Updated at 12:24 p.m. ET
Democrats in the House are taking the next step toward impeachment on Monday with the presentation of what they call the evidence of President Trump’s improper conduct in the Ukraine affair.
“President Trump’s persistent and continuing effort to coerce a foreign country to help him cheat to win an election is a clear and present danger to our free and fair elections and to our national security,” said Daniel Goldman, the Democratic staff counsel who asked many of the questions during the House Intelligence Committee hearings.
Goldman, a former federal prosecutor for the Southern District of New York, presented evidence Democrats had gathered about what he called Trump’s “months-long scheme to solicit foreign help in his 2020 reelection campaign, withholding official acts from the government of Ukraine in order to coerce and secure political interference in our domestic affairs.”
Democrats said they believe the case for taking action is obvious.
“The evidence shows that Donald J. Trump, the president of the United States, has put himself before his country,” House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler of New York said in his opening statement. “He has violated his most basic responsibilities to the people. He has broken his oath.”
Republican ranking member Doug Collins of Georgia argued that Democrats are pursuing impeachment because of a “personal vendetta.”
“They can’t get over the fact that Donald J. Trump is president of the United States,” Collins said, “and they don’t think they have a candidate who can beat [him]. It’s all a show.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., confirmed on Thursday that she and her lieutenants have decided to draft articles of impeachment against President Trump. So now, the Judiciary Committee says it must first receive the Intelligence Committee’s report formally and then assess what charges to prefer.
Staff attorneys are telling members of the House Judiciary Committee about the conclusions reached by the earlier House Intelligence Committee on the Ukraine affair.
During the hearing, President Trump asked his Twitter followers to read the account of the phone call he had on July 25 with his Ukrainian counterpart. “Read the Transcripts!” he wrote.
But interpretation of a July 25 call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy is the key to whether what the president did was improper and impeachable.
During that call, according to a call summary released by the White House, Trump asked for a “favor, though” after Zelenskiy mentioned key weapons that Ukraine needs and has been using in its fight against Russia at its eastern border.
Trump proceeded to ask for help investigating two conspiracy theories — one about Ukraine’s involvement in the 2016 election (for which there is no evidence) and a conspiracy theory about former Vice President Joe Biden’s son Hunter’s role on the board of a Ukrainian energy company, Burisma.
Several witnesses, which included senior diplomats and national security officials, testified over the past few weeks that they thought the call was inappropriate, that the request was political and intended to help the president’s reelection and not about corruption writ large in Ukraine.
What’s more, the American public says that what the president did was wrong — 70% in the most recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll said it is not acceptable for a president to ask a foreign leader to investigate a political opponent.
The Trump administration was withholding a White House meeting and almost $400 million in military aid, while a pressure campaign was taking place, led by the president’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani. European Union Ambassador Gordon Sondland has been described as being part of the “Three Amigos” helping Giuliani. The other two were former Ambassador Kurt Volker and former Energy Secretary Rick Perry.
Sondland testified that there was a “quid pro quo” — at least for a White House meeting that Zelenskiy sought at the White House in exchange for a public announcement by Ukraine of the investigations. That White House meeting has never happened. The aid was eventually released, after a whistleblower complaint was made.
Sondland testified that he received no explicit direction that the aid was to be withheld and never received any reason as to why it was withheld.
Republican counsel Stephen Castor, who asked many of the questions during the Intelligence Committee hearings, questioned the strength of Sondland’s testimony. He said Sondland had “no firsthand knowledge” of a linkage directly to President Trump.
“He merely presumed there were preconditions,” Castor said.
Castor said Democrats are centering their evidence of wrongdoing on the call summary the White House released with Ukraine’s president. But, he contended, “it is not” evidence of of impeachable conduct. He also called Democrats’ reasoning “baloney.”
Castor was also critical of Democrats’ timeline for impeachment, calling it an “artificial and arbitrary” dealing. On the process, he accused Democrats of “fundamentally unfair” tactics, calling the impeachment inquiry a “rushed, take-it-or-leave-it approach.”
