Congress

Impeachment deposition bickering offers preview of brinkmanship to come in public hearings

Jordan, Schiff exchanges on process illustrate distrust between the parties

Rep. Jim Jordan has questioned the process, such as members' ability to ask questions, during depositions. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

The first closed-door deposition in the House’s impeachment inquiry opened with a partisan squabble about whether members would be able to question witnesses. The bickering showed a distrust between Democrats and Republicans that has consumed the deliberations ever since. 

That is unlikely to go away anytime soon as lawmakers prepare for public hearings that are expected to begin later this month. Some of the process questions Republicans raised that led to partisan disputes in the depositions have seemingly been put to bed, while others may spill into public hearings. 

The first fight, about whether members could question witnesses, has been addressed in the depositions. And procedures the House adopted last week for the public hearings also ensure members will have an opportunity to ask questions there. 

But the initial tension over the matter — as revealed in the transcript of the House Intelligence, Oversight and Reform and Foreign Affairs committees’ Oct. 3 deposition with Kurt Volker, a former NATO ambassador who served the Trump administration in a volunteer capacity as a special representative to Ukraine — illustrates the type of exchanges that can be expected in the public hearings. 

The Volker deposition was the committees’ first in the impeachment inquiry, and Republicans questioned how Democrats would run the proceedings. 

Oversight ranking member Jim Jordan used his opening remarks to clarify the process. “I want to be clear on the ground rules. Members are permitted to ask questions?” the Ohio Republican asked.

“Mr. Jordan, it was our intention to make this a staff-only interview,” Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff responded. “I’m not going to prohibit members, but we’d like to keep this professional at the staff level.” 

Jordan questioned that intent.

“I’ve probably sat in on more transcribed interviews than maybe any other member, at least on our side, and I have never seen an effort to prohibit members from asking the witness questions,” he said. 

Schiff told Jordan he wouldn’t prohibit him from asking questions, “but we will expect you to treat the witness with respect.”

Repeated complaints

Jordan has a reputation as an attack dog from his years serving on the Oversight panel and asking pointed questions of government officials. In recent years, he’s also become a staunch defender of President Donald Trump. 

Schiff, too, has a reputation for being a loyal partisan. A top ally of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the California Democrat has often criticized Republicans for not taking investigations seriously, even as they’ve lobbed similar complaints about him. 

Jordan and Schiff’s distaste for each other will be laid bare for the public if Republican leaders temporarily put Jordan on the Intelligence Committee so he can participate in the public hearings, something two GOP sources have confirmed is under consideration. 

The closed-door exchanges about process and fairness were not limited to the Volker deposition. The other three deposition transcripts the committees have released thus far — interviews with Marie Yovanovich, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine; Michael McKinley, former adviser to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo; and Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union — show similar bickering.

Among the process complaints Jordan repeatedly raised in the depositions was that counsel from the agencies where the witnesses worked were not allowed to accompany the government officials. The Trump administration has argued this is necessary to protect from disclosure information that is subject to executive privilege. 

“I have never seen a time where agency counsel was not allowed to be present,” Jordan said. 

But House deposition rules specifically bar witnesses from being accompanied by anyone but personal attorneys. Democrats cited that rule during at least one of the depositions in response to the GOP complaints.

[Impeachment testimony details Republicans’ process fight, in public and behind closed doors]

Other clashes

It’s not just Jordan and Schiff who’ve clashed in the proceedings. 

During the Volker deposition, Oversight member Mark Meadows, a North Carolina Republican, got into a back and forth with Intelligence member Eric Swalwell, a California Democrat, about the questioning of witnesses. 

“I’m not going to ask questions because the majority has indicated that they don’t want members to do that,” Meadows said as Republican staff yielded to members for questioning. He stated he wanted to be on the record as stating that there needs to be a clarification of the rules for the proceedings.

Swalwell, who at that portion of the deposition was sitting in for Schiff as acting chairman, interjected. 

“I just want to clarify, you can ask questions. You said that you’re not allowed to. We are affording you the opportunity,” he said. 

Meadows noted Schiff discouraged member questions when the proceedings started and said he’d seek clarity from the chairman.

“I’m acting as the chairman for the rest of the day, so you can ask questions,” Swalwell said. “You’ve got 5 minutes.”

When Meadows sought clarity on whether that would apply to future witness depositions as well, Swalwell said, “Today, you can ask questions. I’m not going to speak for the chairman for tomorrow.”

“Well, when Chairman Schiff gets back, we’ll ask someone who is really in charge,” Meadows retorted. 

The committees’ deposition of Sondland started on a different foot because it occurred Oct. 17, the day Oversight Chairman Elijah E. Cummings died. Schiff and Jordan both provided kind words about the Maryland Democrat during their opening statements.

The comity did not last long, however.

Intelligence ranking member Devin Nunes noted in brief opening remarks that while the Foreign Affairs and Oversight Republicans had been informed of depositions Schiff and Democrats had scheduled for the following week, he and other Intelligence Republicans had not been.

“If we’re going to continue this circus, I, at least, would like to know what time the circus begins,” he said. 

Jordan then took over and, similar to previous depositions, raised complaints that the minority didn’t have subpoena power and that the president’s counsel couldn’t attend the proceedings to cross-examine witnesses and present evidence. 

Schiff, also as in previous depositions, largely ignored Jordan but addressed Nunes’ claim, saying Democrats “are following all the deposition notice requirements, and indeed, the same requirements that the now minority observed when they were in the majority.”

Nunes and Meadows also got into a few arguments with Schiff during the Sondland deposition over the nature of the questioning.

As Nunes tried to ask Sondland if he was aware that “many of the origins in the original Steele dossier were from Ukraine,” Schiff interjected to note that was just Nunes’ view and that they “cannot accept that as an actual or factual representation.”

Nunes said he didn’t want a tit for tat but questioned Schiff on his view of what’s factual, to which Schiff suggested he frame his question in terms of allegations. 

“I’ll ask the witness whatever I’d like to ask the witness,” Nunes said. 

“Yes. And the witness will not assume that the predicate of my colleague’s question is an accurate recitation of the fact,” Schiff said. 

Meadows then inserted himself, telling Schiff, “Mr. Chairman, with all due respect, you lead the witness all the time, all the time.”

“I understand that,” Schiff said, emphasizing he wanted to make sure the witness understood the facts. 

Meadows then asked Schiff if he would mind if Republicans clarified his questions during their round.

Schiff kept his usual composure but responded with a dig: “When you’ re chairing a committee, should that day ever come, you’re more than welcome to do so.”

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