WASHINGTON — Republicans and Democrats clashed during the weekend over who the GOP wants to testify during open hearings that begin this week in the House impeachment inquiry.
Among the most controversial in the Republicans’ request submitted Saturday are Hunter Biden, the son of Joe Biden who is seeking the Democratic nomination for president in 2020, and the anonymous whistleblower, whose complaint is central to the inquiry.
But Democrats decide who will testify, under a resolution laying out how public phase of the inquiry will proceed.
The GOP request comes three days before an impeachment inquiry goes public after weeks of closed-door hearings where House Democrats and Republicans deposed more than a dozen diplomats and White House officials about President Donald Trump’s dealings with Ukraine.
Transcripts of some of the private depositions released last week piece together a narrative of alarmed diplomatic and national security officials alleging the president and his deputies were planning to withhold military aid to Ukraine unless its government agreed to investigate a Trump political rival. The government eventually provided the aid.
The hearings will give Americans a face and voice to a storyline that has developed over the past month from news reports based on leaked statements and bits and pieces of testimony. With cameras rolling, committee members will question witnesses not for new information but to convince Americans that their president should be impeached or didn’t do anything worthy of that penalty, observers said.
“Democrats want clarity and Republicans want confusion,” said BYU law professor Frederick Gedicks, summing up the strategies of both sides. Gedicks is among 300 legal scholars who signed an open letter to Congress last month, explaining the House impeachment inquiry is legitimate and legal under the Constitution.
But Republican Rep. Chris Stewart, of Utah, who sits on the House Intelligence Committee that is leading the inquiry and is among Republicans calling the process unfair, said the minority party hopes it can call and question witnesses to reveal all sides of the story.
“We think that the other side of the story hasn’t been told and some of these witnesses that we want to call have a very different view of this,” he said Friday, the day before Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., ranking Republican on the Intelligence committee, submitted the GOP’s list of requested witnesses to committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif.
The inquiry is centered on a whistleblower complaint about a July 25 phone conversation between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. The White House’s rough transcript of the call shows Trump asking for a “favor” — an investigation of political rival Joe Biden and his family. And transcripts released last week of the closed-door depositions describe the involvement of Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and White House Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney working outside normal State Department channels to pressure Ukraine into investigating Joe Biden and his son and alleged foreign meddling in 2016 presidential election in exchange for military aid and a coveted White House visit by Zelensky. Republicans and Democrats disagree on the meaning of these interpretations.
Democrats allege that Trump abused his office by withholding the military aid and dangling the White House visit as a quid pro quo that would benefit him politically. White House refusals to comply with committee subpoenas could also result in articles of impeachment alleging obstruction of Congress.
The letter Nunes sent to Schiff lists more than 8 witnesses Republicans want to testify. In addition to Biden and the whistleblower, Nunes asks for Devon Archer, a former business partner of Hunter Biden, Nellie Ohr of Fusion GPS, which commissioned a dossier in the 2016 election that linked Russia and Trump; and Alexandra Chalupa, a Ukrainian American who worked with the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 election.
Witnesses who have already testified in closed-door hearings and Nunes asked to return are US special envoy for Ukraine Kurt Volker, Under Secretary of State for political affairs David Hale and Tim Morrison, the National Security Council’s senior adviser on Russia and Europe.
Where are we now?
Since the impeachment inquiry was launched Sept. 24, the House Intelligence Committee has questioned 14 diplomats and White House officials behind closed doors, gathering facts from those familiar with Trump’s dealings with Ukraine. In late October, the House passed on a largely party line vote a resolution outlining how the public phase of the inquiry would unfold.
On Wednesday, the Intelligence Committee will begin a streamlined version of its exhaustive depositions, questioning only a select few of those who have already testified. Democrats on the committee signaled it was doubtful those on the GOP list, who have not already testified, would appear during the public hearings.
Schiff said Saturday he won’t let the hearings serve as a vehicle to conduct “sham investigations” into the Bidens or the 2016 election. Nor will he let the hearings aid Trump’s “effort to threaten, intimate and retaliate against the whistleblower.”
But Schiff’s committee won’t make the final call on whether articles of impeachment should be drawn up against the president. That’s the House Judiciary Committee’s call. That panel will begin another round of open hearings after it receives a report findings and recommendations from Schiff.
The stakes get higher and the drama could ratchet up in the Judiciary Committee, where it will be the first time the president and his legal counsel can participate in the process. CNN reported that Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., could submit articles of impeachment to the House by mid-December for a vote before the end of the year.
