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Split Senate Clears Trump on All Counts

WASHINGTON — After five months of hearings, investigations and cascading revelations about President Donald Trump’s dealings with Ukraine, a divided Senate acquitted him on Wednesday of charges that he abused his power and obstructed Congress to aid his own re-election, bringing an acrimonious impeachment trial to its expected end.

In a pair of votes whose outcome was never in doubt, the Senate fell well short of the two-thirds margin that would have been needed to remove Trump, formally concluding the three-week-long trial of the 45th president that has roiled Washington and threatened the presidency.

The verdicts came down almost entirely upon party lines, with every Democrat voting “guilty” on both charges and Republicans uniformly voting “not guilty” on the obstruction of Congress charge. Only one Republican, Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, broke with his party to judge Trump guilty of abuse of power.

It was the third impeachment trial of a president and the third acquittal in American history, and it ended the way it began, with Republicans and Democrats at odds over Trump’s conduct and his fitness for office. That was even as some members of his own party conceded the basic allegations beneath the charges, that he sought to pressure Ukraine to smear his political rivals.

“Senators, how say you?” Chief Justice John Roberts, the presiding officer, asked shortly after 4 p.m. “Is the respondent, Donald John Trump, president of the United States, guilty or not guilty?”

Senators seated at their wooden desks stood one by one to deliver their verdicts.

“It is, therefore, ordered and adjudged that the said Donald John Trump be, and he is hereby, acquitted of the charges in said articles,” declared Roberts, after the second charge was defeated.

But in a sign of the widening partisan divide testing the country and its institutions, the verdict did not promise finality. Democratic leaders immediately insisted the result was illegitimate, the product of a self-interested cover-up by Republicans, and promised to continue their investigations of Trump.

The president, embroiled in what he has long called a politically motivated hoax to take him down, prepared to campaign as an exonerated executive. And both parties conceded that voters, not the Senate, would deliver the final judgment on Trump when they cast ballots in just nine months.

As expected, the tally in favor of conviction fell far below the 67-vote threshold necessary for removal on each article. The first charge was abuse of power, accusing Trump of a scheme to use the levers of government to coerce Ukraine to do his political bidding. It did not even get a majority vote, failing 48-52.

The second article, charging Trump with obstructing Congress for an across-the-board blockade of House subpoenas and oversight requests, failed 47-53.

In a rebuke of Trump aimed at history, Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, broke with the party and voted to convict Trump of abuse of power, saying that the president’s pressure campaign on Ukraine was “the most abusive and destructive violation of one’s oath of office that I can imagine.”

He voted against the second article, but cast his first as a matter of conscience and became the first senator ever to vote to remove a president of his own party.

“I am sure to hear abuse from the president and his supporters,” Romney said. “Does anyone seriously believe I would consent to these consequences other than from an inescapable conviction that my oath before God demanded it of me?”

Romney’s defection, which he announced a couple of hours before the final vote, was a stark reflection of the sweeping transformation of the Republican Party over the past eight years into one that is that is now dominated entirely by Trump.

At the White House, Trump wanted to deliver a public statement immediately afterward to declare victory. But his advisers argued forcefully against the move, and shortly after the Senate vote, he wrote on Twitter that he would wait until noon Thursday to appear at the White House “to discuss our Country’s VICTORY on the Impeachment Hoax.”

The president has looked forward to the Senate’s verdict as an authoritative rejection of the House’s case that he committed high crimes and misdemeanors, even if many in his party ultimately broke from his absolute insistence that his actions were “perfect.”

But Trump, too, was looking beyond it toward the long campaign season ahead, pledging retribution from the forces that he believes have tried to destroy him: the Democrats, the news media and a deep state of government bureaucrats.

A few Republicans urged Trump to be more careful with his words in the future, particularly when speaking with foreign leaders, but there was no serious attempt to censure him as there was around the trial of President Bill Clinton.

Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, two Republican swing votes who have tilted against the president in the past, both voted against conviction and removal. And two Democrats from traditionally red states, Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, voted to convict Trump, denying him a bipartisan acquittal.

Democrats, who had lobbied hard to include witnesses and documents that Trump shielded from the House in the Senate proceeding, wasted little time in declaring the trial a sham.

Senators had been offered evidence, including testimony by the former National Security Adviser John Bolton, that would have further clarified the president’s actions and motivations, they said.

