Impeachment week: Trump probe hits crucial point

It all comes down to this.

House Democrats charging ahead with their impeachment investigation will hit a critical juncture this week, throwing the process into the public spotlight as they fight to convince voters of a verdict they themselves have all but ratified: that President TrumpDonald John TrumpUPS, FedEx shut down calls to handle mail-in ballots, warn of 'significant' problems: report Controversial GOP Georgia candidate attempts to distance from QAnon Trump orders TikTok parent company to sell US assets within 90 days MORE abused the office and should be sent packing.

The shift is a pivotal development in the seven-week-old investigation, one bearing enormous stakes for a Congress and country bitterly divided along partisan lines, while ensuring — even more than before — that the 2020 elections will be a referendum on the mercurial figure in the Oval Office.

ADVERTISEMENT

Since Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiCongress exits with no deal, leaving economists flabbergasted Trump says he'll sign USPS funding if Democrats make concessions Pelosi calls Trump attacks on mail-in voting a 'domestic assault on our Constitution' MORE (D-Calif.) formally launched the impeachment inquiry on Sept. 24, Democrats have kept their investigation largely from the public eye, interviewing more than a dozen diplomats and national security officials — obscure figures, to the name — in a secluded meeting room of the Capitol, three stories below ground, where even lawmakers must check their cellphones at the door.

That will change on Wednesday, when Rep. Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffNewsom says he has already received a number of pitches for Harris's open Senate seat Here's who could fill Kamala Harris's Senate seat if she becomes VP Democrats ramp up warnings on Russian election meddling MORE (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, will launch a Phase 2 of public hearings into Trump's dealings with Ukraine, featuring a pair of witnesses embroiled in the administration's campaign to pressure foreign leaders in Kiev to find dirt on Trump's political opponents at home.

William Taylor, the chargé d'affaires to Ukraine, and George Kent, another top State Department official overseeing Kiev, had both testified last month behind closed doors, delivering damning assertions that Trump and his allies had politicized U.S. policy in Ukraine at the expense of national security.

A third witness, Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who was abruptly removed from the post in May, is scheduled to testify Friday. She, too, had previously relayed deep concerns that Trump's personal lawyer Rudy GiulianiRudy GiulianiTrump touts NYC police union endorsement: 'Pro-cop all the way' Feehery: Weak mayors destroy America's great cities Coronavirus concerns emerge around debates MORE was conducting a shadow foreign policy in Kiev to advance Trump's political interests at risk of empowering Russia's hand in the region.

The investigation is historic: these will be the first public presidential impeachment hearings in more than 20 years. 

Trump is just the fourth president to be subject to impeachment proceedings. And the hearings are a made-for-TV moment, one that's sure to garner live blow-by-blow coverage from the major news networks — and provide voters for the first time with a clear window into deliberations that both parties, up to now, have said support their conflicting judgments about the propriety of Trump's foreign pursuits.

The duration of the public stage remains unclear; Schiff has not said how many more hearings he'll hold or when they'll end. But both sides are digging in as Democrats appear increasingly hopeful they can wrap up their investigation — and potentially vote on impeachment articles — before year's end.

That timeline is relatively short. Congress began televised public hearings on Watergate, for instance, 14 months before the House Judiciary Committee passed impeachment articles against President Nixon. And because impeachment is a political exercise, as much as a legal one, Democrats are effectively gambling that voters will quickly join their side once the TV footage starts rolling.

"The American public needs to understand we're not dealing with a gray area here," Rep. Steve CohenStephen (Steve) Ira CohenTennessee Rep. Steve Cohen wins Democratic primary Democrats exit briefing saying they fear elections under foreign threat Texas Democrat proposes legislation requiring masks in federal facilities MORE (D-Tenn.) said on CNN over the weekend. "This is a black-and-white violation of the Constitution."

The impeachment inquiry was sparked by an anonymous whistleblower’s allegation that Trump had threatened national security by withholding U.S. military aid to Ukraine to press the country’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to open investigations into the 2016 elections and former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenOn The Money: Economists flabbergasted after Congress leaves with no deal | Markets rise as the economy struggles | Retail sales slow in July Congress exits with no deal, leaving economists flabbergasted Trump touts NYC police union endorsement: 'Pro-cop all the way' MORE.

For Trump, those investigations might have benefited him in two ways — both of them political. First, it would damage Biden, a leading presidential contender, amid Trump's bid for reelection in 2020. And second, it would promote the theory that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that had interfered in the 2016 election, thereby casting new doubts on a central verdict of the Mueller report: that Moscow had meddled to help Trump get elected.

Republicans have dismissed the investigation, accusing Democrats of conducting a "witch hunt" designed to overturn a presidential election simply because they didn't like the outcome. GOP leaders have repeatedly noted that the military aid was ultimately delivered even without Zelensky launching the investigations Trump sought, eradicating allegations of a quid pro quo.

"As we hear more testimony ... it's actually getting easier to defend the president from a standpoint there is no linkage between aid [and investigations]," said Rep. Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsChris Wallace rips both parties for coronavirus package impasse: 'Pox on both their houses' The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Trump goes birther again; no deal on COVID-19 package Overnight Health Care: Senate leaves until September without coronavirus relief deal | US records deadliest day of summer | Georgia governor drops lawsuit over Atlanta's mask mandate MORE (R-N.C.), a staunch defender of Trump. 

Democrats have reached different conclusions, pointing to mounting evidence — including witness testimony and the rough transcript of the July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelensky, released by the White House — which they say implicates Trump in a campaign to enlist a foreign leader to boost his reelection chances.

