The House Judiciary Committee’s first hearing Wednesday in a push to impeach President Donald Trump will be more about the members of the committee than the witnesses, and what it reveals about where the process is headed in the next two weeks.
Four constitutional law experts will appear to discuss the meaning of the Constitution’s impeachment standard of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” But members from both sides are poised to use the testimony to highlight their concerns with the president’s behavior or their concerns with the impeachment process.
The Judiciary Committee retakes center stage in the impeachment inquiry with looming choices to make about how to proceed: which witnesses to hear from, which hearings to hold, the way Trump and his lawyers can participate, and drafting and possibly voting on articles of impeachment before the end of the year.
So far, Chairman Jerrold Nadler of New York, who gets a chance to reclaim the helm of the impeachment process, has closely held any details about strategy. But the open hearing and the unscripted nature of member questions could make that hard to maintain.
And Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the panel’s top Republican and a persistent defender of Trump, gets a national spotlight as a special election campaign for a Georgia Senate seat gets underway.
Nadler and the Judiciary Committee were at the center of the impeachment push all year until a whistleblower complaint about Trump’s dealings with Ukraine shifted the focus to the House Intelligence Committee.
That came just after the New York Democrat held a hearing with former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and the first of what was to be a series of hearings to educate the public and other lawmakers on its case for impeachment, both of which were criticized as lackluster.
Wednesday’s hearing will be another major test of how much the Judiciary Committee will be able to sway the opinions of the public and other lawmakers when it comes to impeachment — and how much Nadler can control the process as Republicans look for ways to use House rules to prevent that.
Schiff, who released his report on the impeachment inquiry on Tuesday, gained the praise of Democrats and the ire of Republicans for the way he presided over the Intelligence Committee hearings. “I think because of the experience of that, that Nadler and the leadership will exercise strict control of the process,” said former Missouri GOP Rep. Tom Coleman.
Nadler was a fixture on political shows before Ukraine became the focus of the impeachment probe, but he did not appear on shows ahead of Wednesday’s hearing. Nadler may have more of a challenge because of the lawmakers who are on the Judiciary Committee, said Ross Garber, who teaches political investigations and impeachment at Tulane Law School.
The Intelligence Committee generally operates out of the public spotlight in an oversight function of the nation’s intelligence community, but the Judiciary Committee can be raucous and partisan.
The panel includes some of Trump’s most vocal allies in Congress, such as Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio, Matt Gaetz of Florida, John Ratcliffe of Texas and Andy Biggs of Arizona. Biggs told Fox News on Sunday that “there’s a bunch of brawlers sometimes on the Judiciary Committee” and it should be “much more feisty than the Intel Committee was.”
That includes Collins, a former lawyer and minister who often speaks quickly and emphatically about what he sees as problems with the impeachment process — and he sees plenty.
Trump had wanted Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp to appoint Collins to the seat of departing Sen. Johnny Isakson. Collins hasn’t ruled out running for the Senate seat despite being passed over for the appointment.
Among other concerns, Collins has criticized Nadler for rushing the process, not divulging what witnesses will be called, not allowing Republicans to call witnesses and not giving Trump a meaningful chance to be involved in the House process.
Here’s how Collins put it Sunday on Fox News: “If the Judiciary Committee simply has a constitutional scholar hearing and then they have a presentation of a report by Adam Schiff and we go straight to a markup, that is a failure on Chairman Nadler of the ultimate proportion because this is a failure of the Judiciary Committee to be able to talk to fact witnesses, to be able to talk to the people that had actually been a part of this and actually have the president viably participate in his own defense, which is not at the opportunity to do now.”
New York Democratic Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, a member of the Judiciary Committee, said on the same show that the committee is giving the “president every opportunity to participate in the impeachment inquiry in a very fair and balanced way.”
“If the president would like to come forward and present an actual witness who can provide some exculpatory information as to why the aid was withheld, we all would welcome that,” Jeffries said.
Republicans launched the impeachment process for President Bill Clinton in 1998 with the same type of academic discussion of the Constitution’s impeachment standard. Yet Collins has already challenged Wednesday’s hearing as “merely political theater.”
The Clinton hearing had a politically balanced and “robust slate” of 19 experts, whereas the Trump hearing will have just four and only one of the minority’s choosing, he said in a letter to Nadler.
One of the witnesses, University of North Carolina law professor Michael Gerhardt, has written that Trump’s handling of nearly $400 million in military aid to Ukraine is “about as impeachable as an offense can get.”
But Democrats are still debating behind closed doors what to include in any articles of impeachment, and whether to focus them on just the Ukraine dealings or what they see as Trump’s broader abuse of power.
Questions from Democratic members about possible obstruction of justice from Trump or the details of the Mueller probe could indicate that they want to make it broader and could reveal the contours of that debate.
“Articles could be drafted, more or less narrowly,” Garber said. “I expect they’re going to use the witnesses more or less as props to try and score points. And the eventual articles are something that have to be able to pass muster within the Democratic caucus.”
Also at stake is public support for impeachment, which did not dramatically rise after the Intelligence Committee hearings, Garber said, and what Democrats who face tougher reelection campaigns might convey about articles they are willing to support.