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Not guilty: Senate acquits Trump of impeachment charges

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump won impeachment acquittal Wednesday in the U.S. Senate, bringing to a close only the third presidential trial in American history with votes that split the country, tested civic norms and fed the tumultuous 2020 race for the White House.

With Chief Justice John Roberts presiding, senators sworn to do “impartial justice” stood at their desks to state their votes for the roll call — “guilty” or “not guilty” — in a swift tally almost exclusively along party lines. Visitors, including the president’s allies, watched from the crowded gallery. Roberts read the declaration that Trump “be, and is hereby, acquitted of the charges.”

The outcome followed months of remarkable impeachment proceedings, from Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s House to Mitch McConnell’s Senate, reflecting the nation’s unrelenting partisan divide three years into the Trump presidency.

What started as Trump’s request for Ukraine to “do us a favor” spun into a far-reaching, 28,000-page report compiled by House investigators accusing an American president of engaging in shadow diplomacy that threatened U.S. foreign relations for personal, political gain as he pressured the ally to investigate Democratic rival Joe Biden ahead of the next election.

No president has ever been removed by the Senate.

A politically emboldened Trump has eagerly predicted vindication, deploying the verdict as a political anthem in his re-election bid. The president claims he did nothing wrong, decrying the “witch hunt” and “hoax” as extensions of special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian 2016 campaign interference by those out to get him from the start of his presidency.

Trump’s political campaign tweeted videos, statements and a cartoon dance celebrating that he was “vindicated.” Trump himself tweeted that he would speak from the White House on Thursday about “our Country’s VICTORY on the Impeachment Hoax.”

However, the Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said there will always be “a giant asterisk next to the president’s acquittal” because of the Senate’s quick trial and the Republicans’ unprecedented rejection of witnesses for an impeachment.

A majority of senators expressed unease with Trump’s pressure campaign on Ukraine that resulted in the two articles of impeachment. But two-thirds “guilty” votes would have been needed to reach the Constitution’s bar of high crimes and misdemeanors to convict and remove Trump from office. The final tallies fell far short.

On the first article of impeachment, abuse of power, the vote was 52-48 favoring acquittal. The second, obstruction of Congress, also produced a not guilty verdict, 53-47.

Only one Republican, Mitt Romney of Utah, the party’s defeated 2012 presidential nominee, broke with the GOP.

Romney choked up as he said he drew on his faith and “oath before God” to vote guilty on the first charge, abuse of power. He voted to acquit on the second.

Both Bill Clinton in 1999 and Andrew Johnson in 1868 drew cross-party support when they were left in office after impeachment trials. Richard Nixon resigned rather than face sure impeachment including from his own party.

Ahead of Wednesday’s voting, some of the most closely watched senators took to the Senate floor to tell their constituents, and the nation, what they had decided.

Influential GOP Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who is retiring, worried that a guilty verdict would “pour gasoline on the fire” of the nation’s culture wars over Trump. He said the House proved its case but it just didn’t rise to the level of impeachment.

“It would rip the country apart,” Alexander said before his vote.

Other Republicans siding with Trump said it was time to end what McConnell called the “circus” and move on. Trump ally Lindsey Graham said it was a “sham” designed to destroy a presidency.

Most Democrats, though, echoed the House managers’ warnings that Trump, if left unchecked, would continue to abuse the power of his office for personal political gain and try to cheat again ahead of the 2020 election.

“I’ve always said, if I can go home and explain it, I can vote for it,” said Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., a centrist from a Trump state who stunned some by voting the president guilty. “I can explain my vote based on the evidence.”

Among senators running for the Democratic presidential nomination, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar dashed back from New Hampshire to vote.

During the nearly three-week trial, House Democrats prosecuting the case argued that Trump abused power like no other president in history when he pressured Ukraine to investigate Biden and his son, Hunter Biden, ahead of the 2020 election.

