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House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on Thursday she has directed a House committee to draft articles of impeachment against US President Donald Trump, a historic step that sets up a fight over whether to oust him from office.
Speaking in sombre tones in a televised statement, Pelosi accused Trump of abusing his power and alluded to Britain's King George III, the monarch against whom the American colonies rebelled in forming the United States in 1776, saying in the United States "the people are the king."
"Our democracy is what is at stake. The president leaves us no choice but to act because he is trying to corrupt, once again, the election for his own benefit. The president has engaged in abuse of power, undermining our national security and jeopardizing the integrity of our elections," Pelosi said.
At the heart of the impeachment proceedings in the Democratic-led House is the Republican president's request that Ukraine launch an investigation targeting Joe Biden. The former vice president is a top contender for the Democratic nomination to face Trump in the November 2020 US presidential election.
"Sadly, but with confidence and humility, with allegiance to our founders and our heart full of love for America, today I am asking our chairman to proceed with articles of impeachment," Pelosi said.
Pelosi was referring to Jerrold Nadler, whose House Judiciary Committee has the responsibility of drawing up the formal charges that would later be voted upon by the full House. Two people knowledgeable about the process told Reuters the panel could draw up and recommend the articles of impeachment to the full House as early as Dec. 12.
The charges could include abuse of power, bribery, obstruction of Congress and obstruction of justice.
Trump reacted to Pelosi's announcement on Twitter by writing, "The Do Nothing, Radical Left Democrats have just announced that they are going to seek to Impeach me over NOTHING."
"The good thing is that the Republicans have NEVER been more united. We will win!" Trump said.
Pelosi acted after receiving overwhelming support in a meeting with House Democrats on Wednesday night, a source familiar with the meeting said.
On Wednesday, the Judiciary Committee held a hearing in which three constitutional law experts called by Democratic lawmakers said Trump had engaged in conduct that represents impeachable offenses under the Constitution. A fourth expert called by Republicans called the impeachment inquiry slipshod and rushed.
The focus of the inquiry is a July 25 telephone call in which Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to open an investigation into Biden and his son Hunter and into a discredited theory promoted by Trump and his allies that Ukraine, not Russia, meddled in the 2016 US election.
Hunter Biden had joined the board of Ukrainian energy company Burisma while his father was vice president. Trump has accused the Bidens of corruption without offering evidence. They have denied wrongdoing.
Democrats have accused Trump of abusing his power by withholding $391 million in security aid to Ukraine - a vulnerable US ally facing Russian aggression - as leverage to pressure Kiev into conducting investigations politically beneficial to Trump and granting Zelenskiy a coveted White House meeting. The money was provided to Ukraine in September after the controversy had spilled into public view.
Trump has denied wrongdoing.
Judiciary Committee Democrats said on Wednesday they may look beyond Trump's relations with Ukraine to include Trump's earlier efforts to impede former Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation that documented Russian interference in the 2016 election and extensive contacts between Trump's campaign and Moscow. They stopped short of saying that could trigger a separate charge.
"When crafting the Constitution, the founders feared the return of a monarchy in America. And having just fought a War of Independence, they specifically feared the prospect of a king-president corrupted by foreign influence," Pelosi said.
During a testy news conference, Pelosi took strong exception to a reporter's question as to whether she hated Trump.
"As a Catholic, I resent your using the word hate in a sentence that addresses me. I don't hate anyone," Pelosi said, adding that she prays for Trump.
"So don't mess with me when it comes to words like that," Pelosi added, though she did call Trump a "coward" and "cruel" on certain policies.
No US president has ever been removed from office through impeachment. Republican Richard Nixon resigned in 1974 after the House began the impeachment process in the Watergate corruption scandal.
Two other presidents were impeached by the House but acquitted by the Senate.
In 1998, a Republican-led House passed articles of impeachment against Democratic President Bill Clinton - charges arising from a sexual relationship he had with a White House intern. The Senate acquitted Clinton the next year.
The other president who was impeached by the House but left in office by the Senate was Andrew Johnson in 1868, three years after the US Civil War.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a close Trump ally, said after Pelosi's announcement, "Salem witches got better deals than this."