One of the potential articles of impeachment Democrats could bring against the president is obstruction of Congress. That centers on the number of witnesses and documents that have not been released from the Trump administration despite subpoenas for those witnesses and documents.
Castor argued, however, that the White House has cooperated with Congress on other investigations and blamed Democrats for not negotiating “in good faith” with the administration on this investigation.
On the substance, Castor argued that Democrats’ case lacks evidence. “Democrats do not have the proof,” Castor said. He also contended that the president was not exerting pressure or trying to investigate rivals to help himself, but merely that he was trying to move the country past “divisiveness.”
Under questioning, Castor later contended that Trump was “not asking for a personal favor” on the phone call with Zelenskiy. “He was speaking on behalf of the American people.”
Earlier, the committee heard from Barry Berke, counsel for the House Democrats. Berke recapped the evidence that has been presented over the past few weeks.
He noted that his son asked whether the president had to be a good person. He said he told him, no, the president didn’t have to be a good person, but he couldn’t serve his own personal interests at the expense of the people who elected him.
After Berke’s testimony, Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana objected to Berke’s language, saying, “The witness has used language which impugns the motive of the president and suggests that he’s disloyal to his country.”
Chairman Nadler rejected the objection, noting that rules of decorum of the House do not apply to witnesses and said, “None of us should find it surprising that we’re hearing testimony that’s critical of the president.”
One other event expected on Monday may not permit the Democrats to retain center stage. The Justice Department is set to release an inspector general’s report about the origins of the Russia investigation, one that could provide political ammunition for Republicans if it uncovers wrongdoing by officials or investigators.
The degree to which the report has the power to change the subject in Washington may be reflected in the hearing if lawmakers opt to discuss its findings as opposed to the formal itinerary.
Progress toward impeachment
Impeachment is a quasi-legal but mostly political process, the rough equivalent of a criminal indictment. This autumn the House has served in the roles of investigator, grand jury and prosecutor.
Having satisfied itself about the facts and the need for action, the Judiciary Committee now must decide which specific charges to make.
Nadler, D-N.Y., told NBC’s Meet The Press on Sunday that would happen soon.
“We’ll bring articles of impeachment presumably before the committee at some point later in the week,” he said.
Nadler insisted he was not ready to decide which articles to bring. He and other members have appeared torn about how broad to make their case: Should it focus strictly on the Intelligence Committee’s findings about the Ukraine affair?
Or should impeachment also reference the findings of, for example, former special counsel Robert Mueller, whose conclusions included what Democrats called obstruction of justice by Trump?
That’s one reason why the findings of the Justice Department inspector general report on Monday could be relevant. If the study documents wrongdoing that tarnishes Mueller’s findings, it could affect Democrats’ calculations.
Pelosi, Nadler and others have said the object of the Judiciary Committee’s process is to reach a proper conclusion. So the panel may convene another hearing this week after Monday’s session.
Minority objections persist
Republicans led by ranking member Collins have complained all along about the impeachment process and argue that the case about Ukraine not only is meritless, but that Nadler and Democrats have been reckless and sloppy.
The latest dispute is over what Republicans say is the hearing they are owed under the rules for the impeachment process agreed upon earlier this year. They believe they have the right to hear from their own witnesses, and Collins urged Nadler to cooperate before this process moves any further ahead.
“Considering the haste with which this sham impeachment has been conducted, it is imperative that you contact me or my office as soon as possible to consult on scheduling the requested minority hearing day,” Collins wrote. “The requested minority hearing day must take place before articles of impeachment are considered by the committee.”
Whether or not Nadler agrees, Democrats retain the majority on the Judiciary Committee, so he and they determine what actions they’ll take and when.
The panel could introduce, then amend or “mark up” articles of impeachment, then send them for a vote in the full House. If enough members support it, that would trigger a trial for Trump in the Senate.
Republicans control the upper chamber, and they’re expected to acquit Trump. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has said he’ll convene a trial as required under the Constitution but that he thinks it’s “inconceivable” that the needed 20 Republicans would break ranks to remove Trump.
Trump, for his own part, has said he hopes the House moves quickly to impeach him in order to set up a Senate trial that Republicans could use for their own political purposes.