Congress

Judiciary kicks off impeachment articles markup with expected polarization

Democrats try to set the occasion as solemn, while Republicans decry that as a ruse

Ranking member Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., makes an opening statement as Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., looks on during the House Judiciary Committee markup of the articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump in the Longworth Building on Wednesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The House Judiciary Committee’s markup of two articles of impeachment charging President Donald Trump with abuse of power and obstruction of Congress kicked off Wednesday with Chairman Jerrold Nadler trying to set a “solemn” tone and ranking member Doug Collins accusing that of being a ruse. 

Nadler opened the markup with a note about why he was breaking the custom of having only the chairman and the ranking member deliver opening statements to provide each panel member the opportunity to give five minutes of opening remarks.

“I believe for such an important and solemn occasion as this” it’s appropriate, the New York Democrat said. 

Collins called Nadler’s attempt to cast the historic markup as solemn “amazing at best, hilarious at worst” because of his view that Democrats have been trying to impeach Trump for three years and the Judiciary Committee picked up the mantle after the party took over the majority this year. 

“We have spent all year in this committee trying to impeach the president,” the Georgia Republican said. “We have occasionally had markups on bills, most of which so partisan they cannot go forward in the Senate.”

Collins said it’s amazing to hear it’s a solemn moment “like it jumped up and snuck on you.” He said it’s like the holiday season; it’s not a surprise because you’ve been expecting it the whole time.

‘You still have a choice’

The ranking member’s opening statement was full of criticisms of Democrats, but Nadler only made brief reference to his colleagues on the other side of the aisle in his final words. 

“I know this moment must be difficult, but you still have a choice,” he said. “I hope every member of this committee will withstand the political pressures of the moment. I hope that none of us attempt to justify behavior that we know in our heart is wrong.”

Nadler urged Republicans as they think about that choice to remember that Trump will not be president forever.  

“When his time has passed, when his grip on our politics is gone, when our country returns, as surely it will, to calmer times and stronger leadership, history will look back on our actions here today,” he said. “How would you be remembered?”

Nadler already knows how he wants history to record his decisions — for honoring his oath to support and defend the Constitution.

Collins responded in his opening, saying he’s glad Nadler brought up history — not that he would dare try to write it today. He predicted Trump will be president for 5 more years and that the legacy of his impeachment will not be about removing him from office.

“Here’s the real damage: It’s the institutional damage to this body,” he said.

To that end, Collins turned the charges levied against Trump back on Democrats, accusing the majority of abuse of power for “racing the clock and the calendar” to impeach Trump and claiming Intelligence Chairman Adam B. Schiff obstructed justice in how he handled the investigation.

As he did in the Judiciary Committee’s two hearings, Collins brought up the GOP’s request for a minority hearing that Nadler has ignored. He said he expects the Rules Committee to waive the minority’s right to a hearing for the impeachment proceedings to avoid parliamentary objections on the floor.

But one day, when Democrats are back in the minority they’ll regret the decision, Collins said, noting his plan to remind them: “This is the year you put a dagger in minority rights.”

Substantive arguments

Nadler focused more on the substance of the articles than the process in his opening statement. He laid out three questions members should answer as they consider the articles: Does the evidence show the president committed these alleged acts? Do those acts rise to high crimes and misdemeanors? And what are the implications if Congress fails to act?

On the first question “there can be no debate,” Nadler said. He described Trump’s efforts to withhold a White House meeting and U.S. security assistance to get Ukraine to open investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter and a debunked conspiracy theory that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election.

“The evidence shows that President Trump did not care if real investigations took place. A public announcement that the government of Ukraine was investigating his rivals would have been enough for him to release the aid.”

In describing the evidence of obstruction, Nadler said Trump did not provide a single document to Congress in the Ukraine probe.

“To put this obstruction into context, during the Watergate hearings, President Nixon turned over recordings of his conversations in the Oval Office; later, President Clinton handed over his DNA,” Nadler said. “President Trump’s obstruction was, by contrast, absolute.”

Nadler answered his second question with a single word — “absolutely.”

“The highest of high crimes is abuse of power,” he said, citing the president using his official powers “to serve his own personal, selfish interests at the expense of the public good.”

‘The abuses will continue’

The third question is where Nadler defended the process against criticisms that Democrats were rushing to impeach Trump.

“If we do not respond to President Trump’s abuses of power, the abuses will continue,” he said. “If we do not act now, what happens next will be our responsibility as well as his.”

Collins' address offered some substantive defenses in addition to the process complaints. One was that Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has stated publicly on numerous occasions that Trump did not pressure him to open investigations.

“The majority is saying Mr. Zelenskiy is a liar,” Collins said, accusing them of tearing down “not only the leader of the free world, President Trump” but also the president of Ukraine.

Collins also accused Democrats of drafting vague articles, not mentioning dates of alleged instances in their abuse of power charge. 

“The Democrats can’t come up with the arguments for it,” he said. “They don’t have who knew it and when they knew it.”

Similar arguments

Democrats and Republicans speaking after Nadler and Collins made similar arguments as their chairman and ranking member, respectively, in their openings.

Several Democrats disclosed they plan to vote to impeach Trump — a strong signal they won't be approving changes to the two articles as they consider amendments Thursday. Among the members to say they will vote for impeachment was Georgia Rep. Lucy McBath, the Democrat on the panel considered vulnerable for reelection in 2020. Inside Elections with Nathan Gonzales rates her race Tilts Democratic.

Most Democrats kept to substance and frequently invoked the Constitution and their responsibility to uphold it, while Republicans criticized the process and the intentions of their colleagues across the aisle. 

Some Republicans, like Reps. Louie Gohmert and Jim Jordan, cited the recently released inspector general report detailing FBI abuses of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in their investigation into allegations of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.

Gohmert also noted that for three years Democrats talked about the crimes the president committed but in the articles didn’t charge him with any. 

As some Democrats alluded to criminality in their remarks, Gohmert raised a point of order noting Republicans haven’t seen an amendment to the articles that charges those crimes. 

“We keep hearing about crimes,” he said. “We should be able to have an amendment that includes the crimes you’re talking about.”

Nadler dismissed Gohmert’s interjection, saying it was not a valid point of order.

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