November 22, 2019 / 4:13 AM / 24 days ago

In suburban Virginia, divisions over impeachment on display

ALEXANDRIA, Va. (Reuters) - Cheers, boos and frequent applause reflected the intense partisan divide over the possible impeachment of Republican President Donald Trump during a town hall meeting with voters in the liberal suburbs of Virginia on Thursday.

Partisans on both sides peppered Democratic U.S. Representative Don Beyer and a panel of national security and legal experts for nearly two hours with questions about the congressional probe into whether Trump abused his power to pressure Ukraine to launch an investigation of a political rival.

“Most of us did not run for office to impeach the president,” Beyer, an early and outspoken advocate of the inquiry, told the mostly pro-impeachment crowd. “We’re trying to fulfill our responsibility as best as we can.”

While the majority in the heavily Democratic district seemed to support impeachment, the questions were more evenly divided. Criticisms of Trump were met with cheers and applause, while boos rang out when one woman said “deep state” Trump opponents in government were working to undermine him.

Trump supporters questioned whether the president’s actions rose to the level of an impeachable offense, and said Democrats had been out to get the president since he won the 2016 election.

“You disgust me,” one woman shouted at Beyer, although she declined to come to the microphones when invited to ask a question.

“I didn’t vote for you, but I respect you. I don’t think President Trump has been given the same respect,” Kevin Stull of Alexandria, an engineer with the Department of Defense, told Beyer.

Impeachment supporters decried Trump’s actions and wondered why Republicans were so united in support of the president. Carla Schneier, a healthcare worker from Alexandria, said she was a believer in the Constitution “and the president is trampling on it.”

Five days of public hearings in the Democratic-led impeachment inquiry concluded on Thursday. The probe is looking into Trump’s pressure campaign to get Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden, a leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination to challenge Trump in 2020, and his son Hunter, who had served on the board of Ukrainian gas company Burisma.

The probe is also examining whether Trump abused his power by withholding $391 million in security aid to Ukraine, approved by Congress to fight Russia-backed separatists, to pressure Kiev into conducting the investigation. The aid was later given to Ukraine.

Public opinion polls show voter attitudes toward impeachment - which could lead to a Senate trial to determine whether to remove him from office - breaking down along partisan lines. Democrats largely support the inquiry and Republicans oppose it.

“How do impeachment hearings help lower the divisiveness?” one man asked Beyer.

Beyer, who easily won re-election in 2018 to a third term in Congress with 76% of the vote, said it was important for lawmakers to tone down the inflammatory language in the impeachment debate.

“We’re doing everything we can to keep the tension down,” he said, promising to hold more town halls to hear from voters. “Let’s do our best to get at the truth.”

Reporting by John Whitesides; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore

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