All but two Republicans refused, making the trial the first U.S. impeachment proceeding to reach a verdict without calling witnesses.

Seldom used in American history, impeachment is the Constitution’s most extreme mechanism for checking a corrupt or out-of-control officeholder.

In unsheathing it, even reluctantly, House Democrats took on political risk that could backfire in November on their presidential nominee or the House majority if voters conclude the effort was a partisan attack.

Senate Republicans and Democrats up for re-election in swing states may face their own judgment for their stances on including witnesses in the trial or on Trump’s guilt.

At least one Democrat, Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama, glancingly acknowledged that his vote to convict would most likely contribute to his loss this fall in deeply conservative Alabama.

“There will be so many who will simply look at what I am doing today and say it is a profile in courage,” Jones said before the vote. “It is not. It is simply a matter of right and wrong.”

For now, the impeachment of Trump appears to have evenly divided the nation. If Trump’s standing among the public has been hurt by the trial, it is not yet evident. To the contrary, the latest Gallup poll, released on Tuesday, showed that 49% of Americans approved of the job he was doing as president — the highest figure since he took office three years ago.

The possibility of impeachment has hung like a cloud over Trump’s presidency virtually since it began. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., had resisted when the special counsel released the findings of his investigation into Russian election interference in 2016 and possible collaboration with the Trump campaign. Impeachment was too divisive and unlikely to gain bipartisan support, she said then.

Her calculations changed in September, when the Trump administration was forced to give the House an anonymous CIA whistleblower complaint that accused the president of marshaling the powers of government to press Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden and a theory that Democrats had colluded with Ukraine in the 2016 election.

Authorizing the third impeachment inquiry in modern times, Pelosi tasked the House Intelligence Committee to investigate the scheme and build a case for impeachment.


Plus
House of Delegates, Senate panel vote to ban electronic 'skill' games

Thousands of electronic “skill” games would disappear from restaurants, truck stops and retail stores across Virginia on July 1 under legislation the House of Delegates and a Senate committee adopted by wide margins on Wednesday.

The House voted 80-15 to approve House Bill 881, proposed by General Laws Committee Chairman David Bulova, D-Fairfax. The Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee voted 14-2 to pass Senate Bill 881, proposed by Finance Chairwoman Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, and Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City.

The votes represent a potentially devastating setback for companies that have installed, by one count, more than 9,000 machines that the industry contends are legal under current state law because they operate by skill, not chance.

The Virginia Lottery contends that it stands to lose $140 million in sales and $40 million in profits in this fiscal year because of direct competition from skill games in almost 2,000 lottery outlets.

Queen of Virginia Skill & Entertainment alone has installed 7,500 of the video gaming machines in about 2,500 retail outlets across the state.

“We’re terribly disappointed with the vote,” Queen of Virginia lobbyist Tom Lisk said after the Senate committee action. “It’s going to hurt thousands of small businesses — restaurants and convenience stores — that have been benefiting financially from using these games in their establishments.”

Lisk said the company could take legal action if the assembly approves a ban and Gov. Ralph Northam signs the legislation. “We’re certainly going to look at our options,” he said.

He called the proposed ban ironic because the General Assembly is preparing to potentially legalize casino gaming in five Virginia cities, allow regulated betting on professional and at least some college sporting events, and allow the lottery to sell its game tickets over the internet.

Norment cited the sudden “convergence” of new gaming proposals as further reason to prohibit electronic gaming devices that might be incompatible with other gaming options, such as casinos.

“They have been detrimental to the lottery,” he concluded.

The finance committee later approved legislation to legalize betting on professional and collegiate sports, despite concerns about betting on Virginia collegiate sporting events and lack of protections for professional athletes from pressure to alter their performance for gaming interests.

It also approved legislation to allow the lottery to sell tickets online. The House later advanced a similar measure that Bulova had proposed.

The proposed ban on electronic skill games represents a sharp turn of fortune for Queen of Virginia and other game vendors. The General Assembly appeared poised to regulate and tax the machines when it convened last month, and Northam endorsed one proposal that would have regulated and taxed the gaming revenues at a 35% rate.

However, that bill died in a House of Delegates committee after slot machine companies pushed to allow full competition for retail video gaming.

Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said the governor “is carefully monitoring the legislation moving through the General Assembly.”

