles, with desired outcomes that would benefit Trump.

Morrison's name appeared more than a dozen times in Taylor's testimony, who told impeachment investigators that Trump was withholding military aid unless the new Ukrainian president went public with a promise to investigate the Bidens.  

Taylor said Morrison recounted a conversation that Gordon Sondland, America's ambassador to the European Union, had with a top aide to Zelensky — Andriy Yermak. Taylor said Morrison told him security assistance would not materialize until Zelensky committed to investigate Burisma. A White House meeting for Zelensky was also held up.

"I was alarmed by what Mr. Morrison told me about the Sondland-Yermak conversation," Taylor testified. "This was the first time I had heard that the security assistance — not just the White House meeting — was conditioned on the investigations."

Kevin McCarthy, the House Republican leader who has been critical of the process the Democrats are following, tried to ensure as few members of his party as possible vote in favour of the rules framework. (Al Drago/Reuters)

Taylor testified Morrison told him he had a "sinking feeling" after learning about a Sept. 7 conversation Sondland had with Trump.

Trump has tried to brand those testifying as either unimportant officials, Democrats or so-called Never-Trumpers. It will be harder to impugn Morrison, who has been bouncing around Washington in Republican positions for two decades, having worked for congressmen Mark Kennedy and Jon Kyl, and as a senior Republican staffer on the House's armed services committee.

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It is likely to take weeks or more before the House votes on whether to actually impeach Trump. If the House impeaches Trump, the Senate would hold a trial to decide whether to remove him from office, presided over by the chief justice of the Supreme Court.

Another potential complication is the possibility of a government shutdown on Nov. 21 if further funding is not approved.

Republicans slam 'sham process'

Pelosi decided to have the impeachment resolution vote following weeks of Republican claims that the inquiry was invalid because the chamber had not voted to formally commence the work.

Republican leaders have called the rules "Speaker Pelosi's sham process designed to discredit the democratic process" in their daily impeachment email to lawmakers.

The rules lay out how the House's intelligence committee — now leading the investigation by deposing diplomats and other officials behind closed doors — would transition to public hearings.

That panel would issue a report and release transcripts of the closed-door interviews it has been conducting with diplomats and other officials with connections to Trump's interactions with Ukraine.

The judiciary committee would then decide whether to recommend that the House impeach Trump — which would mean he should be removed from office.

Republicans could only issue subpoenas for witnesses to appear if the entire panel approved them, in effect giving Democrats veto power over such requests by the Republicans.

Lawyers for Trump could participate in the judiciary committee proceedings, but "specific requests" by Trump representatives could be denied by Democrats if the White House continues to refuse to provide documents or witnesses sought by Democratic investigators.

With files from CBC News

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