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Democrats set to open new chapter in impeachment
After a two-week barrage of public hearings, Democrats are eyeing the next stage of their impeachment inquiry as they edge closer to an end-of-year goal for wrapping up their investigation into President Trump's dealings with Ukraine.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and other Democrats on the panel finished their last scheduled public hearings this week with what sounded like closing arguments for impeachment.
Schiff said lawmakers will determine their next steps "in the coming days."
The committees leading the fact-finding phase of the investigation are slated to write a report on their conclusions. Those committees - Intelligence, Oversight and Foreign Affairs - are also poised to publicize the last pair of unreleased transcripts from their closed-door depositions with 17 witnesses.
Then the spotlight will move to the House Judiciary Committee. That panel would lead the process of crafting impeachment articles as soon as the first week of December, when Congress returns from its Thanksgiving recess.
"The next phase will shift from the facts to the law. The law means the Constitution," said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), a Judiciary Committee member.
It remains unclear if the Judiciary panel will stage hearings with additional witnesses, or move directly to marking up articles, based on the investigative committees' recommendations, to send to the floor for a full House vote.
They'll also have to decide whether to limit the articles of impeachment to Trump's efforts to pressure Ukraine to investigate his political opponents or include any additional items, such as the obstruction of justice allegations contained in the Mueller report.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) declined to comment on that process this week. But others on the panel suggested a hearing or two, featuring testimony from legal experts, would help Democrats make their case to voters, who remain sharply divided over the notion of removing a sitting president from office.
"We are going to possibly have a couple of hearings to present to the American people what an impeachable offense is," Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D-Fla.), a member of the Judiciary Committee, told CNN on Friday.
"It's important, after the testimonies that we've heard in the past two weeks to really continue to educate the American public, what is an impeachable offense, and what is not."
She said panel members have "had some conversations" about strategy and potential witnesses, but no decisions have been finalized.
The private deliberations about next steps come on the heels of frenzied week in which the Intelligence Committee heard testimony from nine witnesses with a window into Trump's handling of foreign policy in Ukraine.
The most damning testimony came from Gordon Sondland, Trump's hand-picked ambassador to the European Union, who confirmed that there was a "quid pro quo" making a White House meeting with Ukraine's leader contingent upon the country announcing investigations into the Bidens and 2016 election interference, adding that "everyone was in the loop."
On Thursday, Fiona Hill, Trump's former top Russia adviser, and David Holmes, political counselor at the U.S. embassy in Kyiv, testified that Trump and his allies pressed for investigations that did not appear to serve America's national security interests.
Holmes described overhearing a phone call between Sondland and Trump, who asked for an update on whether the Ukrainian government would open the investigations. Hill outlined the emergence of two divergent policies in Kyiv: one advancing official U.S. policy designed to help Ukraine fend off Russian aggression; another she described as a "domestic political errand" aimed at helping Trump's reelection prospects.
"We were focused on bilateral relations and U.S. foreign policy towards Ukraine," Hill said, "and these two things had diverged at this point."
As Schiff gaveled out the final hearing, the typically mild-mannered Intelligence Committee chairman delivered some of his most impassioned public remarks to date arguing how the evidence showed that Trump abused his power.
Trump's actions, Schiff said, go "beyond anything Nixon did."
"What we have seen here is far more serious than a third-rate burglary of the Democratic headquarters," Schiff said.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has nevertheless been reluctant to say if Democrats have gathered enough evidence to begin writing articles, or to specify how the next few weeks will play out.
But the Speaker has made crystal clear that Democrats won't sit around waiting for the courts to decide the fate of disputed witnesses who have refused to testify, citing executive immunity, even as recent testimony has implicated a number of prominent administration officials - including Vice President Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and ex-National Security adviser John Bolton - in Trump's effort to press foreign leaders to find dirt on the president's domestic political opponents.
Such refusals, Pelosi said, were merely a delay tactic on the part of the White House, one that constitutes "further obstruction of Congress" - a charge that, itself, could emerge as a separate impeachment article.
"We cannot be at the mercy of the courts," she said Thursday.
Even without the testimony of key officials, many Democrats are confident that they have enough evidence of wrongdoing to move forward.
"My own feeling is that everyone who has relevant evidence should come forward and testify. At the same time, we have overwhelming evidence of potential high crimes and misdemeanors," Raskin said.
Many Democrats, particularly those in swing districts who don't want the entrenched fight to distract for too long from their policy agenda, are eager to move on and wrap up the inquiry in the House before going home for Christmas. That's all the more motivation for Democrats to try to keep up their momentum and not let themselves get bogged down in lengthy court battles.
"I'm happy that things have been moving at a pretty fast clip. And I think it should continue," said freshman Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.). "My preference would be to bring this to conclusion before Christmas."
If the Judiciary Committee holds hearings, Trump and his counsel would have the chance to request witnesses and conduct cross-examinations.
"The president's going to have an opportunity to present his own evidence, to have his lawyers cross-examine, so you always want to leave room for some other explanation. But the testimony we're hearing and the evidence we're seeing is obviously very damning," said Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), a member of the Judiciary Committee and Democratic leadership.
Passage of impeachment articles in the House would toss the process to the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has vowed to stage a trial that lends both sides "the opportunity" to make their case.
Trump appears thirsty for such a chance, saying Friday that while the investigation should "never" have happened, he's looking forward to the opportunity to clear his name.
"I want a trial," Trump said during an interview on "Fox & Friends" Friday morning. "There's nothing there."
While a handful of Republicans have expressed concern with Trump's conduct in pressuring Ukraine to open the investigation, none have offered any indication that they would side with Democrats in impeaching Trump.
And assuming all Republicans hold the party line in the House, that's likely to make it all the more difficult for any of their Senate counterparts to vote against acquitting Trump in an impeachment trial.
"I've not heard evidence proving the president committed bribery or extortion," said Intelligence Committee member Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas), a centrist who is retiring next year.
Trump's Republican allies have offered various defenses for their White House ally. For one, they argue, there could be no quid pro quo if Trump agreed to meet with Ukraine's president and release the freeze on U.S. military aid without Kyiv announcing the investigations Trump sought. They've also discounted the concerns from national security officials regarding a "back channel" foreign policy in Kyiv, saying Trump has the final word in such matters.
"These hearings are one career bureaucrat after another saying (without evidence) they 'believed' there was a political quid pro quo - while officials in the room say it never happened," tweeted Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a top Trump ally who attended the witness depositions and public hearings.
Yet Hill defended the work of the career diplomats, warning that straying from years-long efforts to protect Ukraine would only empower Russia's hand in the region. In fact, she said, Moscow already has its sights on another target: next year's U.S. elections.
"Right now Russian security services and their proxies have geared up to repeat their interference in the 2020 election," she said. "We are running out of time to stop them."