Allies of US President Donald Trump have warned of a possible "civil war" after a sharply divided House of Representatives voted to advance the impeachment inquiry against him on Thursday.
It was the chamber's first formal vote on the process, which passed 232-196 – with zero Republican votes and even two Democrats voting no – but it doesn't mean the US leader is impeached just yet.
The investigation is likely to take months and could possibly stretch into the early weeks of the 2020 election year.
Texas Republican Representative Louie Gohmert gave a speech on the House floor after the vote describing it as a "coup" and warning of potential "civil war".
"Never in the history of this country have we had such gross unfairness that one party would put armed guards with guns to prevent the duly authorised people from being able to hear the witnesses and see them for themselves," he said.
"It's about to push this country to a civil war if they were to get their wishes. And if there's one thing I don't want to see in my lifetime, I don't want to ever have participation in, it's a civil war. Some historian, I don't remember who, said, guns are only involved in the last phase of a civil war."
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David Marcus, correspondent for conservative website The Federalist, similarly wrote that Democrats "have now declared political civil war". "Total political war has been joined," he said.
"The US has now entered uncharted territory. After spending two years in a failed effort to prove that President Trump colluded with Russia, an effort that fizzled and did not lead to impeachment, in a mere five weeks Democrats have rushed headlong into another attempt to remove the duly elected president."
The vote was a victory for majority Democrats, who will control the investigation in the House. It means they can curb the ability of Republicans to subpoena witnesses and of White House lawyers to present witnesses.
"Today the House takes the next step forward as we establish the procedures for open hearings … so that the public can see the facts for themselves," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said that the process was still a sham, despite the vote. "Due process starts at the beginning," he said. "If you were (using) a legal term, it'd be the fruit from the poisonous tree. It'd be a mistrial."
Jim Jordan, ranking member of the House Oversight Committee, argued that "codifying a sham process halfway through doesn't make it any less of a sham process".
TRUMP SLAMS 'WITCH HUNT'
Trump called it "the greatest witch hunt in American history", while White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham accused Democrats of having an "unhinged obsession with this illegitimate impeachment".
"Democrats are choosing every day to waste time on a sham impeachment – a blatantly partisan attempt to destroy the President," she said in a statement.
Trump faces becoming the third president in history to be impeached and placed on trial for removal in the Senate over an alleged extortion scheme to obtain Ukraine's help to get him re-elected in 2020.
He is accused of withholding military aid to compel Ukraine to mount an embarrassing corruption probe against his Democratic election rival Joe Biden, using US foreign policy in an illegal shakedown for his personal political benefit.
Trump says the case is cooked up, but Democratic congressional investigators claim they have heard a steady flow of corroborating evidence from government officials testifying behind closed doors on Capitol Hill.
The secrecy and irregularity of the process until now has outraged Republicans.
All previous impeachment inquiries have been conducted in public and on a more-or-less bipartisan basis, with equal subpoena power granted to the minority and with White House lawyers allowed to attend hearings and cross-examine witnesses.
WHAT HAPPENS NOW?
The approved legislation moves the inquiry into the public eye, giving Americans the chance to hear on live television the evidence against him.
The next phase will see open evidentiary hearings in the House Intelligence Committee, which has led the inquiry so far, presenting witnesses and documentary evidence and allowing Republicans to challenge the evidence.
The case would then go to the House Judiciary Committee, where Trump and his lawyers will be able to challenge the evidence and submit their own.
If the case against Trump is deemed strong enough, the committee will draw up formal charges against the president – articles of impeachment – to be voted on by the entire House.
That process could be completed within the final months of this year. The Democrat-controlled House is expected to pass the articles, which would then see Trump go on trial for removal in the Senate, where Republicans have a majority.
"We are not here in some partisan exercise. We are here because the facts compel us to be here," said Jim McGovern, chairman of the House Rules Committee which drew up the impeachment process legislation.
"There is serious evidence that President Trump may have violated the Constitution. This is about protecting our national security and safeguarding our elections," he said on the house floor.
"If we don't hold this president accountable, we could be ceding our ability to hold any president accountable," he said.
WITNESSES BACK 'QUID PRO QUO' ALLEGATION
Nearly a dozen witnesses so far have confirmed in House interviews the accusations that in a concerted effort with top aides and his personal lawyer, Trump pressured Ukraine to help his re-election effort in 2020 by producing dirt on Biden, the former vice president.
The allegations focus on a July 25 phone call in which Trump pressed Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky to open investigations into Biden and his son, who had close ties to a Ukraine energy firm.
Trump declassified the official transcript of the call soon after a CIA "whistleblower" – who reported only second-hand information – set the impeachment train in motion. Some House witnesses had first-hand knowledge of the call, but Trump allies contend the transcript is public and does not show any wrongdoing.
Asking for a "favour" in the same call, Trump also pushed Zelensky for an investigation to find evidence in support of allegations that Kiev assisted Democrats against Trump in the 2016 election.
In January 2017, Politico reported that Ukrainian officials were "scrambling to make amends" with the President-elect "after quietly working to boost Clinton".
"Ukrainian government officials tried to help Hillary Clinton and undermine Trump by publicly questioning his fitness for office," the outlet wrote.
"They also disseminated documents implicating a top Trump aide in corruption and suggested they were investigating the matter, only to back away after the election. And they helped Clinton's allies research damaging information on Trump and his advisers, a Politico investigation found."
And in 2018, a Kiev court found two Ukrainian officials had meddled in the 2016 US election by leaking information related to former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.
The disclosure "led to interference in the electoral processes of the United States in 2016 and harmed the interests of Ukraine as a state", the court said.
Early on Thursday, Tim Morrison, the White House National Security Council's top Russia expert, arrived on Capitol Hill for his testimony.
According to other witnesses, Morrison, who resigned on Wednesday, has personal knowledge of the White House's effort to freeze US$390 million ($608m) in military aid to Ukraine to pressure Zelensky to launch the political investigations.
The investigators also have called on Trump's estranged former national security Adviser John Bolton to testify next week, along with two White House national security lawyers.
Bolton, other witnesses have said, disagreed strongly with Trump's tactics toward Ukraine and the involvement of his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani in Ukraine policy.
MIXED REACTION TO VOTE
Ivanka Trump stood by her father following the vote, tweeting that he was "surrounded by enemies and spies".
But others – including Democratic presidential hopefuls Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg – hailed it as a major step in the right direction.