If the House elects to impeach, the Senate would hold a trial soon after on whether to remove the president from office.
Republicans have complained since the inquiry was launched that the process has been flawed, unfair and goes against past precedents set by the impeachment process with presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. But Democrats disagree and experts in congressional procedure say there is no set process as each impeachment has been unique.
“Some things are different, but overall, the process that was laid out in the resolution that they passed (Oct. 31) looks remarkably similar to how things were done in the past,” said James Curry, a political science professor at the University of Utah. He explained that the resolution authorizing Democrats to reject Republican requests to subpoena witnesses follows general House rules that have evolved over the past 40 years through both parties.
“Opportunities for opponents to use procedural tactics to obstruct have largely been taken away because over the course of the 1980s, ‘90s and into the 2000s, you saw more and more opponents using every parliamentary trick they had not to actually leverage the legislative process into some sort of outcome, but to simply obstruct the legislative process,” he said.
There is one unique twist to the Trump impeachment process. Democrats on the Judiciary Committee changed rules to deny specific requests by Trump representatives if the White House continued refusing to provide documents or witnesses sought by Democratic investigators.
“It is important to stress that this threat applies to noncompliance with any of the multiple House investigations continuing to date, not just those directly related to the Ukraine matter,” said Casey Burgat, a senior fellow at R Street Institute with expertise in legislative procedure.
What to watch
The two days of testimony kick off with the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, William Taylor, who some observers believe gave the most detailed and damning testimony against Trump during his closed-door deposition.
“This is the crucial time for Democrats to build political support, or at least to open some minds throughout the country about President Trump’s actions with respect to Ukraine, so I would expect the Democrats to put on their most compelling, articulate witnesses first,” said Gedicks.
After Taylor, Democrats will call George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasia, and Marie Yovanovitch, who was allegedly pushed out as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine by Giuliani and Trump.
According to transcripts of their closed-door testimony, the trio gave accounts consistent with the whistleblower complaint of Giuliani, with White House’s support, “circumventing official channels and bewildering professional diplomats as he pressured Ukraine to target Trump’s political opponents,” Politico reported.
The White House released its transcript of the call and most of the corroborating details have dribbled out through news reports of the closed-door hearings and now the released transcripts.
“This is not fact finding. This is not members learning new things,” Curry said. “This is members putting on a public show where different sides are trying to make a case.”
Democrats will be questioning to elicit a clear, simple story of the president abusing his office for personal gain and obstructing Congress’ efforts to get to the bottom of it, said Burgat.
Hampered by rules that limit who they can call as witnesses, the best Republicans can hope for is to “muddy the waters,” Gedicks said, through complaining about process, probing witnesses for any political bias and emphasizing the president’s conduct falls short of impeachable offenses.
The public conversation
The GOP-controlled Senate is not expected to remove Trump from office even if the House votes to impeach. But there is another jury the House committees will be hoping to win over: American voters.
A recent average of polls by the analytics website FiveThirtyEight, shows 51% of Americans supporting the impeachment inquiry and 47.2% support removing Trump from office with 45% not supporting that. Support for impeachment has gradually increased since spring, when it was 37% and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was reluctant to launch an inquiry because of weak support among the public and her own caucus. But there are still risks for Democrats to pursue impeachment.
“The risk is if what is presented publicly is so underwhelming that ... opinion toward impeachment goes against the Democrats” at the beginning of the 2020 election cycle, said Curry.
Trump has predicted the inquiry would backfire on Democrats by energizing his base of support. The Associated Press reported over the weekend that the president’s reelection campaign is using the impeachment proceedings to rile up his supporters. But if last week’s off-year elections in Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and other states are an indication, Trump’s campaign has work to do.
“Republicans have been trying to say that impeachment is an overreach by Democrats and that people are frustrated by impeachment in some way, but we don’t see a lot of evidence of that,” said Chris Karpowitz, co-director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at BYU.
He noted last week’s off-year elections where Democrats scored victories in Trump strongholds. And the Kentucky gubernatorial race, where Trump personally told voters the result would be a reflection of him, remains undecided with Democrat Andy Beshear ahead by more than 5,000 votes awaiting a recount.
Although the public hearings showcasing the highly partisan climate in Washington are not likely to reveal anything new to a voting public that is equally divided over impeachment, involving them in the process is not a cynical exercise, Curry said.
“There’s the vast majority of the American public that doesn’t pay that much attention to these things most of the time, and now they’ll find more exposure to this, which is ultimately good,” he sad. “If you’re going to impeach a president there should be a broader public conversation about it before votes are taken.”