Impeachment inquiry enters critical new phase

House Democrats plowing ahead with their impeachment investigation will enter the twilight phase this week, when lawmakers begin to examine the most crucial question facing them to date: Do President TrumpDonald John TrumpNew Bob Woodward book will include details of 25 personal letters between Trump and Kim Jong Un On The Money: Pelosi, Mnuchin talk but make no progress on ending stalemate | Trump grabs 'third rail' of politics with payroll tax pause | Trump uses racist tropes to pitch fair housing repeal to 'suburban housewife' Biden commemorates anniversary of Charlottesville 'Unite the Right' rally: 'We are in a battle for the soul of our nation' MORE's dealings with Ukraine warrant his removal from office?

The answer, to be decided by the House Judiciary Committee, seems increasingly likely to result in a House vote later this month to make Trump just the third president in U.S. history to be impeached.

And it carries far-reaching consequences for a restless nation fiercely divided over Trump's fitness for office — ramifications that will long echo through the halls of a partisan Congress and extend far into the 2020 election cycle, when voters will be asked to deliver their own verdict on the impulsive figure in the Oval Office.

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The shift, in many ways, won't be subtle.

Up until now, the impeachment inquiry has been piloted by the House Intelligence Committee, which staged a long series of closed-door depositions and public hearings with senior diplomats and national security officials with knowledge of Trump's handling of foreign policy in Kyiv.

Those opening rounds featured a dry, just-the-facts approach designed to glean the details surrounding any efforts by Trump and his allies to pressure foreign leaders to find dirt on the president's domestic political opponents.

Committee Democrats worked through the Thanksgiving recess drafting a report on their findings, which will become available to members of the Intelligence Committee Monday evening. The panel will then vote Tuesday evening to adopt the report, along with any minority views, and send it on to the Judiciary Committee.

The Judiciary panel has a different assignment, charged with crunching the accumulated evidence and determining if it merits the drafting of impeachment articles to be brought to the House floor for votes. Democrats maintain — at least publicly — that the decision remains unresolved. Yet they're sending early signals that a vote on articles is all but inevitable.

“If you take a look at what the Founding Fathers were concerned about, it was the interference by foreign governments in our political system that was one of their gravest concerns," Rep. Zoe LofgrenZoe Ellen LofgrenDemocrats accuse Barr of helping Trump distract from coronavirus State and local officials beg Congress to send more election funds ahead of November FEC commissioner resigns, leaving agency without a quorum again MORE (D-Calif.), a senior Judiciary member, said on CNN's "State of the Union" program Sunday. "Nixon's behavior didn't fall into that range.  So, in that way, this conduct is more serious.”

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The Judiciary panel's first hearing on the matter, scheduled for Wednesday morning, will feature legal experts providing their own assessments of Trump's actions, as they relate to the constitutional grounds for impeaching a president.

The White House on Sunday informed the Judiciary Committee it will not participate in Wednesday's hearing, but did not rule out taking part in future impeachment hearings.

The launch of the next phase is a clear indication that Democrats are charging ahead with the process even without hearing from prominent White House officials who have refused to cooperate while the courts decide the limits, if any, on claims of executive immunity.

“They want ... to play a political game and tie the process up in the courts as long as they can and run the clock out," Rep. Val DemingsValdez (Val) Venita DemingsGOP lawmaker: 'Pretty cool' Harris has a shot at being the 'most powerful person in the world' How Biden decided on Harris Kamala Harris: The conventional (and predictable) pick all along MORE (D-Fla.), a member of the Intelligence panel, told ABC's "This Week" on Sunday. “We’re not willing to play that game.”

With the changing venue comes a new cast of characters set to assume a starring role. For more than two months, the public face of impeachment has been 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.), the cautious and taciturn chairman of the Intelligence Committee who conducted the process with an iron fist over the howls of Republicans claiming the president has been subjected to a partisan witch hunt.

