Nancy Pelosi raised the prospect of impeaching Donald Trump for a second time unless he resigns immediately, as she revealed she had spoken to the US military about preventing an “unstable president” from launching a nuclear strike.
“If the president does not leave office imminently and willingly, the Congress will proceed with our action,” the speaker of the House of Representatives wrote in a letter to Democratic colleagues on Friday, as Mr Trump came under intense criticism after a violent mob of his supporters swarmed the US Capitol earlier this week.
Ms Pelosi also revealed she had spoken to General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to discuss precautions for preventing Mr Trump “from initiating military hostilities or accessing the launch codes” needed to launch a nuclear strike.
She added: “The situation of this unhinged president could not be more dangerous, and we must do everything that we can to protect the American people from his unbalanced assault on our country and our democracy.”
A spokesman for Gen Milley, David Butler, confirmed the call had taken place. “Speaker Pelosi initiated a call with the chairman. He answered her questions regarding the process of nuclear command authority,” he said.
The call between Ms Pelosi and Gen Milley took place as Democrats discussed how to press ahead with efforts to impeach Mr Trump, after the prospect of removing him from office by invoking the 25th amendment appeared to recede.
In her letter, Ms Pelosi said there had been “growing momentum around the invocation of the 25th amendment”, which would allow Mike Pence, vice-president, and a majority of the cabinet to remove Mr Trump from the White House.
But she said that Mr Pence had declined to discuss invoking the amendment and held open the prospect of impeaching the president if the vice-president continued to stonewall.
Earlier on Friday, Katherine Clark, a Democratic congresswoman from Massachusetts and a member of Ms Pelosi’s team, told CNN that House Democrats would “move forward with impeachment . . . as early as mid next week”.
Kevin McCarthy, the Republican House minority leader, made it clear that he would not support impeaching Mr Trump, arguing in a statement that doing so “with just 12 days left in his term will only divide our country more”.
Joe Biden, the president-elect, on Friday distanced himself from the calls to invoke the 25th amendment or impeach Mr Trump and said he remained focused on being sworn in on January 20.
He added: “If we were six months out, we should be doing everything to get him out of office, impeaching him again, trying to invoke the 25th amendment, whatever it took to get him out of office. But I am focused now on us taking control . . . on the 20th.”
The push to impeach comes despite Mr Trump conceding for the first time on Thursday night that Mr Biden would become US president later this month.
Amid a number of resignations from the White House and mounting pressure from fellow Republicans, the president abruptly shifted his tone in a short video during which he accused violent demonstrators of “defiling the seat of American democracy” and said those who broke the law “will pay”.
But by Friday morning, the president returned to Twitter — from which he had been briefly banned in the aftermath of the Capitol assault — saying: “The 75,000,000 great American Patriots who voted for me, AMERICA FIRST, and MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN, will have a GIANT VOICE long into the future. They will not be disrespected or treated unfairly in any way, shape or form!!!”
Breaking with tradition, Mr Trump said he would not attend Mr Biden’s inauguration on January 20.
Mr Biden said it was a “good thing” that Mr Trump would not attend his inauguration, adding that the president’s decision to stay away was “one of the few things he and I agree on”. He said he would welcome Mr Pence there if he chose to attend.
Mr Trump was impeached in December 2019, when the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives approved two charges, abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, relating to the president’s overtures to the Ukrainian president to dig up dirt on Mr Biden and his son Hunter. The president was later acquitted in a trial in the Republican-held Senate.
While Democrats held on to the House following November’s elections with a diminished majority, they likely have enough votes to impeach Mr Trump for a second time.
That would pile pressure on Republicans in the Senate, who are poised to lose control of the upper chamber following two run-off races in Georgia earlier this week, in which Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff ousted Republican incumbents Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue.
Two-thirds of the Senate would need to vote to convict Mr Trump in order for him to be removed from office. However, there would be little time to conduct a trial before Mr Biden takes office.
Mitt Romney, the senator from Utah, was the only Republican to break ranks during Mr Trump’s impeachment trial, voting to convict the president on abuse of power. But after Wednesday’s events, there were some indications that sentiment within the president’s party was shifting.
Ben Sasse, a Republican senator from Nebraska, told CBS News on Friday morning that he would “definitely consider” any articles of impeachment drawn up by Democrats.
“I believe the president has disregarded his oath of office,” Mr Sasse added. “What he did was wicked.”
Mr Trump addressed throngs of supporters on the Washington Mall hours before they stormed the US Capitol on Wednesday, saying: “We will never give up. We will never concede.”
The violent clashes at the Capitol resulted in the deaths of five people, including a US Capitol police officer. Ms Pelosi on Friday said she ordered the flags at the Capitol to be flown at half-mast in honour of the officer, Brian Sicknick, who had been attempting to push back rioters.
Mr Trump initially responded to Wednesday’s siege by telling his supporters: “We love you, you are very special . . . I know how you feel, but go home and go in peace.”
Betsy DeVos, education secretary, and Elaine Chao, transportation secretary, were among the members of the president’s administration who quit their posts with less than two weeks to go until Mr Biden’s inauguration.
Their resignations cast doubt on whether the 25th amendment could be invoked, given a majority of the president’s cabinet would need to support his removal.
Additional reporting by Katrina Manson in Washington
How does the 25th amendment work?
Even though there are only two weeks left of Donald Trump’s presidency, some in Washington are talking about invoking the 25th amendment to the US constitution to remove him from office immediately.
The constitutional amendment was proposed in the wake of the assassination of John F Kennedy, and was intended to provide a blueprint for what to do if a president was incapacitated.
Under this law, a president can be relieved of his power if he is unable to discharge his duties, or if he is deemed as being unable to do so by others in government.
It is not easy to invoke the 25th amendment without the president’s assent. The vice-president has to sign a letter testifying that the president cannot fulfil his duties, alongside a majority of the cabinet.
If enough support is secured, the vice-president automatically takes on the role of acting president. If the president contests the decision, Congress would vote on whether that person is able to continue functioning in the role. A two-thirds majority in both chambers of Congress is required to override the president’s objections.
Parts of the 25th amendment have been used before. Richard Nixon used the rule to appoint Gerald Ford as his vice-president after Spiro Agnew resigned. Ford then used it to take over as president following Nixon’s own resignation.
George W Bush used the amendment twice, temporarily handing over power to his vice-president, Dick Cheney, while undergoing general anaesthetic for colonoscopies. He resumed control hours later on both occasions.
The amendment has never been used by others in government to remove a president.