Tempers flare at tense Judiciary hearing on impeachment

The House’s latest impeachment hearing repeatedly ran off the rails Monday as the parties clashed over both substance and procedure, including the Democrats’ unorthodox move to have staff counsels grill one another on whether President TrumpDonald John TrumpIllinois governor says state has gotten 10 percent of medical equipments it's requested Biden leads Trump by 6 points in national poll Tesla offers ventilators free of cost to hospitals, Musk says MORE’s conduct toward Ukraine is impeachable.

Both sides brought sharpened knives to the fight, reflecting the heightened stakes as impeachment enters the homestretch toward the drafting of articles and lawmakers dig in for the final, holiday-season battles in the biggest public relations war of their congressional careers.

Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee sought to amplify their argument that Trump’s pressure campaign on Kyiv marked both an abuse of office and a threat to the future strength of American democracy. 

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“President Trump's persistent and continuing effort to coerce a foreign country to help him cheat to win an election is a clear and present danger to our free and fair elections and to our national security,” said Daniel Goldman, senior Democratic counsel for the House Intelligence Committee, which had led the investigatory phase of the fast-moving impeachment inquiry. 

But Republicans, crunching the very same evidence, reached a decidedly different conclusion, arguing that Trump’s conduct in Ukraine merely reflected his desire to protect U.S. taxpayers from corruption in Kyiv. The Democrats’ case, said Stephen Castor, the Republican counsel, is based on “hearsay, innuendo and presumptions.”

“The Democrats do not have the proof,” he added.

If the partisan arguments were the same during Monday’s hearing, the tone was not, as Republicans proved notably effective in delaying and disrupting what may be Democrats’ last public hearing related to Trump asking Ukraine to open two politically motivated investigations.

The hearing was riddled with GOP lawmakers raising objections, Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerHouse Judiciary Committee postpones hearing with Barr amid coronavirus outbreak House Democrats plead with key committee chairman to allow remote voting amid coronavirus pandemic Pelosi rejects calls to shutter Capitol: 'We are the captains of this ship' MORE (D-N.Y.) forcefully banging his gavel to stunt their protests, and Republicans ignoring his decisions to overrule their complaints. Crosstalk between Nadler and a bristling Republican arguing over process often plagued the hearing. 

And when both sides got to substance, the arguments were markedly familiar, with Democrats alleging Trump abused the power of his office and is a threat to the integrity of the 2020 presidential election, while Republicans painted Democrats as impeachment-hungry leftists who will do anything to overturn the results of the contest in 2016.

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The repetition is deliberate, as both sides are seeking to win over the public’s favor heading into the final phase of the process: drafting the articles to remove Trump from office. Monday’s open hearing, broadcast in full on cable television, allowed both parties to spread their message as far and as forcefully as they can.

Staff attorneys dominated the first half of the hearing, as two Democratic counsels — Barry Berke and Goldman — and Castor dueled over the parties’ conflicting narratives about the propriety of Trump’s handling of foreign policy in Ukraine.

But in one of the most stunning moments of the hearing, Berke moved from appearing next to Castor at the witness table, where the pair delivered opening arguments on behalf of the Judiciary panel, to sitting on the dais, next to Nadler, where Berke grilled the Republican counsel over the accuracy of the GOP minority impeachment report.

The change prompted fierce pushback from Republicans, who argued Berke could not jump from being a witness to questioning one.

Rep. Louie Gohmert (Texas) was not the only GOP critic of that shift, but he was the most forceful in raising a point of order during Berke’s questioning of Castor.

“This is not appropriate to have a witness be a questioner ... it’s just wrong,” Gohmert said, adding that “he should not be up here.”

Then things got more personal.

“How much money do you have to give to get to do that?” jabbed Gohmert, highlighting how Berke had donated to Democrats prior to becoming a counsel for the Judiciary panel.

Others went further in going after Berke and Goldman for their previous political donations, painting them as partisan, while arguing otherwise for their own.

Rep. Matt GaetzMatthew (Matt) GaetzHarris knocks Gaetz for taking issue with money for Howard in relief package Critics hit Florida governor over lack of 'sweeping' coronavirus response Gaetz accuses Burr of 'screwing all Americans' with stock sale MORE (R-Fla.) questioned Goldman on how much he has donated to Democrats while also propping up a sign featuring a tweet of Goldman’s made before his time on the Intelligence panel, which made references to unverified allegations against Trump.

Other Republicans focused their ire on one of the most prominent faces of impeachment: House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffCoronavirus pushes GOP's Biden-Burisma probe to back burner Texas man arrested for allegedly threatening Democrats over coronavirus bill Schiff: Remote voting would not compromise national security MORE (D-Calif.), who Republicans have demanded make an appearance to outline the findings of his report — and defend his handling of the process that led to it. 

“Where's Adam? It's his report. His name,” said Rep. Doug CollinsDouglas (Doug) Allen CollinsGeorgia makes it easier to get mail-in ballots after delaying primary Overnight Energy: House stimulus aims to stem airline pollution | Environmental measures become sticking point in Senate talks | Progressives propose T 'green stimulus' House bill would ban stock trading by members of Congress MORE (Ga.), the senior Republican on the Judiciary Committee. “Mr. Goldman, you're a great attorney, but you're not Adam Schiff and you don't wear a pin.”

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To drive home the point, Republicans also erected a poster on the dais with an edited milk carton “Missing” ad with Schiff’s face on it.

Republicans also were steaming over Schiff’s decision to include in his report the call records from certain prominent figures involved in the White House pressure campaign on Ukraine, including Rudy GiulianiRudy GiulianiHillicon Valley: FCC chief proposes 0M telehealth program | Twitter takes down posts promoting anti-malaria drugs for coronavirus| Whole Foods workers plan Tuesday strike 12 things to know today about coronavirus Twitter takes down posts promoting anti-malaria treatment for coronavirus MORE, Trump’s personal lawyer, and Lev Parnas, a Giuliani associate. Those records swept up the private communications of Intelligence ranking member Devin NunesDevin Gerald NunesTrump steps up intensity in battle with media Nunes urges Americans to 'stop panicking': 'It's a great time to just go out' if you're healthy Sunday shows preview: Lawmakers gear up for another week fighting the coronavirus, seek to curb fallout MORE (R-Calif.), whose contacts were included in the majority report.

“It was a gratuitous drive-by that you wanted to smear the ranking member,” Collins charged, aiming his frustration at Goldman. “I'm going to assume he [Schiff] ordered this.”

Still, despite the performances on either side, the future of the impeachment inquiry appears all but set: a vote in the House on impeaching the 45th U.S. president.

Sources have told The Hill that a Judiciary Committee markup of articles of impeachment could come as early as this week, as Democrats race to wrap up their inquiry ahead of the holiday recess.

It's a vote Republican campaign operatives are already highlighting as they target vulnerable moderate Democrats in battleground districts next year. Party leaders insist, however, that impeachment has nothing to do with election politics.

“I'm not at all concerned where polls are,” said Rep. David CicillineDavid Nicola CicillineLocal news outlets struggle to survive coronavirus fallout The Hill's 12:30 Report: House to vote on .2T stimulus after mad dash to Washington Pelosi rejects calls to shutter Capitol: 'We are the captains of this ship' MORE (R.I.), head of the Democrats' messaging arm. “This is a fundamental question of protecting our democracy.”