White House faces next phase of inquiry
Trump’s team could take part in future hearings, but backers fear legitimizing impeachment probe.
WASHINGTON — President Trump this week faces a dilemma central to the impeachment inquiry against him.
He could opt to have his legal team take part in the next phase, a move that some of his backers warn would grant the impeachment proceedings greater legitimacy. Or the White House could continue to reject any involvement, potentially allowing key elements of a Democratic-crafted narrative of official misconduct by the president to go largely unchallenged.
An early indication of Trump’s leanings came Sunday evening, when the White House said it would not take part in the first public hearing this week by the House Judiciary Committee. In the longer term, whichever course Trump chooses will carry risks for both sides in historic proceedings that have so far broken down almost exclusively along partisan lines.
Congressional investigators have been examining whether Trump abused his power by trying to strongarm Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into announcing investigations meant to damage Joe Biden, a potential 2020 challenger, and to undermine the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia interfered in the 2016 election.
Now the inquiry will pivot to weighing potential articles of impeachment against Trump. If the process moves on to a vote by the full House of Representatives, he could ultimately find himself only the third U.S. president ever to be impeached.
At campaign-style rallies across the country, Trump has railed against the proceedings as a sham and a witch hunt. A typical scenario unfolded last week in Sunrise, Fla., when he basked in crowd chants of an expletive he used to characterize the inquiry, and accused “radical Democrats” of trying to overturn the last election.
Back in Washington, the House Intelligence Committee in recent weeks has heard from a dozen fact witnesses, all current or previous administration officials, about the irregular foreign-policy channel set up by Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, and the unexplained holdup of roughly $400 million in aid to help Kyiv in its war with Russia-backed fighters in eastern Ukraine.
On Tuesday, the Intelligence panel, which has taken the lead in impeachment proceedings so far, is set to vote on a formal report, also including evidence gathered by the Foreign Affairs and Oversight committees.
The focus is then expected to shift to the House Judiciary Committee, which will craft and consider specific grounds for impeachment, a process somewhat akin to a prosecutor deciding to bring charges.
Lawmakers at the first of those hearings, probably Wednesday, are expected to hear from legal and constitutional experts on the impeachment process.
White House counsel Pat Cipollone ruled out participating in the first hearing, citing the fact that witnesses had not yet been named. But he did not rule out future participation. That, a White House statement said, would depend on whether “the Judiciary Committee will afford the president a fair process.” Among other things, the White House wants assurances that Republicans will be able to call witnesses without interference from Democrats.
The panel’s Democratic chairman, Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, set a deadline of Friday evening for the administration to say whether it would take part in more substantive hearings expected the following week.
In appearances on Sunday’s major news-talk shows, the president’s supporters continued to maintain he has engaged in no wrongdoing, while Democrats challenged them anew to provide evidence of his innocence. The White House has blocked the testimony of senior aides and refused to hand over documents relating to the investigation, and Trump’s congressional supporters have said little about the substance of the allegations against him.
On ABC’s “This Week,” Rep. Val Demings, a Florida Democrat who sits on both the Intelligence and Judiciary committees, urged the president to put forth any exculpatory evidence.
“We are certainly hoping the president, his counsel, will take advantage of that opportunity,” Demings said. “If he hasn’t done anything wrong, we are certainly anxious to hear his explanation of that.”
Demings, a former police chief in Orlando, Fla., scoffed at the idea — frequently put forth by Trump’s defenders — that the eventual release of the military assistance left Trump in the clear over allegations he pressured Zelensky to start investigations that would personally benefit Trump in return for the aid. A botched bank robbery or an unsuccessful burglary are still crimes, she said.
Rep. Tom McClintock, appearing on the same program, said it would be “to the president’s advantage” to have his lawyers take part in the Judiciary Committee proceedings. But the Elk Grove, Calif., Republican, who sits on the committee, added: “I can also understand how he is upset at the illegitimate process that we saw unfold” in Intelligence Committee hearings.
In those sessions, the Republican minority was allowed to pose questions and request witnesses, though not all were approved by the committee’s Democratic chairman, Rep. Adam B. Schiff of Burbank. The head of the Democratic caucus, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, said on “Fox News Sunday” that relevant knowledge of facts surrounding Trump’s conduct on Ukraine would be the determining factor in whether witnesses would be summoned.
Republicans have demanded that figures such as Biden’s son Hunter Biden, who formerly sat on the board of a Ukrainian energy company, be called to testify. Trump’s backers, without offering evidence, have accused the former vice president of pushing for the firing of a Ukrainian prosecutor to protect his son. But U.S. partners such as the European Union and the International Monetary Fund also sought the prosecutor’s dismissal, saying he impeded anti-corruption efforts.
Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, signaled that the GOP would continue to use demands for particular witnesses to try to attack the integrity of the process. He said Schiff himself should be called to testify.
If the Democrats decline to call Schiff, Collins said on “Fox News Sunday,” then “I really question his veracity in what he’s putting in his report.”
Republicans also continued to press the idea that Trump was being vilified for a nontraditional communication style rather than for actual wrongdoing.
In the now-famous July 25 call — in which a White House-released call record has the U.S. leader asking his Ukrainian counterpart to “do us a favor, though” — McClintock said Trump was merely talking like the brash Manhattan real estate developer he once was, rather than using the “delicate language of diplomacy.”
It will be up to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to make the final call on any articles of impeachment. The San Francisco Democrat repeatedly has said no one is above the law, but she also urged fellow lawmakers to bear in mind the gravity of impeaching a president.
If the Democratic-controlled House votes to impeach, the proceedings would move to the Senate, where the Republicans hold a majority, for a trial to determine whether Trump should be convicted and removed as president.
PRESIDENT Trump, First Lady Melania Trump and son Barron arrive in Washington from Florida, where the president held a campaign-style rally last week.