Explainer

Believe It or Not, Impeachment Is About to Get Even More Partisan

Expect anger and grandstanding as the House Judiciary Committee picks up the torch with a critical decision bearing down on the Democrats.

Rep. Jerry Nadler
The chairman of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Jerry Nadler, left, talks to the ranking member, Rep. Doug Collins, after a hearing in Washington on May 21. Alex Wong/Getty Images

The U.S. House Intelligence Committee has formally passed the torch of the impeachment inquiry over to the Judiciary Committee, and with election year 2020 bearing down, the coming weeks could be critical for both President Donald Trump and the Democratic Party.

All indications are that, starting with testimony on Wednesday, the mood on Capitol Hill is going to be, if possible, even more rancorous and partisan than it has been thus far. Some of the president’s staunchest Republican supporters sit on the judiciary panel. Among them: ranking member Doug Collins, who was complimented by Trump in a tweet on Monday for his defense of the president on Fox News Sunday over the weekend. Also on the committee is Rep. John Ratcliffe, who was once Trump’s pick for the position of director of national intelligence; Rep. Matt Gaetz, who has been described as Trump’s favorite congressman; and the fiery Rep. Jim Jordan, who was drafted to the Intelligence Committee by Republican leadership last month so he could spearhead the defense of the president during public hearings. 

The outcome of several weeks of dramatic hearings before the Intelligence Committee was summarized in a 300-page report published Tuesday. It was a sweeping indictment of the president that alleges he may have undermined U.S. national security by putting his personal interests above those of the United States in allegedly pressuring Ukraine to pursue investigations that could aid his 2020 reelection bid. The report was passed by the committee in a vote divided sharply along party lines on Tuesday evening.

The summary of their investigation was largely based on dozens of hours of testimony given by current and former administration officials. But it did include an intriguing new trail of breadcrumbs: call logs between Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani and other key subjects of interest in the impeachment investigation, including the White House; the Office of Management and Budget, which stalled military aid to Ukraine at the president’s request; and Devin Nunes, the seniormost Republican on the House Intelligence Committee. A number of the calls took place shortly ahead of key moments in the timeline of efforts to pressure Ukraine. 

The intelligence panel’s report was divided into two sections. The first details allegations of the president’s alleged misconduct, while the second outlines the White House’s efforts to stonewall the inquiry, raising the prospect that obstruction of justice could provide the basis for an article of impeachment. The report says that Trump is the first president in history to seek to completely obstruct an impeachment investigation.

The White House has also ordered a dozen senior officials who may have firsthand knowledge of the president’s intentions with regards to Ukraine not to testify. Some of these key witnesses have asked a judge to weigh in on whether they are obliged to appear before lawmakers, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said that the impeachment hearings “cannot be at the mercy of the courts,” which could tie up proceedings in the appeals process. 

Democrats have avoided committing to a firm timeline on when a House vote on any articles of impeachment will be held. But with the 2020 elections looming and public opinion on impeachment showing no drastic change, the prevailing understanding is that they will look to hold any vote on articles of impeachment before the recess for the winter holidays starts on Dec. 20. This would tee up any Senate trial to start in the new year. 

With just 16 days to go until the end of the legislative session, here’s what we know—and don’t know—about what’s to come. 

Up Next

The Judiciary Committee, led by Democratic Rep. Jerry Nadler, kicks off its part of the inquiry on Wednesday with a hearing from legal scholars who will outline the historical and constitutional basis for the impeachment process. 

“Our first task is to explore the framework put in place to respond to serious allegations of impeachable misconduct like those against President Trump,” Nadler said in a statement.

Democrats who lead the panel have called upon Noah Feldman, a Harvard Law School professor; Pamela Karlan, a law professor at Stanford University; and Michael Gerhardt, a law professor at the University of North Carolina. As their witness, Republicans have selected Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University who has written critically of the Democrats’ handling of the investigation.

Norman Eisen, a former administration ethics lawyer under President Barack Obama who is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, is expected to lead questioning. 

Trump slammed the committee for holding the hearing while he is in London for the NATO summit. Speaking to reporters outside the White House on Monday, Trump said, “The Democrats, the radical left Democrats, the do-nothing Democrats decided when I’m going to NATO—this was set up a year ago—that when I’m going to NATO, that was the exact time.”

Nadler had invited the president and his counsel to participate in Wednesday’s hearing, but in a letter on Sunday the president’s lawyer Pat Cipollone confirmed that neither Trump nor his counsel would take part, describing it as “baseless” and “partisan.”

The White House has until Friday to indicate whether it wants to participate in any further hearings held by the committee. 

In a testament to how quickly the impeachment process is unfolding, it’s not clear where the Judiciary Committee will take the probe after Wednesday, as further hearings and their subject matter have yet to be announced. But given the Democrats’ aim of wrapping up the House side of the impeachment process before the holidays, expect to see articles of impeachment drawn up as early as next week. 

What Are the Republicans Saying?

In a prequel to the Intelligence Committee report, House Republicans issued their own analysis of the allegations against the president on Monday. Their 123-page volume summarizes the Republican lines of defense, accusing Democrats of having an “obsession with re-litigating the results of the 2016 presidential election” and arguing that there is no firsthand evidence that the president was involved in a campaign to pressure Kyiv. The report also continued the Republican flirtation with the idea that Ukraine sought to interfere on the 2016 presidential election, but there is scant evidence to support this claim. 

A key argument put forward by Republicans is that it was not possible for there to have been a quid pro quo if the Ukrainians weren’t aware that the military aid package was placed on hold in July. Their report says that “U.S. officials said that the Ukrainian government in Kyiv never knew the aid was delayed until reading about it in the U.S. media.” 

This was contradicted by testimony from Defense Department official Laura Cooper, who told lawmakers that members of her staff had received inquiries about the aid from Ukrainian officials on July 25—the day of Trump’s phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that sparked a whistleblower complaint.

On Tuesday, the day after the Republican report was published, the New York Times quoted Olena Zerkal, the former deputy foreign minister of Ukraine who resigned last week, as saying that she was aware of the hold by the end of July—the first public confirmation from a Ukrainian official that they were aware of the aid freeze before it was first publicly reported by Politico in late August. 

Public Mood

The public hearings in the Intelligence Committee offered Democrats the best chance to try to build public support for impeachment, as the panel heard testimony from a series of career officials, decorated war veterans among them, with years of experience serving in both Republican and Democratic administrations.

Despite some breakout moments from diplomats’ testimony—a standing ovation for former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, fascination with George Kent’s bow tie, and Fiona Hill’s razor-sharp testimony—there has been no groundswell in public support for impeachment. A Washington Post average of nationally representative polls found that while the balance of public opinion did tip in favor of impeachment when the inquiry was announced in late September, it has since remained remarkably stable, with around 47 percent of Americans in favor and 43 percent opposed.

Amy Mackinnon is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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