“While the General Assembly continues to debate this issue, any legislative action must address school funding,” Yarmosky said. “The governor has made it clear that taking money away from schools is unacceptable.”

Queen of Virginia, based in Henrico County and owned by Georgia-based Pace-O-Matic, estimates the games could generate up to $300 million a year under a regulatory and tax structure the company has advocated for its industry.

“While we understand and share the legislature’s concern with the proliferation and operation of illegal slot machines, we believe the better solution would be to regulate and tax the skill game industry,” Pace-O-Matic said in a statement on Wednesday. “Regulation and taxation of the skill game industry will protect Virginia jobs, eliminate the proliferation of illegal slot machines and provide hundreds of millions of dollars to the commonwealth in additional tax revenue.”

The company also faulted the assembly for preparing to “legalize casino gaming backed by big out-of-state corporations. Legislators are currently putting the interests of Las Vegas casino owners over Virginia small-business owners.”

Casino lobbyists said they had been more concerned about another proposal, which a Senate committee killed on Wednesday, that would have allowed video gaming terminals — slot machines — to compete in retail establishments.

A coalition of slot machine companies, led by Las Vegas-based Golden Entertainment, pushed for broader competition, but also supported the ban to “level set” the playing field for gaming rivals, said their lobbyist, Steve Baril.

Sens. Frank Ruff, R-Mecklenburg, and Jill Holtzman Vogel, R-Fauquier, voted against the ban, which Ruff hopes to amend on the Senate floor to exempt truck stops.

Queen of Virginia vowed to continue the fight for regulating the machines instead of banning them.

“It’s certainly a dark hour for us,” Lisk said, “but we don’t think the battle is over yet.”


Local
breaking
A 91-tent encampment is aiding Richmond’s homeless. The city wants it taken down.

With nowhere else to go, dozens of Richmond’s homeless have slept for months in tents clustered in Shockoe Valley.

Since November, 91 tents have risen outside of the city-funded hypothermia shelter on Oliver Hill Way. Blessing Warriors RVA, a faith-based outreach group, has led efforts there, securing tents and steering aid to people living in the encampment in spite of warnings from the city.

Richmond’s unsheltered population has historically been disparate, scattered through downtown, hidden beneath overpasses, out of sight in the woods. The tents, known as “Camp Cathy,” have centralized it in the shadow of the city’s shelter of last resort.

On Wednesday, more than 200 people packed the shelter at a tense meeting that saw the homeless and their advocates confront city officials about their future and demand immediate, permanent shelter for those sleeping outdoors.

“Look at all of you looking at us,” said Bessie Fentress, a 68-year-old woman who lives in one of the tents. “Before, we were invisible.”

The region’s homeless population grew this year for the first time since 2011, according to a biannual census conducted last month. The number of people in the region who are sleeping in shelter beds or outside rose from 497 last year to 549, a 10% jump. That figure struck some advocates as low, they said Wednesday. As many as 100 people have shown up for a space at the camp on nights when the shelter is closed.

City officials at the meeting touted a new homelessness strategic plan calling for 150 additional shelter beds and 300 units of permanent supportive housing, but acknowledged those efforts would take time and funding to materialize.

Attendees there to show support for the homeless were adamant: That’s not good enough.

“We need help now. We can’t wait,” said Dave Henderson, a 67-year-old who has been sleeping in his car at the encampment for months. He became homeless last year after his girlfriend died and he was evicted from his apartment.

The city’s response Wednesday left Rhonda Sneed shaking her head.

Once homeless herself, Sneed, who leads the Blessing Warriors group, helped start the camp after witnessing people sleeping on the ground behind the building last year. The shelter opens on winter nights when the temperature is forecast to drop below 40 degrees, parameters set by City Council ordinance.

The reasons why people reject the city’s overnight shelter vary. Some don’t want to leave behind possessions or be separated from a partner or pet. Others object to sharing close quarters with people they don’t know, or in conditions they view as unsanitary. All agree the city shelter offers no privacy. City administrators said Wednesday they were willing to work to address those barriers.

The shelter’s previous home, in the decrepit city-owned Public Safety Building on North Ninth Street, drew criticism for inhumane conditions. Mayor Levar Stoney’s administration relocated the shelter to the Annie Giles Center in Shockoe Valley in 2018 in what it called a “temporary solution.” Since then, no permanent location has been secured.

