Congress

Democrats control narrative in impeachment inquiry

Closed-door sessions, scheduling authority among weapons in disposal

House Intelligence Chairman Adam B. Schiff arrives in the Capitol on Monday. The California Democrat and his colleagues conducting the impeachment inquiry are in position to control the narrative on the probe because of several factors. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

House Democrats haven’t revealed their strategy for persuading a sharply divided public that President Donald Trump needs to be impeached, but they hold plenty of advantages as their fast-moving inquiry unfolds mainly behind closed doors for now.

Republican members of Congress who clamored for a more public airing of information from the House Intelligence Committee’s Ukraine-focused probe appear poised to soon get their wish. House Democrats say they want to make their case in public ahead of the political season next year.

Rules Chairman Jim McGovern announced Monday that his committee will mark up a resolution Wednesday that would “ensure transparency and provide a clear path forward” as the House gets ready to begin the public portion of its inquiry. The Massachusetts Democrat plans to introduce the resolution Tuesday.

How House Democrats present that information to the public — particularly if they try to win over some Republicans and focus on the facts — will be as central to the effort as the results of the investigation itself, former members of Congress and other congressional experts say.

But there are hurdles, particularly Trump’s steady and solid approval rating among Republican voters, and a news cycle that makes it hard for the drama of any revelations to stay atop the public discussion for long.

“It’s tricky. I’m glad I’m not chairman of the Intelligence Committee right now,” said former Kansas Democratic Rep. Dan Glickman, who held that post in the early 1990s. “You gotta have the wisdom of Solomon and the personality of Bill Clinton. And Ronald Reagan.”

Democrats have control over nearly every aspect of the process. They can decide when to have public hearings, how long those hearings should last, and how long the public process should be before a vote on an impeachment resolution.

Democrats can decide which committee or committees should hold the hearings, which cooperative witnesses should testify and in what order, when to share incriminating information discovered in closed-door depositions, which articles of impeachment to focus on, when and whether to issue a report on their findings and what it should say.

Contrast that with the House Judiciary effort earlier this year to engage the public on special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report, which did not significantly sway public opinion and largely fell flat.

Democratic do-over

Back then, Attorney General William Barr and Trump had a chance to shape the public perception of Mueller’s report before it was released. Witnesses were uncooperative and fought subpoenas to testify. Mueller removed much drama from his testimony before the House by confining his remarks largely to what he wrote in the report.

Now, instead of relying on the Justice Department to investigate the president, some House Democrats already feel there is enough information to show Trump abused his power by withholding aid to Ukraine to pressure the country to open up a corruption investigation into the family of former Vice President Joe Biden, a top campaign rival.

Trump’s public comments are a wild card and so is an ongoing criminal investigation into his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and two associates who were arrested on campaign finance charges as they tried to leave the country.

“I think there’s so much in play right now,” said Pennsylvania Democrat Mary Gay Scanlon, a House Judiciary member. “Every witness, there’s new revelations, and then we have arrests over at the airport, all kinds of crazy stuff happening every day.”

Any articles of impeachment are expected to move through the Judiciary Committee, but which lawmakers draft them or decide what should be alleged is still unknown. The committee, which had just launched a series of hearings on the Mueller probe findings when the Ukraine allegations surfaced, has been on the sidelines.

“When we decide what charges, what articles of impeachment are going to go forward with, that case will be made with hearings around that,” Scanlon said. “That is what I assume will happen.”

Speaker Nancy Pelosi told colleagues Monday that the resolution set for markup Wednesday “establishes the procedure for hearings that are open to the American people, authorizes the disclosure of deposition transcripts, outlines procedures to transfer evidence to the Judiciary Committee as it considers potential articles of impeachment, and sets forth due process rights for the President and his Counsel.”

House Intelligence Chairman Adam B. Schiff is leading the impeachment probe, but that committee historically doesn’t handle this high-profile of an issue, at least not publicly. Schiff already opened himself up to criticism from Trump, who called for the California Democrat to resign after making up parts of a Ukraine phone call transcript to illustrate a bigger point.

Other Republican lawmakers have criticized Schiff for holding closed-door depositions, although that is fairly standard in high-profile congressional investigations. 

“His big challenge is to hopefully find enough Republicans who believe that he’s being fair and balanced,” Glickman said. “One of the things they’ve got is they’ve got a bunch of witnesses that seem to be credible on their face. And I assume the president and people who are working for him are going to try to discount that as much as possible.”

“And if these people are in fact telling the truth, then they’ve got to do their best to exploit that this is based on truth and not based on partisanship,” Glickman said.

Complications

Typically, if Democrats wanted to try to move public opinion, they would schedule hearings that would present new information and have a lasting life within the news cycle.

But now, “you have to compete with anything that the president tweets, which is a lot, or any scandal possibly coming up,” said Joshua Huder, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute.

And Huder pointed out that Trump’s approval rating stays “remarkably stable” within a band of 38 percent to 42 percent on any given day. “So [it] may be the case that there’s just not that many people that can be moved even by consistently new information,” Huder said.

Former Virginia GOP Rep. Thomas M. Davis III said that partisan impeachments haven’t turned out well for the country and for the party that pursues it, so Democrats would have to find a way to bring a bunch of Republicans with them to have any credibility if any impeachment got to the Senate.

Democrats on the committee have focused their message on Republicans and evidence, Davis said, but their seeming rush to judgment gave the impression to many on the right that Democrats had determined Trump was guilty and are searching for the facts to make it fit.

“You had so many of them out ahead of this thing, that had decided they were judge and jury in the early stages of this thing, that a lot of people pushed the mute button on this thing,” Davis said.

“They have to build this thing slowly and percolate it, and the idea we have to rush to judgment on this thing and do it by the end of the year, I think, ‘Wait a minute, you take as long as it takes,’” Davis said.

The markup Wednesday indicates that Democrats could be ready to move to the public portion of the impeachment in the next few weeks — and that they aren’t interested in protracted legal battles.

Schiff, in response to a new lawsuit from a key witness that seeks clarification on whether he can comply with a congressional subpoena in the impeachment probe, said he won’t engage in a lengthy court battle with the administration over witnesses.

In that particular case, Schiff said former deputy national security adviser Charles Kupperman’s absence amounts to “additional evidence of obstruction.”

“We are not willing to allow the White House to engage us in a lengthy game of rope-a-dope,” he said.

Schiff said in a statement Monday that the resolution the House will vote on this week will establish the format for open hearings that will be conducted by his committee. “The American people will hear firsthand about the President’s misconduct,” he said.

It was unclear from Schiff’s statement whether the Oversight and Foreign Affairs Committees, which have been working with the Intelligence panel to conduct closed-door witnesses depositions, will be able to participate or host their own public hearings.

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