The public phase of the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation of President Donald Trump’s Ukraine scandal appears to have wrapped. But even most House Democrats aren’t clear what happens next.
The Judiciary Committee will draft and vote on articles of impeachment and send those to the full House for debate, that much is clear. But how the Judiciary panel completes the already unorthodox impeachment process is still up in the air. Though lawmakers and aides expect the 1998 proceedings against former President Bill Clinton to be the model for the Trump case, they’re quick to emphasize they haven’t been told how the endgame will play out.
In fact, Judiciary Committee members have received little guidance from party leaders on how the panel will conduct the proceedings or the timeframe for completing them, according to interviews with more than a dozen Democratic lawmakers and aides. They know that the Intelligence Committee will send a report to Judiciary, but beyond that, they don’t know the number of hearings, format, or the timeline for finishing up work.
Senior Democrats have privately warned Judiciary Committee members that their panel may receive a report from the Intelligence Committee as early as the week of Dec. 2 and that they should be prepared to “hit the ground running,” said a Democrat on the panel. And in a private meeting Thursday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) instructed Democrats to “be with family” over Thanksgiving, noting December will be intense “minute to minute.”
Up to this point, Judiciary has played only a supporting role in the impeachment drama. Pelosi has maintained total control over the impeachment process, and she hasn’t even told her own rank-and-file Democrats what her plans are.
“I would think it would make sense for us to start having those preliminary discussions,” said Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.), a Judiciary member who also sits on the Intelligence Committee. “Wouldn’t that be a great Christmas gift for it to all wrap up by Christmas? I think it’s very possible.”
But there are a host of unanswered questions surrounding the next steps inside Judiciary, especially on the scope of possible articles of impeachment against Trump.
Though many Democrats say the Ukraine controversy has energized support for Trump’s removal and provides a clear narrative for the American public, others are pushing for former special counsel Robert Mueller’s findings — that Trump may have obstructed justice — to be used as a basis for at least one impeachment article covering the president’s attempts to obstruct congressional probes.
That debate could go into overdrive Monday, when a federal judge is expected to rule on whether Mueller’s star witness, former White House counsel Don McGahn, is required to obey a Judiciary Committee subpoena to testify.
Adding to the complications has been the strained relationship between Pelosi and Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), according to Democratic lawmakers and aides.
The two longtime colleagues clashed during the Mueller probe, most notably over the panel’s handling of the special counsel’s final report. That schism was one of the reasons Pelosi allowed Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) to take the lead on the Trump impeachment inquiry, an extraordinary role that normally would’ve been handled by Judiciary.
Nadler, however, has been involved in closely held discussions with Pelosi about how Judiciary will conduct the Trump impeachment matter. And Schiff and Nadler have “talked constantly” throughout the Intelligence Committee hearings, as have their aides, according to Judiciary Committee members. Aides from the two committees are also consulting extensively with Pelosi’s staff.
“Intel will handle the facts, Judiciary will handle the law,” said one Democratic source familiar with the discussions inside Democratic leadership.
With Judiciary preparing to move forward on impeachment post-Thanksgiving recess, some Democrats see this as a “second chance” for Nadler to get right with Pelosi and other party leaders.
As lawmakers on the Judiciary panel were leaving the Capitol Thursday for the weeklong Thanksgiving break, several said they still hadn’t received guidance on preparations to make over the recess or what to expect when they come back.
“I don’t think that there has been a discussion amongst the committee as to the future course of the impeachment process,” said Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), a member of the Judiciary Committee. “How we will do that, whether or not we will take evidence as we move forward with that process, that has not been discussed.”
Nadler didn’t provide much information when asked how his committee will conduct the impeachment proceedings.
“I’m not going to comment, it depends on a lot of things,” Nadler said.
Under the Oct. 31 resolution authorizing the impeachment inquiry, Schiff and the other committees handling elements of the Trump probe — Financial Services, Foreign Affairs, Oversight and Ways and Means — are tasked with turning over materials to Judiciary, which will determine what materials are used in drafting impeachment articles.
But the Judiciary Committee’s first move may be explain to Americans what impeachment is and how it works. If Nadler follows the model of the Clinton impeachment — which he opposed in 1998 — Judiciary will begin with a public hearing on the definition of an impeachable offense.
The second set of hearings would entail Schiff and other chairmen presenting their findings formally to the Judiciary Committee, with the overwhelming bulk of that material coming from the Intelligence panel’s review of the Ukraine scandal. The Intelligence Committee deposed 17 witnesses behind closed-doors and heard dozens of hours of public testimony as they collected evidence that Trump abused his power and pressured a foreign ally to investigate his Democratic rivals.
A third phase could allow the White House and Trump to present exculpatory evidence and call witnesses. And a fourth — and final — phase would be the consideration of articles themselves before the panel sends them to the House floor.
A major issue will also be what witnesses Trump wants to call for his defense, if the president decides to present one in the Judiciary Committee. Clinton’s defense team called 14 witnesses during the 1998 impeachment proceedings, according to the panel’s records.
Republicans are already complaining to Nadler about the impeachment process, signaling that Judiciary will be where they make a major push against impeachment.
Trump and House GOP leaders have lambasted Schiff’s “Soviet style” witness depositions in the Capitol basement, as well as the tight control he asserted throughout the public hearings. And even before the Judiciary Committee kicks off its phase of the impeachment process, GOP lawmakers on the panel are demanding Nadler treat them better than Schiff did.
Republicans are requesting all “unaltered” witness transcripts from the depositions by the Intelligence Committee, in addition to information that may provide the identity of the whistleblower whose complaint began the probe. There is no evidence that Democrats have altered any transcript.
“This Committee owes truth and fairness to the American people, who have been presented with only a carefully-curated panel of public witnesses by Chairman Schiff,” said Rep. Doug Collins (Ga.), ranking member on Judiciary, in a Thursday letter to Nadler.
The House’s impeachment timeline remains a mystery as well, leaving many to wonder whether a Senate trial would run up against the party’s presidential primaries. Senior House Democrats maintain they want to finish their impeachment inquiry before Christmas, and the Intelligence Committee does not have any public witnesses scheduled beyond Thursday’s session.
“We haven’t made any decision,” Pelosi told reporters Thursday, the fifth and — as of now, final — day of public impeachment hearings into whether Trump attempted to strongarm Ukrainian officials into investigating his political rivals by withholding military aid.
But Pelosi added: “The day’s not over.”
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