'Front-row seat to history': The monumental week that changed impeachment and sent Congress into chaos

Christal Hayes, Nicholas Wu and Savannah Behrmann, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON – Tourists casually made their way through the U.S. Capitol Tuesday, posing for photos in the massive rotunda. As they passed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office — a popular stop for a selfie — they were met by dozens of reporters and photographers impatiently waiting for news of any kind about whether Pelosi would formally announce an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump.

Hours later she did, marking one of several monumental moments this week that have put the House on a historic path — one that has only been taken a few times in history. The frenzy of the news cycle accelerated the already busy pace of Congress. Lawmakers were overwhelmed by journalists eager for new information on how the impeachment process would work. Staffers on Capitol Hill joked about there not being enough coffee or alcohol to get through the long days. 

Democrats specifically were forced to come to terms with the overwhelming responsibility they had as the impeachment effort became more real than ever. While most Republicans stood by the president, some conservatives showed signs they were troubled over Trump requesting Ukraine's help in investigating a political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden. 

The news hasn't stopped since last week, when reports surfaced that Trump had asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Biden, requesting that Zelensky work with his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani — a request that was only made public after an intelligence officer filed an anonymous whistleblower complaint

As each day passed, the developments poured in: The release of a summary of Trump's call with Zelensky. More Democrats came out in support of impeachment, with only about a dozen still holding out. Trump meeting with Zelensky and holding a news conference in New York at the United Nations General Assembly meeting. The public release of the whistleblower complaint, revealing accusations that the president "used the power of his office" to solicit foreign help to discredit Biden and how the White House may have tried to hide a summary of the call. A hearing with the acting Director of National Intelligence, the person who initially blocked Congress from seeing the complaint.

And with the news, the number of journalists roaming the halls of the Capitol seemed to grow, featuring both eager interns and long-time Capitol Hill stalwarts.

More: What's going on with Trump and Ukraine? And how does it involve Biden and a whistleblower complaint?

Lawmakers see history unfolding 

Pelosi had spent months trying to tamp down talk of impeachment amid the concerns outlined in special counsel Robert Mueller's report on Russian interference in the 2016 election. But that all changed as news reports emerged that detailed the contents of a new whistleblower complaint and the president's request to the president of Ukraine.

That was the moment that changed it all.

Pelosi announced her decision to her caucus and the public on Tuesday. "Use any metaphor you want, crossing the Rubicon, a new day has dawned," she said on Thursday. 

"I am very prayerful about this. This is a heavy decision to go down this path," Pelosi said. "For some people, it was easier. They thought the transgressions were self-evident. I thought we needed more — more facts to show the American people as to why this was necessary."

Having Pelosi's support put an impeachment inquiry on the fast-track. The magnitude of the situation was felt in particular by freshmen lawmakers who took office only months ago. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat representing an overwhelmingly progressive district in New York who has long supported impeachment, said she had talked with her staff about the “historic moment” she found herself in.

"You know, I've been talking with my staffers about that, like, can we all just take a step back and realize that we are, all of us are here in this body, at a historic moment. The President of the United States may very well become impeached," said Ocasio-Cortez, one of the vocal progressives in the chamber. "I mean, how do all of us feel right now? It's a — it's a big deal. And so I think we're just moving forward with the gravity of this moment."

More: Whistleblower says Trump used 'the power of his office' to solicit foreign help to discredit Joe Biden

Fellow freshman and North Dakota Republican Rep. Kelly Armstrong, who vehemently opposes the impeachment effort, did agree that Congress may be approaching a historic moment of consequence. 

"Understanding that this has only been done twice in history and now it seems like we're on a collision course with it," Armstrong said. "Yeah, I mean, you have to understand that you, at the very least, have a front-row seat to history."

Fellow Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz, a close confidant of the president and one of his most vocal defenders in Congress, said he did feel "some sense of history" unfolding, noting the "dizzying" week has felt like it "lasted about a month."  

Former CIA Director: 'Lock down' of Trump's Ukraine call a sign 'they were at least thinking of a cover-up'

More: Top moments from acting DNI Joseph Maguire's testimony about the Trump whistleblower complaint

Republicans have largely stood by the president amid the growing scandal but a handful voiced concerns as new details about the whistleblower and Trump's communications with Ukraine continue to pour in.

Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio, criticized the president's conversation with the Ukrainian president during a high-profile hearing on Thursday with Joseph Maguire, the acting Director of National Intelligence. 

"I've read the complaint and I've read the transcript of the conversation with the president and the president of the Ukraine. Concerning that conversation, I want to say to the president: This is not OK," he said. "That conversation is not OK. And I think it's disappointing to the American public when they read the transcript."

Texas Rep. Will Hurd, fellow Republican and also a member of the committee, posted on Twitter that the accusations were "concerning." 

"There is a lot in the whistleblower complaint that is concerning," Hurd wrote. "We need to fully investigate all of the allegations addressed in the letter, and the first step is to talk to the whistleblower."

Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., told reporters after viewing the whistleblower complaint on Wednesday that "there's obviously lots that's very troubling there." 

He said both Democrats and his Republican colleagues needed to slow down and refrain from playing politics. 

"Republicans ought not to be rushing to circle the wagons to say there's no there there when there's obviously lots that's very troubling there," Sasse said.

'The insanity' of the week 

Tourists who visited the nation's capital seemed unfazed by the news unfolding around them. 

Tim O’Hara, a 59-year-old high school football coach from California, pulled out his camera and took photos of the paintings in the Capitol Rotunda, each of which documents pivotal moments in the nation's history. 

"I don’t get much into politics. I just see it as one of those Democrat-Republican things," O’Hara said Thursday. He noted he was focused on just "doing some sightseeing."

More: Trump administration releases details of call with Ukrainian President Zelensky amid impeachment inquiry

Impeachment inquiry: 'No one is above the law': Pelosi announces impeachment inquiry against Trump

He wasn't alone. Ana Pena, a 58-year-old retiree visiting from Miami, said she wasn't paying attention to the drama either. "Well, I gotta tell you, I am a very, very faithful Republican, so I don't pay attention to any of that crap," she said outside Pelosi's office. 

Meanwhile, activists and several progressive lawmakers rallied outside the Capitol to demand impeachment now. Those in the crowd held up signs reading "IMPEACH" and chanting "impeachment now" and "Trump must go!"

"This is the reckoning," Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., told the crowd Thursday afternoon. "This is the time for accountability. This is what democracy looks like."

For staff who work with lawmakers, the week has felt like a blur with many unable to remember even what day it was. Some joked about needing a drink and a desperate hope to "escape the insanity" that the week’s worth of news had created.

The days started earlier and ended much later as congressional offices balanced the normal legislative week, including committees and bills, with the quick pace of the news. 

One Democratic staff member said many were joking that "impeachment has turned my personal life into a dumpster fire." Another said the chaos, which has left many with constant headaches, underscored the intense "sense of duty" many felt. "I’ve seen important moments but I really feel honored to work on the Hill and witness this moment in history."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump's Ukraine call and impeachment: A week of consequence and chaos