They detailed an extraordinary shadow diplomacy run by Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani that set off alarms at the highest levels of government. After Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukraine, Trump temporarily halted U.S. aid to the struggling ally battling hostile Russia at its border. The money was eventually released in September as Congress intervened.

When the House probed Trump’s actions, the president instructed White House aides to defy congressional subpoenas, leading to the obstruction charge.

One key Democrat, Alabama Sen. Doug Jones — perhaps the most endangered politically for re-election in a state where Trump is popular — announced he would vote to convict. “Senators are elected to make tough choices,” Jones said.

Questions from the Ukraine matter continue to swirl. House Democrats may yet summon former national security adviser John Bolton to testify about revelations from his forthcoming book that offer a fresh account of Trump’s actions. Other eyewitnesses and documents are almost sure to surface.

In closing arguments for the trial the lead prosecutor, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., appealed to senators’ sense of decency, that “right matters” and “truth matters” and that Trump “is not who you are.”

He said he hoped the votes to convict “will serve as a constraint on the president’s wrongdoing.”

“But we’re going to have to be vigilant because this is not a president who is guided by any kind of moral compass,” he told The Associated Press.

Pelosi was initially reluctant to launch impeachment proceedings against Trump when she took control of the House after the 2018 election, dismissively telling more liberal voices that “he’s not worth it.”

Trump and his GOP allies in Congress argue that Democrats have been trying to undercut him from the start.

But a whistleblower complaint of his conversation with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy set off alarms. The call had been placed the day after Mueller announced the findings of his Russia probe.

When Trump told Pelosi in September that the call was perfect, she was stunned. “Perfectly wrong,” she said. Days later, the speaker announced the formal impeachment inquiry.

The result was the quickest, most partisan impeachment in U.S. history, with no Republicans joining the House Democrats to vote for the charges, though one GOP congressman left the party and voted for impeachment and two Democrats joined Republicans to oppose. The Republican Senate kept up the pace with the fastest trial ever, and the first with no witnesses or deliberations.

Trump’s legal team with star attorney Alan Dershowitz made the sweeping, if stunning, assertion that even if the president engaged in the quid pro quo as described, it is not impeachable, because politicians often view their own political interest with the national interest.

McConnell, who commands a 53-47 Republican majority, braced for dissent, refusing efforts to prolong the trial with more witnesses, arguing the House should have done a better job.

Some GOP senators distanced themselves from Trump’s defense, and some brushed back calls from conservatives to disclose the name of the anonymous whistleblower.

Trump’s approval rating, which has generally languished in the mid- to low 40s, hit a new high of 49% in the latest Gallup polling, which was conducted as the Senate trial was drawing to a close. The poll found that 51% of the public views the Republican Party favorably, the first time the GOP’s number has exceeded 50% since 2005.

Courthouse renovation project nears completion in Lawrence County

IRONTON — A two-year-long Lawrence County Courthouse renovation project is winding down and could be completed soon, according to Commission President DeAnna Holliday.

“The South 4th Street doors are still closed,” Holliday said Wednesday. “They need to install Americans with Disabilities Act railings. It’s supposed to be here this week. The railings will be installed as quickly as possible.

“We still haven’t done a final walk-through on the project,” Holliday said.

The board hired Perfection Group, a Cincinnati architectural firm, to put on a new roof and gutters, refurbish the copper, courthouse dome, do masonry work, install a new elevator, and make sidewalk and step repairs along the 4th Street side of the courthouse. Heating and lighting improvements also were part of the renovation project.

The $6.6 million project was funded through bonds and $2.78 million in one-time revenues the county received several years ago.

The county signed a 20-year bond issue to be repaid through casino revenues the county receives, Holliday said earlier. The county is paying about $343,000 to pay off the bonds.

The courthouse is more than 111 years old and the newer section of the courthouse is more than 40 years old.