This year, Sneed and her friend, Cathy Davis, decided to put the tents up. It started with a few. By mid-January there were more than 70, and Davis was gone. She died in her sleep late last year. Sneed and other volunteers have pressed on. They renamed the camp in Davis’ memory.

Sneed’s group set rules forbidding drinking or drug use and requiring attendance at community meetings. They paid to have two portable toilets brought to the site, which is located on property owned by Virginia Commonwealth University. They have urged people to pick up litter and keep the area clean.

The efforts have fostered community and provided stability that has helped people find new jobs and housing, Sneed said.

One, Sherwood Jasper, has experienced stints of homelessness over nine years. Sneed invited him to stay in one of the tents after meeting him shortly before Thanksgiving. Since then, he got a job at Virginia Union University.

“I got hope now,” Jasper said. He and others living at the camp are effusive in their praise of Sneed, who they credit for stepping up to help them when the city and other agencies have not. Some affectionately call her “Mama.”

At the end of last year, Sneed received a letter from the Stoney administration asking her to take down the tents.

“The camp of tents present [sic] a grave safety risk for the people that the city serves in the hypothermia shelter and the staff. I know your heart and intent was to help those in need and you have tried to take the necessary precautions. Unfortunately, your efforts have not been enough,” the letter states in part.

It cited two incidents that brought police to the site, as well as “reports of drug use, public indecency and prostitution.”

The letter was signed by Reggie Gordon, Stoney’s deputy chief administrative officer for human services. In an interview, Gordon said the incidents referenced involved a man exposing himself and a woman who died of a drug overdose in one of the tents.

Sneed said Gordon misrepresented the circumstances of the first incident, and the second could have happened anywhere. She and others who stay there said no drug use or prostitution was taking place.

Sneed held up the letter Wednesday and pressed Gordon to publicly renounce it.

Gordon responded that the encampment was not an appropriate place for people to live permanently. The city and homeless service providers it works with would assist people living in the tents to address their individual needs, he said.

“Although we don’t want anyone living in tents, we’re just trying to be compassionate and sensitive and get people connected to all the resources there are,” Gordon said.

Outreach workers for Commonwealth Catholic Charities, The Daily Planet and other homeless service providers have visited the encampment to track down or assist people they serve. Sneed said she wants the people staying there to get the help they need.

Richmond and VCU officials have discussed removing the encampment, according to emails obtained by the Times-Dispatch through a Freedom of Information Act request.

A draft letter addressed to Sneed threatened to throw out the tents and any belongings that were not removed before 3 p.m. on Jan. 31. The letter stated no trespassing signs and a fence would be erected around the site.

No trespassing signs bearing city insignia were posted by the camp last week, but the tents remain. It is unclear if the letter was ever sent.

Pamela Lepley, a VCU spokeswoman, said in a statement the site is “contaminated with arsenic and other chemicals that are a long-term health hazard.” She cited documents from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality to support the claim. The university was working with the city and nonprofits to relocate people staying in the tents “as soon as possible,” she said.

Asked to explain, Lepley said the risk to people staying on the property that VCU uses for snow removal purposes was “not acute.”

The prospect of the tents’ removal prompted an emotional outpouring among attendees, whose frustration with city leaders was palpable. The councilwoman who called the meeting, Ellen Robertson, was shouted down toward the end of it.

Sneed fought tears at points. Asked what was going through her head, she said: “That they don’t even care about these people.”

She is resolved to keep the camp open until the city finds shelter for each person staying there.

When the meeting ended, security guards escorted Robertson through a side door to her car. City administrators cleared out not long after. Others who remained trickled out of the building into a drizzle.

Rain was forecast through Wednesday night, with temperatures in the low 40s — not low enough for the city to open the shelter for the night.

Sneed expected her tents to be full.

PHOTOS: Tent city and the homeless

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Plus
CoStar looking for new offices for 3,000-plus employees with Navy Hill project on verge of failure

Richmond could be in jeopardy of losing an operations center for the commercial real estate analytics company CoStar Group Inc. and the thousands of jobs it would bring if the Navy Hill project is rejected.

Andrew C. Florance, CoStar’s founder, president and CEO, confirmed Wednesday that his company is looking in Henrico County as well as in other localities in Virginia and another state for either an existing building or one that could be constructed for the company.

