Right now, impeachment is all about Ukraine. But after Thanksgiving, prepare for a Robert Mueller reprise.
Now that House Democrats have wrapped up public hearings on President Donald Trump’s pressure campaign to get Ukraine to launch politically advantageous investigations, there are plans to hold at least one public impeachment hearing on Trump’s misdeeds as alleged in the special counsel’s report.
It’s a gathering that could fuel articles of impeachment beyond those tied to the Ukraine controversy. Democrats say they have new Mueller-related fodder after Roger Stone’s recent trial raised questions about whether Trump provided false statements to the special counsel’s team. And the hearing could even feature a star witness — former White House counsel Don McGahn. A judge is set to rule in the coming days on whether McGahn must comply with a House subpoena.
House leadership signaled the plans in court filings and oral arguments this week, as the Democrats’ attorneys fought to get McGahn’s testimony, as well as access to more of the evidence Mueller used to write his final report.
“This is something that’s unbelievably serious and it’s happening right now, very fast,” House counsel Doug Letter, who consults closely with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, told a federal appeals court during a hearing in the Mueller evidence case.
To close observers, a shift back to the Mueller probe isn’t all that surprising. Democratic leaders never took the 2016 Russia investigation off the table as an impeachment springboard, even as attention shifted to the Ukraine scandal.
Much of Mueller’s work is already part of the Democrats’ impeachment record. The former special counsel and his final report are mentioned a dozen times in the House resolution approved last month kick-starting the current public hearing process. Democrats noted in the resolution that Mueller “documented evidence strongly indicating that President Trump engaged in a course of conduct designed to obstruct the special counsel’s investigation, including any investigation into the president’s conduct.”
Democrats have picked up new details since then. At Stone’s trial, which concluded Nov. 15 with a conviction of the longtime Trump associate for lying to Congress and witness tampering, new evidence and testimony showed Trump and his campaign aides knew more about WikiLeaks’ plans during the 2016 presidential race then they have let on. That includes three Trump-Stone phone calls around the time that Julian Assange’s document dumps were damaging the Hillary Clinton campaign.
Democrats say the revelations spotlight a potential contradiction in Trump’s written responses last November to Mueller’s team.
“I do not recall discussing WikiLeaks with [Stone], nor do I recall being aware of Mr. Stone having discussed WikiLeaks with individuals associated with my campaign,” Trump wrote.
Democrats have been arguing in court that they deserve access to Mueller’s underlying evidence in order to determine whether Trump did actually lie. And Letter, the top House counsel, told a federal appeals court on Monday that the House needs a swift resolution because of the impeachment time crunch.
Similar arguments came up in a separate House lawsuit Democrats launched in an attempt to force McGahn to testify. In a court filing on Tuesday, Letter stressed the urgent schedule, writing that the Judiciary Committee plans to have its own round of impeachment hearings after the public Ukraine hearings conclude.
Democrats, he wrote, “would aim to obtain Mr. McGahn’s testimony at that time,” meaning “there is an urgent need for final resolution of the matter now pending before this Court.”
It appears Democrats will get the speedy decision they want. U.S. District Court Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson this week promised a ruling by Monday on the McGahn lawsuit.
But even if McGahn is ordered to testify, that ruling could be put on hold until any appeals are sorted out. And a source close to McGahn said the ex-Trump aide won’t agree to testify until that process is worked out, possibly delaying things yet again.
The lawsuit seeking Mueller’s evidence faces a long timeline, too. While Democrats won a lower court ruling in the case, a hearing is scheduled for Jan. 3 to consider whether that ruling should stand. Trump’s Justice Department, should it lose there, can also try to appeal to a full panel of judges to review the case.
In the end, both cases could end up at the Supreme Court, putting a final resolution outside Democrats’ preferred impeachment window.
“I think that might be asking a lot for the American people to continue to go through impeachment for another six to eight months as we move forward toward a presidential election,” Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), a senior member of the Judiciary Committee, told POLITICO. “I don’t think the American people want that.”
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), another Judiciary Committee member, said in an interview that lawmakers can move forward on Mueller-related articles of impeachment without final judgments in the case.
“It’s going to be challenging depending on the timing, but we do have a lot of evidence in front of us and we’ll move forward with whatever we have based on the timing we have,” Jayapal said. “Hopefully, the courts continue to act quickly.”
While they intend to lean in on the Mueller issue in the coming weeks, Democrats still haven’t made a final decision on whether to include any impeachment articles tied to the special counsel’s findings.
“That to me is the million-dollar question,” said a person close to the House impeachment process. The challenge, this person said, revolves around turning all the public evidence from Mueller’s probe into one or more impeachment articles that can win a majority vote on the floor.
“Is there a way to quickly process and dispose of that in this concise schedule? I’m not sure I know of a way, but there may be one,” the person added.
Pelosi’s plan has been for House leadership to be an impeachment clearinghouse after six committees — Intelligence, Judiciary, Oversight and Reform, Foreign Affairs, Financial Services and Ways and Means — complete their review of allegations of presidential misdeeds and abuses of power.
Ultimately, the Judiciary panel — which spent the bulk of its time in 2019 examining Mueller’s work — will vote on any eventual articles of impeachment. Any upcoming hearings on the committee, which is led by Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), likely would follow the same model the Intelligence Committee used in its Ukraine hearings and feature questioning by staff counsel.
Trump’s GOP allies on Capitol Hill say they are not alarmed about a shift on the impeachment front back to the Mueller probe — a topic they’ve trashed since long before the special counsel’s findings were made public.
“The American people are so done with all this stuff,” Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), Trump’s most voluble defender during the Ukraine hearings, said in an interview. “It’s been one thing after the other and nothing ever works the way the Democrats promise it’s going to work.”
The transition in the impeachment proceedings back to the special counsel’s work also shouldn’t be that jarring, considering the Russia probe’s fingerprints are all over the Ukraine scandal.
Trump’s personal attorney in the Russia probe, Rudy Giuliani, started pushing earlier this year for Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden, a potential Trump 2020 rival, and his son Hunter as the special counsel’s work wrapped up. Then, with Trump’s backing, Giuliani started working with some U.S. diplomats to get Ukraine to launch such a probe, as well as a probe into discredited theories that Ukraine had framed Russia for political hacks during the 2016 U.S. election.
On July 25, Trump then asked Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky to open these investigations. The request, which came one day after Mueller publicly testified before Congress, is now at the center of the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry.
Trump’s defense in the Ukraine matter mirrors his response to the special counsel probe, including his on-again-off-again offer to give sworn testimony and assertions that as president he can act however he wants without legal consequences.
Some members of Mueller’s team have even popped back up to needle the president over the Ukraine investigation.
Andrew Weissmann, who served as a lead investigator and prosecutor during Mueller’s Russia probe, recently signed on as an MSNBC legal commentator and has been giving his thoughts on the recent House impeachment hearings.
“If it is true what the Democrats are claiming, what the president is doing completely antithetical to the bipartisan view that the rule of law should apply in this country and across the world,” Weissmann told NPR last weekend.
Democrats’ efforts to reveal more about the Mueller probe also may live on beyond the House impeachment effort, which party leaders appear intent on completing by year’s end.
“It’s still very important that we pursue it, even though it may not be in any accord with any timeline that continues to develop in terms of impeachment based on the Ukrainian matter,” Johnson said. “History needs to know what Congress did to confront the abuse of power that was right up under its nose.”
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