"He went on a telephone call with the president of Ukraine and said 'I have a favor though' and then proceeded to ask for an investigation of his rival," Rep. Jackie SpeierKaren (Jackie) Lorraine Jacqueline SpeierOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Watchdog to weigh probe of Trump advancements on Pebble Mine | Interior finalizes public lands HQ move out West over congressional objections | EPA to issue methane rollback: report Watchdog to weigh probe of Trump administration advancements of Pebble Mine Congress must enact a plan to keep government workers safe MORE (D-Calif.), a member of the Intelligence Committee, said on ABC's "This Week" Sunday. "This is a very strong case of bribery."

To make that case, Democrats are leaning on accounts from a cadre of officials with long and distinguished careers in the foreign service, but no name recognition in the general public. Indeed, all the prominent Trump figures summoned by Democrats — Rick PerryRick PerryOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Trump signs major conservation bill into law | Senate votes to confirm Energy's No. 2 official | Trump Jr. expresses opposition to Pebble Mine project Senate votes to confirm Energy's No. 2 official 4 Texas GOP congressional primary runoffs to watch MORE, John BoltonJohn BoltonThe Hill's 12:30 Report - Speculation over Biden's running mate announcement Ex-Trump adviser, impeachment witness Fiona Hill gets book deal Hannity's first book in 10 years debuts at No. 1 on Amazon MORE, Mick MulvaneyMick MulvaneyFauci says positive White House task force reports don't always match what he hears on the ground Bottom line White House, Senate GOP clash over testing funds MORErefused to appear, citing executive privilege. That blockade is sure to persist as the investigation goes public, as Trump and his allies — after blasting the closed-door phase as surreptitious — now say the process is too tainted to merit their participation.

“Why would we try to be complicit in an impeachment inquiry when we don’t know what it’s about?” asked White House counselor Kellyanne ConwayKellyanne Elizabeth ConwayTrump hurls insults at Harris, Ocasio-Cortez and other women Trump and allies grapple with how to target Harris Conway: Harris is going to have to answer for marijuana prosecutions in California MORE.

Still, a long list of current and former administration officials have bucked the White House barricade to appear in private depositions, most of them under subpoena. And Schiff has declined to press the courts for the testimony of those refusing to cooperate — a significant tactical shift from House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerBy questioning Barr, Democrats unmasked their policy of betrayal Chris Wallace: Barr hearing 'an embarrassment' for Democrats: 'Just wanted to excoriate him' Apple posts blowout third quarter MORE's (D-N.Y.) probe into Russia's 2016 election interference, as outlined by the Mueller report.

In the Ukraine affair, Democrats think they have a cleaner narrative of Trump abusing power, one more easily digestible for the public — and with more power to sway independents and moderate Republicans.

"We're not going to follow a rope-a-dope strategy where we have to wait months or even years to have people come in," said Rep. Eric SwalwellEric Michael SwalwellSwalwell calls for creation of presidential crimes commission to investigate Trump when he leaves office 'This already exists': Democrats seize on potential Trump executive order on preexisting conditions Swalwell: Barr has taken Michael Cohen's job as Trump's fixer MORE (D-Calif.), a member of the Intelligence panel. "We have enough evidence here."

They have their work cut out. No Republican has endorsed the impeachment effort in either chamber. And while Democrats can push articles through the House with a simple majority, removing Trump would require support from two-thirds of the Senate — a colossal lift in a chamber where the controlling GOP is already forming sharp lines of defense.

"I made my mind up. There's nothing there," Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGOP senator draws fire from all sides on Biden, Obama-era probes Has Congress captured Russia policy? Graham on Harris: 'No issue' as to whether 'she is an American citizen' MORE (R-S.C.) told an Iowa radio station on Saturday.

With much at stake, House Republicans are also steeling for the public battle ahead. They've shifted Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanOklahoma State to require masks in football stands, urges mobile ticketing Win by QAnon believer creates new headaches for House GOP World's most trafficked mammal gives Trump new way to hit China on COVID-19 MORE (R-Ohio) to the Intelligence Committee, where the combative former collegiate wrestling champion is sure to play an outsized role sparring with Schiff on the panel.

GOP leaders also submitted their own request for witnesses, including the whistleblower and Biden's son Hunter, who was employed by a Ukrainian energy giant when his father was still vice president. Republicans have charged, without evidence, that the elder Biden had pressured Kiev to oust a top Ukrainian prosecutor in order to protect the company.

Schiff moved swiftly to deny the whistleblower request — a power granted him under a package of rules passed by the House last month — but that's only fueled Republican accusations that Democrats are shaping their investigation to deny Trump a fair defense.

"They're going to give the president a fair and impartial firing squad," Sen. John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (R-La.) said Sunday on CBS News's "Face the Nation" program. "And that’s not due process."

Democrats have countered that the quid pro quo central to the whistleblower complaint has been subsequently verified by numerous witnesses, making the whistleblower's appearance unnecessary. The abuse is clear, they say. Now it falls to Congress to decide if it's impeachable.

"We have significant evidence from multiple witnesses that tells us that it did happen. And it's for us to judge whether that's appropriate or not," said Rep. Tom MalinowskiThomas (Tom) MalinowskiNew Jersey incumbents steamroll progressive challengers in primaries Thomas Kean wins GOP primary to take on Rep. Tom Malinowski House fires back at Trump by passing ObamaCare expansion MORE (D-N.J.), who represents a swing district. "And in my judgment it is completely and utterly wrong."

Democrats have convinced themselves; their task now is to convince the public.