Ex-elementary school janitor sentenced for sexual abuse

HUNTINGTON — A former elementary school janitor will likely serve the rest of his life behind bars after being sentenced to the maximum sentence allowed by law for raping an 11-year-old girl who he said he was just “trying to help out.”

Alvie Junior Napier, 53, of Huntington, was arrested by the Cabell County Sheriff’s Department in October 2019 and charged with sexual abuse by a parent/guardian and first-degree sexual assault.

He pleaded guilty to the charges a month later before Cabell Circuit Judge Gregory Howard after agreeing to admit his guilt without a grand jury indictment or trial.

Howard sentenced him Tuesday to serve 25 to 100 years for the sexual abuse charge and 10 years for sexual assault. The sentences will run consecutive, creating a 35- to 115-year prison sentence. If he should ever be released from prison, he will have to serve 25 years of special supervised release for sexual offenders.

According to the criminal complaint, in June 2014, Napier engaged in sexual intercourse with the victim, who was younger than 12. The incident took place in Culloden.

Prior to his arrest, Napier was a custodian at West Teays Elementary School in Teays Valley, West Virginia, although he had no criminal history prior to these charges.

In sentencing him to the maximum, Howard pointed to the defendant’s lack of remorse and victim blaming in his statement given to the court Tuesday.

“I understand you’re here today crying and visibly upset because you know what’s about to happen, but your words really mean more to me than what I see physically,” he said. “I heard you say you were just trying to help her, which still blows my mind. I don’t understand how you can do anything sexual to an 11-year-old with the mindset of thinking you’re helping them.”

The victim’s mother read a letter from the girl to the court, which detailed the mental health issues and self-harm that arose from the defendant’s actions. The victim said Napier is a violent man of whom she was afraid.

“He always seemed to guilt trip me. Our house was a war zone because of the abuse,” she said. “But as long as I was willing to help him out, he wouldn’t be angry.”

The victim said she started to seclude herself, and the smallest of any interaction was like a trigger for her.

Napier’s ex-wife said at Tuesday’s sentencing that Napier used lies and affection to take care of a vulnerable child.

“There’s nothing worse than finding out someone you thought you knew and could trust apparently is nothing like you believe them to be,” she said.

Napier said the victim’s issues came from hanging out with a bad crowd, not because of his actions. He then apologized and said he did not understand why he did it.

“I’m so sorry all this happened. I can’t understand how any of it happened. I could tell you my side of it, but I don’t think it would do any good,” he said. “I think much of (her) letter was coached. She came to me with questions and I answered them. As time went on, things just happened.”

Defense attorney Michelle Protzman asked for leniency, stating testing showed Napier would have a low risk to reoffend and be a danger to the public. She also pointed to his agreement to a quick plea without an indictment or trial, which saved the victim and her family from further trauma.

She asked that he be allowed to serve his sentence outside of prison so he could take care of a family member in need.

Cabell Prosecutor Sean “Corky” Hammers asked the court for the maximum sentence based on the defendant’s lack of remorse and the serious nature of the crime.

Howard said he believed Napier had no chance of rehabilitation.

W.Va. state superintendent stepping down again amid education upheaval

CHARLESTON — West Virginia state Schools Superintendent Steve Paine is again leaving the position, about three years after being hired to return.

His announcement comes at an uncertain time for West Virginia education.

During Paine’s current tenure, West Virginia students’ national test scores sunk. High school graduation rates are at historic highs, but they don’t match the low scores on state standardized tests, which students don’t have to pass to graduate.

Paine successfully pushed to reduce the state’s graduation requirements, though in recent years he twice backed down from proposals to lower social studies requirements specifically.

While he said charter schools wouldn’t be a “silver bullet” for the state’s education problems, he eventually supported them on a trial basis, as long as they weren’t completely online. His Department of Education’s proposed charter school regulations still aren’t settled and may be legally challenged.