“I would stress that we will always have a very significant commitment to Richmond. The question is we can’t grow in the building we are in now so we need to move for growth, and the question is where does that growth occur,” Florance said.

“We are focused on Richmond but looking at other areas,” he said. “We are looking for a place that can handle 3,000-plus people. We have to get going on this ... either in Richmond, or Henrico or Northern Virginia or D.C. or wherever.”

Florance’s comments come two days after the Richmond City Council took steps signaling a majority of its members oppose the project, which needs approval from seven of the nine council members to move forward.

CoStar announced plans last month that it was in negotiations with Navy Hill’s developer, NH District Corp., to be the lead tenant in an office tower. It would take about 400,000 square feet of office space next to the proposed arena that would replace the Richmond Coliseum.

Washington-based CoStar took over the four upper floors of the nine-story WestRock Co. building in downtown Richmond in late 2016 and early 2017 for its global research headquarters. The company initially expected to employ about 730 people at the center.

But CoStar now has about 1,000 people working at that building at 501 S. Fifth St. near the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond’s office tower.

“We have filled everything available to us in the current building,” he said. “We have stopped hiring. We need to have something longer term.”

The company is looking at various options to either be a lead tenant in a building or take over an entire building that would handle 3,000 or more employees — the existing 1,000 workers combined with the 2,000-plus it wants to hire.

“We have been looking at multiple options and have multiple irons in the fire. You can’t count on anything happening. You can’t lease space like that overnight. We have to have a home in three years,” he said.

Florance said his preference is to have the new center in Richmond. The office would handle software development, customer service and analytics, as well as research functions.

“Richmond has been very successful for us,” he said. “What really matters is the workforce and the quality of life in Richmond. And the higher education system in Virginia is a great place to do business.”

The Richmond office is CoStar’s largest operation in one location among the 107 locations it has worldwide. It is bigger than the company’s corporate headquarters in downtown Washington, which has about 650 people.

Navy Hill appealed to CoStar, he said.

“I thought it offered an important revitalization to the center of Richmond and easy access to the convention center, hotels and the new arena,” Florance said. “We would not be building something in Navy Hill on our own. It would be too much for us to do.”

The $1.5 billion Navy Hill project calls for a 17,500-seat arena; more than 2,000 apartments and condominiums; a high-rise hotel; 1 million square feet of commercial and office space; 260,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space; renovation of the historic Blues Armory; a new transfer plaza for GRTC Transit System bus riders; and infrastructure improvements.

On Tuesday, VCU Health announced plans for new buildings that would be part of the Navy Hill project if the development is approved. It would include 250 office spaces; replacement facilities for The Doorways, a nonprofit that provides housing for hospital patients and their families; a new Ronald McDonald House, which provides housing for the families of children in the hospital; child care; a pharmacy; shopping; dining; and 1,500 parking spaces.

But the Navy Hill project hinges on a special tax district that would use new tax revenue to pay down debt on the new arena. The Richmond City Council will vote Monday on whether to strike consideration of the Navy Hill project from the agenda, essentially killing the proposal.

“We are not in the politics game. We are more in the game of building a great workforce. We will keep growing and looking for the right solution,” Florance said.

City Councilwomen Kim Gray of the 2nd District, who opposes the Navy Hill project, said plans by CoStar and VCU for that area do not need the council’s approval of Navy Hill.

“It is illogical to believe that this is the only way that can accomplish the needs of VCU and CoStar,” Gray said. “I think the decision on whether to move forward with the [Navy Hill] project should not prevent CoStar from exploring opportunities in the downtown area.”

Navy Hill is not merely a “build it and they will come” proposition, said Jeff Kelley, a spokesman for NH District Corp.

“They are coming, and organizations are committed to this neighborhood, but we have to build it for these things to happen: jobs, minority participation, millions of new dollars in school and city funding, new taxable VCU properties, a new home for The Doorways and Ronald McDonald House,” he said. “The risk for Navy Hill is in doing nothing at all.”


ALEXA WELCH EDLUND/times-dispatch  

On Wednesday, Burney Hatchett III (left) and Kevin White stood in “Camp Cathy,” the tent city where they live. It was set up by Blessing Warriors RVA behind Richmond’s cold-weather shelter.