WASHINGTON — When millions of Americans tune in to the House of Representatives’ impeachment hearings into U.S. President Donald Trump, it won’t be what they regularly see on TV.
The hearings alone are a historic moment; only three American presidents have been subject to an impeachment inquiry before. And though the probe was launched by Speaker Nancy Pelosi in September, this is the week when it all becomes real.
Americans will be able to watch, in real time, as Democrats try to draw out evidence that Trump abused the power of his office and as Republicans seek to defend the president and discredit the impeachment process.
Here’s how the hearings will work and the key players you need to know.
Who’s getting hauled to the stand
Democrats plan to hold two weeks of hearings in the House Intelligence Committee and will later hold hearings in the Judiciary Committee, which will draft any articles of impeachment.
Three key witnesses will testify before the committee. On Wednesday, William Taylor and George Kent are expected to appear; on Friday, it’s Marie Yovanovitch.
Taylor and Kent provided investigators with vivid details behind closed doors about the effort to pressure Ukraine’s leaders to launch Trump’s desired investigations into his political rivals. Yovanovitch, meanwhile, was forced out as the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine amid a smear campaign by Trump and his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, who accused her of being disloyal to the president while Giuliani was spearheading a shadow foreign policy operation.
Republicans are allowed to request their own witnesses, but it’s ultimately up to Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff to approve them. Some of the Republicans’ suggestions are explosive, including Hunter Biden and the anonymous whistleblower who sounded the alarm about Trump and Ukraine. Schiff has effectively shut the door on those asks, saying the committee “will not serve … as a vehicle to undertake the same sham investigations into the Bidens or 2016 that the president pressed Ukraine to conduct for his personal political benefit.”
How Democrats plan to stay in control
Democrats, mindful that high-stakes hearings can quickly deteriorate into messy partisan free-for-alls, have attempted to streamline the standard hearing process to ensure an uninterrupted flow of questions — an effort to tell a story to viewers tuning in to the complex Ukraine tale for the first time.
To aid that goal, Democrats have taken several steps, including placing the inquiry with the Intelligence Committee. The panel has the fewest lawmakers in the House, with 13 Democrats and nine Republicans, and most aren’t known for grandstanding or theatrics — though there are a few notable exceptions.
The process of questioning witnesses will also be centralized. Schiff and his Republican counterpart, Representative Devin Nunes, will control the majority of the questioning and likely defer to staff lawyers for much of it. House rules typically restrict the ability of staff to participate in public hearings, but Democrats have made an exception on impeachment and they intend to lean heavily on professional lawyers to drive the narrative.
Schiff and Nunes also will each have the power to ask an unlimited number of questions to witnesses, for up to 45 minutes at a time. During these periods, only they and their staff may participate. The rank-and-file lawmakers on the committee will also be given five minutes apiece to ask witnesses questions.
Democrats have telegraphed that they plan to zero in on allegations that Trump tried to extort the Ukrainians by withholding vital military aide as well as a White House meeting with the newly elected president. Look for Republicans to argue that the witnesses testifying don’t have direct evidence of any quid pro quo.
Trump and Republicans also have demanded that the president’s lawyers and White House counsel be permitted to participate, a request Democrats have rejected. However, Trump will be allowed to be represented when the Judiciary Committee drafts impeachment articles in the next few weeks.
The most important people you don’t know
If you’re watching impeachment hearings at home, you’ve probably heard of Schiff, Nunes and Jim Jordan. But it’s a cast of virtually anonymous characters who may be the most important figures in the entire process: the lawyers. That’s because the rules adopted by House Democrats empower committee staff to lead the questioning of witnesses in ways they are rarely permitted to on national TV.
Here’s a look at the six figures who will play the most critical roles in the impeachment hearings.
Schiff is expected to yield much of his time to Goldman, a former federal prosecutor who serves as the Intelligence Committee’s director of investigations. Goldman spent 10 years as a federal prosecutor with the Southern District of New York. Goldman was featured prominently in the deposition transcripts, and he’ll likely play a similarly outsize role during the public hearings.
Like Goldman, Noble also worked in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York. He specialized in cybercrime and organized crime prosecutions. Noble was brought on to the Intelligence Committee in March as a senior counsel and has been intimately involved in the private questioning of witnesses throughout the impeachment inquiry. In addition to Goldman, Schiff is likely to tap Noble for public questioning, too.
In moving Representative Jim Jordan to the Intelligence Committee, Republicans also brought over his chief counsel for the Oversight Committee, Steve Castor. Sources familiar with Republican planning say Nunes will yield much of his time during the 45-minute round of questioning to Castor, who has endeared himself to GOP lawmakers for sharply grilling witnesses during the depositions.
If you didn’t already know it from the president’s tweets, Schiff is the public face of Democrats’ impeachment inquiry — and it’s a role he clearly relishes. A former federal prosecutor, Schiff is Public Enemy No. 1 for Trump and his Republican allies, who have accused him of everything from lying to treason.
Schiff is a close ally of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, making it nearly certain that the hearings will go exactly the way Pelosi wants them to.
In many ways, Schiff was made for this moment. Democrats trust him, and they believe he’s their most effective messenger for a process with so many built-in political landmines — one that many of them, including Pelosi, were once extremely reluctant to embrace.
Nunes has emerged in recent years as Trump’s most hardline defender in Congress, one of the few lawmakers who, when Republicans previously controlled the House, was willing to use his gavel to undermine the investigations of the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia. He’s been a Fox News fixture, insisting that Trump is the victim of coup attempts and conspiracies. As a result, he’s become a polarizing figure in the House.
Though Nunes is likely to delegate most of his questioning time to committee lawyers, his presence at the center of the dais will be a comfort to Trump, even if he’s not asking many questions.
Jordan is a fierce questioner and fire-breathing defender of Trump — but until last week, he wasn’t even on the Intelligence Committee. But his consistently aggressive defense of the president pushed House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy to install Jordan on the panel (and remove a less prominent Republican member) and give him a chance to put his tenacity on display.
Still, Jordan’s role may also be less than meets the eye. Since Schiff and Nunes will control the vast majority of the questioning time (and will likely delegate it to staff), Jordan himself may be relegated to a five-minute cameo like most of the other committee members, unless other colleagues on the panel decide to yield their time to him.
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