WASHINGTON - We could see articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump this week. The precursor to those was a hearing Monday in the House Judiciary Committee in which impeachment investigators explained the evidence they have gathered against Trump.
Here are five takeaways.
1. Democrats are using Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani to push back on timeline critiques.
Republicans' strongest case on impeachment is not on substance - the facts as we know them largely bear out the allegations against Trump - but on the impeachment process as conducted by the Democrats.
While this impeachment timeline is in line with the time it took the House to impeach Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon, Democrats are plowing through detailed, sometimes tangled allegations dealing with foreign diplomacy and multiple government agencies rather quickly. Last week, on Tuesday afternoon, we got a 300-page report of what Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee thought Trump did wrong. The House Judiciary Committee held its first hearing about articles of impeachment Wednesday morning.
Democrats appear to recognize that the timeline is a point of contention, so they are starting to talk more about why they are in a rush. What they say is, essentially: Yeah, we're moving fast, but it's because we have to. Trump asked a foreign government to interfere in our election by investigating Democrats, and that election is less than a year away.
"The integrity of our next election is at stake. Nothing could be more urgent," said Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y.
Ukraine did not follow through on investigations that Trump wanted of the Bidens and Democrats, to our knowledge. But Democrats' point is boosted by Giuliani. Last week, he met with officials in Ukraine, and The Washington Post reported Sunday that he has or has had his hand in other countries, too - despite having no official government role.
"If you do not believe he won't do it again, let me remind you that the president's personal lawyer spent last week in Ukraine meeting with government officials in an apparent attempt to gin up the same so-called favors that brought us here today and forced Congress to consider the impeachment of a sitting president," Nadler said. "This pattern of conduct represents a continuing risk to the country."
And here's Barry Berke, the committee's Democratic lawyer, who presented evidence: "Our imagination is the only limit to what President Trump may do next and what a future president may do next to abuse his or her power to serve his own personal interests over the nation's interests."
2. Democrats are arguing that the case against Trump is unassailable - even without top witnesses.
Democrats have built a case against Trump from testimony of national security officials and diplomats who thought he wanted to extract political investigations from Ukraine in exchange for military aid and an Oval Office meeting, but they have yet to pin down whether Trump himself explicitly ordered the quid pro quo.
People who might be able to shed light on those conversations are in Trump's inner circle and have avoided talking to Congress.
But Democrats have said they won't wait months for courts to decide whether people such as former national security adviser John Bolton or acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney will testify about what they heard Trump say about Ukraine, so they are moving on with what they have.
That forces Democrats to make two sometimes at-odds arguments that could make their way into articles of impeachment: (1) that the president has obstructed the inquiry by not allowing witnesses and documents; and (2) that the president clearly was behind the pressure campaign into Ukraine.
They tried to weave those two together like this:
"This scheme by President Trump was so brazen, so clear, supported by documents and actions and sworn testimony and contemporaneous records, that it's hard to imagine that anybody could dispute those acts, let alone argue that that conduct does not constitute an impeachable offense or offenses," Berke said.
And later: "The reason we have not heard from all the witnesses or documents is because President Trump himself has obstructed the investigation."
3. Republicans sidestep substance to argue about the process.
Republicans' beef with how Democrats are impeaching Trump took a new and heated turn: the call records that Democrats obtained and revealed last week showing Giuliani called key members of the Trump administration, the White House, a Republican lawmaker and possibly the president himself as Ukraine negotiations were ramping up.
Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., alleged that Democrats were trying to smear a Republican lawmaker whose name turned up in the net of call records, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif. "It was a drive-by - it was a gratuitous drive-by," he said, frustrated Democrats chose to include names to the phone numbers they got.
That is the top Republican on the impeachment committee choosing to use his precious time not to defend the president's Ukraine policy, but to try to undermine what Democrats are doing.
When Republicans' counsel Stephen Castor did talk about substance, he didn't have a lot to work with:
- To defend Trump, he lifted up a conspiracy theory that Ukraine meddled in the election.
- He tried to argue that all Democrats have on Trump is a July 25 phone call transcript, when in reality Trump's point person on Ukraine testified there was a quid pro quo.
- He incredulously argued that when Trump asked Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate the Biden family on that call, it wasn't about the 2020 election - despite the fact numerous witnesses testified that the call is when it clicked for them Trump wanted Ukraine to announce political investigations.
- Finally, in the most bizarre line of attack against the Democrats, Castor argued, at least implicitly, that the Trump administration was not with it enough to corrupt foreign policy. "They'll try to convince you that the Trump administration, the same administration Democrats regularly accuse of being incompetent, orchestrated an international conspiracy at the highest level," he said.
4. The GOP engaged in a lot of interruptions.
Why weren't the staff committee lawyers sworn in? How could a witness say something that impugns Trump's reputation? Why won't Nadler let Republicans hold their own hearing?
The Republican points of order came over and over and over in the hearing. It was confusing to have a witness, Berke, suddenly become the questioner, which Republicans objected to.
But many of their other points of order were not even germane to the testimony. A Republican lawmaker even accused Democrats of badgering the witness as Democrats were fact-checking Castor during the questioning round.
But that didn't matter to Republicans. To the extent that they can make this hearing look hopelessly political, it helps them undermine the whole process. And their interruptions with points of order got even more frequent as the questioning began.
Republicans are deliberately feeding into Americans' skepticism, even cynicism, about Congress and lawmakers' motives. They know Democrats have a potential perception issue with impeachment, and to this end, Republicans are hammering away on this point: The Democrats have made no secret about their dislike of Trump, and now they're impeaching him.
"The steamroll continues," the top Republican on the committee, Rep. Douglas Collins of Georgia, muttered into the mic as Nadler moved on to recognize a witness.
5. Republicans want to talk about Joe Biden much more than Trump.
As Senate Republicans debate including former vice president Joe Biden or his son, Hunter, in an impeachment trial, Trump's allies in the House tried to make Biden a bigger character.
They played clips of Hunter Biden's ABC interview where he said it was "poor judgment" to serve on the board of a Ukrainian energy company while his dad was doing diplomacy in Ukraine. And they accused Joe Biden of lying about his work in Ukraine on behalf of the United States.
There's no evidence Biden did anything improper when he threatened to withhold money to Ukraine to get them to fire their special prosecutor in 2015, but to the extent Republicans can muddy the water on whose being investigated, the better for them.
This article was written by Amber Phillips, a reporter for The Washington Post.