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Sidelined for months, judiciary panel will reclaim Trump impeachment drive it once led

After being unceremoniously sidelined for two months, the judiciary panel is poised to retake the national stage this week to swiftly draft and debate articles of impeachment and almost certainly vote to make Trump only the third president in history to be impeached.

By: New York Times | Published: December 2, 2019 11:21:00 am
trump impeachment hearing, us judiciary panel, jerrold nadler, us president trump, Judiciary Committee, 2020 presidential elections, world news, indian express Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), the ranking member on the House Judiciary Committee, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Sept. 17, 2019. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

Written by Nicholas Fandos

This spring, as President Donald Trump defiantly rejected congressional attempts to investigate his conduct and policies, Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, asked his Democratic colleagues on his famously voluble panel a loaded question: When all is said and done, given the facts before us, are we heading toward impeaching this president?

The answer came back mixed, said people familiar with the private discussion in an office building across from the Capitol, with many of the panel’s progressive firebrands saying impeachment was inevitable, while some of its more senior members held back, wary of embracing a process likely to unleash forces well beyond their control.

Half a year later, after several twists and turns and the near-death of the prospect of impeaching Trump in the House, the answer to Nadler’s question has become clear, even as the divisions that were evident on that spring day remain.

After being unceremoniously sidelined for two months while the Intelligence Committee assembled a case that the president pressured Ukraine to help him in the 2020 election, the judiciary panel is poised to retake the national stage this week to swiftly draft and debate articles of impeachment and almost certainly vote to make Trump only the third president in history to be impeached.

“News of the Judiciary Committee’s demise has been greatly exaggerated,” said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, a top Democratic leader and member of the panel.

The panel, the arbiter of presidential impeachment proceedings past, will be thrust once again into the center of the maelstrom its Democratic members have been contemplating for months, to lead what is likely to be a raucous and messy process of formally charging the president with high crimes and misdemeanors.

On Sunday night, in a five-page letter packed with complaints about what he called an “unfair process,” Pat A. Cipollone, the White House counsel, notified Nadler that Trump did not as of now plan to participate in the judiciary panel’s first hearing Wednesday, with an as-yet-unnamed group of constitutional scholars who are expected to testify about what defines an impeachable offense. But Cipollone said Trump’s team reserved the right to do so once more information about the hearing became available, and might consider taking part in future Judiciary Committee proceedings, “if you afford the administration the ability to do so meaningfully.”

Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic leaders have conspicuously avoided locking in a timeline for the inquiry, but privately they are said to be aiming for a full House vote on impeachment articles before the Christmas recess, barring unexpected developments. That would leave the Judiciary Committee with as little as two weeks to do its work.

The first milestone will come in the form of a written report from the Intelligence Committee, which is to be made available to members Monday in advance of its approval Tuesday. The handoff of the report, which will most likely form much of the basis for articles of impeachment against Trump, will be a stylistic and substantive turning point for the inquiry that will almost certainly inflame a debate that has already roiled Congress and divided the country. “Even at this late date,” Cipollone wrote Sunday, “it is not yet clear whether you will afford the president at least these basic, fundamental rights, or continue to deny them.”

Nadler, in consultation with Pelosi and his members, will have to decide how to handle requests like Cipollone’s, weighing a desire to demonstrate fairness to Trump against a determination to maintain forward momentum in the proceedings. It is one of the many delicate tasks, fraught with political risks and legal intricacies, that have fallen to the judiciary panel as the impeachment inquiry enters a critical phase.

Large, disorderly and stacked with some of Congress’ most outspoken progressives and conservatives, the Judiciary Committee is the polar opposite of the small and staid intelligence panel, where rules drafted to facilitate the handling of government secrets allowed Democrats to tightly control every aspect of the impeachment inquiry.

The Judiciary rules, instead, are fundamentally democratic, intended to provide wide latitude for divisive debates over the nation’s most pressing policy issues, many of them cultural hot-buttons that fuel each party’s activist base. Barring some momentous new evidence, not a single lawmaker on either side is expected to budge.

And while the Intelligence Committee conducted much of its investigative work behind closed doors, the judiciary panel will work entirely in the public glare.

The stakes are high. For party leaders, who have warily eyed recent national polling that shows public opinion essentially unmoved by weeks of fact-finding laying out how Trump twisted the foreign policy process to meet his own domestic political interests, the debate offers perhaps a final chance to move independent voters behind them before putting Trump on trial in the Senate.

Democrats, led by Nadler, intend to try to rein in their more fiery progressives and infuse the proceedings with gravitas, mindful of their role in history. But the freewheeling nature of the panel, with its hyperpartisan members, does not easily lend itself to that task. And their handling of the report by Robert Mueller, the special counsel who investigated Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and the Trump campaign, earned Nadler and his committee a reputation for being unable to fully control its own proceedings.

Republicans instead want to mire Democrats in a sloppy fight, making the hearings into such a confusing mishmash of competing information that even Republicans troubled by Trump’s actions see no upside in breaking with him. They plan to take advantage of early impeachment advocacy by Nadler and Democrats on the panel to portray the Ukraine matter as simply another attempt by Trump’s critics to take him down.

“Any article to come out of this? There is no world in which a Republican, especially on the Judiciary Committee, will accept this,” Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the panel’s top Republican, said in an interview. “We have seen this sideshow up close all year.”

Republicans have been quick to weaponize Nadler’s patience against him in the past, taking advantage of his reticence to simply gavel them into silence.

“We will bend over backward to be fair,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash. “Let’s see if he stands straight instead of standing corrupt. Let’s put the onus on the president to for once perhaps behave.”

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