House

Democrats gear up for high-stakes Judiciary hearing

House Democrats are gearing up for one of their last opportunities to present evidence about President Trump's contacts with Ukraine before introducing articles of impeachment.

The high-stakes Judiciary Committee hearing on Monday will feature Democratic and Republican investigators seeking to win the PR battle over whether the president's conduct rises to the level of an impeachable offense.

As investigators from the Intelligence and Judiciary panels duke it out, the hearing will also be vying for the public's attention amid the anticipated release of a Justice Department watchdog report examining the FBI's actions in the early stages of the 2016 Russia investigation.

The Judiciary hearing, while not expected to unearth new information, will be a carefully staged operation by Democrats determined to weave the narrative that Trump pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to open two investigations that would benefit him politically, including one into a top 2020 political rival.

Republicans, meanwhile, are expected to counter by raising complaints of an unfair process and claiming a lack of direct evidence tying Trump to such allegations.

The hearing will be the first since Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced on Thursday that the relevant committees will begin drafting impeachment articles. A floor vote on the eventual articles could come as early as this month.

The hearing also comes just two days after Judiciary Committee Democrats released a report providing more details on the inquiry and impeachment offenses.

Still unresolved, however, is what specific charges Democrats will pursue, as members of different ideological stripes are at odds over how far they should extend. Pelosi had rejected impeachment through most of the year, heeding warnings from centrist lawmakers wary of blowback at the polls in 2020. Some of those lawmakers are hoping to focus the articles squarely on the Ukraine episode - an easier sell, they say, with voters in their purple districts.

"If we're trying to convince the American people we're serious, you keep it on the phone call, and the transcript, that moved us to the impeachment inquiry," said Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.), a senior Blue Dog Democrat, referring to Trump's July 25 phone call with Zelensky.

"Keep it simple, don't bring in a bunch of extraneous stuff. We'll be accused of a witch hunt."

Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), a freshman who flipped a Republican seat last year, is also advocating to limit the articles to Ukraine-related events.

"There is a very clear and strong case that not only most Americans understand but that can be seen to symbolize all of the abuses of power that the president has been credibly accused of," he said.

More liberal Democrats would go further, to include elements of the Mueller report, which examined Trump's role in Russia's 2016 election interference, as well as accusations that the president has used his office to benefit his business empire.

"I don't think they should go to every grievance that we have with the president," said Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.). "But I am one who would choose to impeach this president for a pretty long list of abuses - that includes emoluments, that includes obstruction of justice, and certainly the Ukraine scandal articles."

Huffman quickly added that he would accept a slimmed-down roster of charges if party leaders decide that "makes more sense." But he also noted a potential benefit of widening the net: It would allow vulnerable moderates to go back to their districts having voted against certain impeachment measures.

"It gives them the ability to demonstrate a measured approach, if that's something they feel like they need to show," he said.

Others argued that including parts of the Mueller report, which outlined 10 instances of potential obstruction of justice, simply helps their case.

"The real question is whether we want to focus on a singular, discrete episode or patterns of misconduct. And I do think we need to focus on patterns of misconduct," said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), a constitutional lawyer who sits on the Judiciary Committee. "And I think that the misconduct we saw with respect to the Ukraine shakedown was not some sort of aberration."

How quickly Democrats move to draft articles is another open question. Pelosi's rapid shift to the drafting phase seems to set the stage for floor votes before Christmas - a timeline many lawmakers are hoping to realize.

But the inquiry is also causing a stir among members who fear that, if not done right, vulnerable Democrats will be the ones to pay the biggest cost.

"It's going to be a liability for all Blue Dogs. ... Our districts are purple or red," said Schrader. "So I'd just as soon get it done, move on."

Yet that timeline is sure to fuel Republican criticisms that Democrats rammed the process through without due consideration, including interviews with prominent White House officials whose refusal to testify is currently subject to court challenges.

And still, questions have been swirling as to whether Democrats will seek to bring in key witnesses who have yet to testify when they reach the point of arguing their impeachment case before the Senate, with some suggesting it would be an opportunity - and others, a liability. Such names would include former national security adviser John Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney.

Indeed, during last week's Judiciary hearing on the topic, the lone Republican witness acknowledged that Trump's conduct might rise to impeachment, but the evidence is yet too thin to make that claim.

"I am concerned about lowering impeachment standards to fit a paucity of evidence and an abundance of anger," Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University and contributor to The Hill, told lawmakers.

Pelosi defended the pace last week, saying Democrats have been meticulous in their investigation, stretching back more than two years to include the Mueller report on foreign election interference.

"We are proceeding in a manner worthy of the Constitution," she said.

She and many others in the caucus are leery of delaying the process to hold out for any cooperation from a White House that appears intent on pushing the court battles well into next year.

"I'm an old trial lawyer, and when you've gathered sufficient evidence to make your case, you've just got to call the question and get on with it," said Huffman. "If you lacked confidence in your case, then that's perhaps a reason to delay and seek more information. That's not where we are. We've got the goods."

The White House on Friday signaled it will not participate in future impeachment proceedings in the House and called on House Democrats to end their impeachment inquiry. 

"House Democrats have wasted enough of America's time with this charade," White House counsel Pat Cipollone wrote in a one-page letter to Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.).

Monday's hearing also comes amid the growing question of who will buck their party on the impeachment vote, a topic of great interest among leaders on both sides.

Republicans have been united in their opposition to impeachment, but Democrats are hoping to peel away Rep. Francis Rooney (R), a retiring Floridian who has been open to the possibility of supporting it.

Though, Rep. Justin Amash (Mich.), who switched from a Republican to an independent earlier this year after splitting with his party on Trump's conduct, told CNN on Friday that he would likely vote on three articles of impeachment: abuse of power, obstruction of justice and obstruction of Congress. But he caveated that he wanted to see the final language before fully committing.

Across the aisle, if Republicans are able to scoop a handful of Democrats to side with them and oppose articles of impeachment - even just one - they will be able to tout the dissent in arguing that even members of Pelosi's party believe she has gone too far in trying to remove a sitting president.

Just two Democrats - Reps. Collin Peterson (Minn.) and Jeff Van Drew (N.J.) - opposed the impeachment rules package that the House passed on Halloween. But that was a procedural vote, and the number of dissenters could grow as articles to remove the president are brought to the floor. 

Already, Van Drew has said he'll vote against all of them, citing the near certainty that the Republican-controlled Senate will knock them down - and give Trump more ammunition on the campaign trail.

"When it goes over to the Senate, obviously he's going to be found not guilty. And I think it's something he will be very proud of and use during his campaign," Van Drew said. "Certainly people are thinking about [it], they don't know what to do. This is a very hard vote to make one way or the other."

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