That changes on Wednesday, when 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 (D-N.Y.) resumes the helm after months leading the earlier examination of former special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerCNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump CNN anchor rips Trump over Stone while evoking Clinton-Lynch tarmac meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report: New Hampshire fallout MORE's extensive investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Nadler took the Judiciary gavel this year after pressing the case that he was best suited to manage a “constitutional crisis.” With impeachment now in its later stages, part of his challenge will be to manage the more unwieldy Judiciary Committee — which has almost twice as many members as Intelligence, including some of Trump's most outspoken allies — and prevent the process from devolving into a partisan spectacle while the TV cameras roll.

In a letter to Trump last week, Nadler prefaced Wednesday's hearing as a scholarly examination of "the constitutional framework through which the House may analyze the evidence gathered in the present inquiry."

"The Committee intends this hearing to serve as an opportunity to discuss the historical and constitutional basis of impeachment, as well as the Framers' intent and understanding of terms like 'high crimes and misdemeanors,' " Nadler wrote.

It's a civics lesson with the highest stakes, as Democrats are scrambling to move public opinion in their favor — an essential factor if they're to have any chance of winning support from Republicans in the Senate, where the process will shift if the House passes articles of impeachment.

Polls have consistently shown that roughly half the country supports Trump's removal — a figure much higher than that surrounding former President Clinton's impeachment in 1998. But the numbers, which cut largely across partisan lines, haven't moved significantly in recent weeks, when Democrats were hoping the public hearings would erode Trump's support. No Republican in either chamber has endorsed the impeachment process.

Democrats insist that's no obstacle as they press ahead toward likely votes on impeachment articles.

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"We have to do our jobs. We can't let the polls dictate how we approach this," Rep. Ami BeraAmerish (Ami) Babulal BeraThe Hill's Coronavirus Report: iBIO Chairman and CEO Thomas Isett says developing a safe vaccine is paramount; US surpasses 150,000 coronavirus deaths with roughy one death per minute Democrats fear US already lost COVID-19 battle Karen Bass's star rises after leading police reform push MORE (D-Calif.), who's facing a competitive reelection, told CNN last week.

Yet it was concern about dividing the country — and energizing Trump's core supporters — that led Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOn The Money: Pelosi, Mnuchin talk but make no progress on ending stalemate | Trump grabs 'third rail' of politics with payroll tax pause | Trump uses racist tropes to pitch fair housing repeal to 'suburban housewife' Bass on filling Harris's Senate spot: 'I'll keep all my options open' Win by QAnon believer creates new headaches for House GOP MORE (D-Calif.) and her leadership team to reject impeachment throughout much of the year, even as the liberals in their ranks were clamoring for just that.

That resistance fell away in September following allegations from a government whistleblower that Trump had withheld almost $400 million in aid to Kyiv to pressure Ukrainian leaders to open two investigations that might have helped him politically: one into the debunked theory that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that had meddled in the 2016 election; the other into former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenRon Johnson signals some GOP senators concerned about his Obama-era probes On The Money: Pelosi, Mnuchin talk but make no progress on ending stalemate | Trump grabs 'third rail' of politics with payroll tax pause | Trump uses racist tropes to pitch fair housing repeal to 'suburban housewife' Biden commemorates anniversary of Charlottesville 'Unite the Right' rally: 'We are in a battle for the soul of our nation' MORE, a leading 2020 presidential contender, whose son was employed by a Ukrainian energy company during the Obama administration.

The new allegations stirred charges from Democrats that Trump had abused his powers to boost his reelection prospects — and led Pelosi to launch a formal impeachment inquiry.

"When we see a violation of the Constitution, we have no choice but to act," Pelosi told reporters heading into the Thanksgiving break. "And the evidence is clear that the president has used his office for his own personal gain and in doing so undermined the national security of the United States."

But with the process winding down, Democrats are holding out hope that there's time yet to convince the public that Trump's handling of Ukraine merits his ouster. The Judiciary hearings may be their last best chance to do so.

"Remember, we haven't seen the entire report. We haven't put forward — drafted even — articles of impeachment," Rep. Madeleine DeanMadeleine DeanDemocrats blister Barr during tense hearing Democratic lawmakers launch 'Mean Girls'-inspired initiative to promote face masks Behind every gun law is a mom marching for her children MORE (D-Pa.), a member of the Judiciary Committee, told CNN.

"We have a long way to go."