He’s still developing an accountability system for public schools to replace one the state Board of Education and Legislature ended shortly after he returned as state superintendent.

And schools still haven’t been rebuilt since the June 2016 flood. The Nicholas County Board of Education sued Paine and others in 2017 to not have to rebuild flooded Richwood schools in that community.

While the county lost the suit, Paine, who also sat on the state School Building Authority, helped make a controversial deal that includes one consolidated school in Richwood and one near Summersville.

In a Wednesday morning news release, Paine announced his departure effective June 30 — or earlier if the state Board of Education finds a suitable replacement.

“After months of consideration and heartfelt discussion with my family, I have decided to retire my position as the State Superintendent of West Virginia,” Paine said. “It has been an honor and my privilege to serve this state, the Governor and the students of West Virginia. Unfortunately, a member of my family is facing a health crisis and I want to be fully present for my family.

“I have grown children, one grandchild who I adore, and hopes for more grandchildren in the future,” he said. “It is time for me to dedicate myself to spending time with my family.”

Paine told MetroNews’ Hoppy Kercheval on Wednesday that a family member’s “excruciating” pain has become unbearable within the past month and a half.

The superintendent also acknowledged that his parents died in the past year.

“It’s been quite a year,” Paine, 64, told Kercheval. “And, you know, it’s taken a toll on me, too, and my personal health.”

He said he didn’t regret leaving at this time, saying he’s helped bring stability to the school system.

Paine, who previously was state superintendent from mid-2005 through the end of 2010, was rehired in March 2017 by a state Board of Education that had already greatly changed just three months into then-Democratic Gov. Jim Justice’s tenure.

Due to vacancies and resignations on the board, Justice was able to appoint a majority of the board members before the vote to hire Paine.

The board swiftly dumped the state’s nascent A-F grading system for entire schools that Earl Ray Tomblin had pushed when he was governor.

Justice then pushed a broad education bill in 2017. Among other things, it eliminated the state agency that visited and reviewed schools and school systems and banned the Smarter Balanced statewide standardized tests.

When Justice eventually reverted to the Republican Party, the GOP had finally taken over state government.

They pushed laws to legalize charter schools and private school vouchers and reduce the power of labor while not focusing on shoring up health insurance coverage for public employees or increasing teacher wages. The first two statewide public school worker strikes occurred in 2018 and 2019, over these and other issues.

Amid all this, the state Department of Education, under Paine’s leadership, developed a new system that’s supposed to hold schools and school systems accountable for student test scores and other measures, like attendance. It grades schools with multiple colors instead of a single letter.

Some sort of accountability system is required to comply with a new federal law. While the federal government approved the state’s submission after rejecting certain parts, the state system is a work in progress.

Republican lawmakers have cited an improved relationship between themselves and the state school board since Paine returned as state superintendent.

But last summer, after the board increased Paine’s $230,000 annual salary by another $4,000, Republican Senate President Mitch Carmichael called the increase “unwarranted” and “shocking.” Paine, whom several board members said didn’t ask for the raise, then declined it.

In October, the National Assessment of Educational Progress released its 2019 results.

Compared to 2017, the last time the national test was given, West Virginia had the country’s biggest average score drop in fourth-grade math. In eighth-grade math, the state saw more stagnation.

In fourth-grade reading, West Virginia returned to its low point in data going back to 1992. And in eighth-grade reading, it remained stuck at that low point.

In presentations to lawmakers this year, Paine guaranteed that those scores will improve the next time the test is given.

“After a couple of years of instability quite frankly, stability is critical for our system right now,” Paine told lawmakers. “The (20)19 results are a direct reflection of what was going on here in ’15, ’16.”

Paine returned as state superintendent in 2017.

“We are working hard to do the right things to lay a foundation from which we build a quality education system,” he said at the time. “And I’m anxious, and I will guarantee that those results will go up in a couple of years, those NAEP results. I just feel that it will because we’re doing all the right things.”