Too little too late. That’s what Republicans are saying about Democrats’ decision to vote, probably Thursday, on how the Trump impeachment inquiry will look going forward.
But Democrats say this is a natural next step – moving from closed-door depositions of key witnesses to public hearings to make the case to the American people for President Donald Trump’s impeachment. So Democrats are going to outline the parameters of how to do that with a vote.
Overall, the resolution will give Republicans some leverage, but this is still a Democrat-driven process. Here’s what you need to know about it, from the process to the politics.
Q: Why are they having a vote, really?
A: It does seem that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, initially had no intention of doing this. There are no rules that say she has to hold a vote, and the inquiry has had success calling witnesses for weeks now, even though there wasn’t a vote formalizing it.
But House Democratic leadership felt the pressure of Republican claims that they weren’t being transparent. Not that Republicans’ attacks were all merited: Closed-door depositions are the norm in Congress when dealing with the executive branch. Even former Republican lawmaker Trey Gowdy, who led the 2016 investigation into Hillary Clinton and the 2012 Benghazi attack, said as much (while also vouching for some of Republicans’ complaints in this instance). You don’t want lawmakers performing for the camera, and you don’t want witnesses knowing what other witnesses know.
But Trump and the Republicans are relentless, and on this, effective, messengers. So, there will be a vote.
Q: What will the vote do?
A: It will authorize a resolution that sets up how public hearings will work. It’s expected to pass, since all but five House Democrats have said they support this impeachment inquiry.
Q: How will those hearings work?
A: According to the resolution, the House Intelligence Committee will hold public hearings. The timing isn’t specified in the resolution, but The Washington Post has reported those could get started by mid-November.
Chairman Adam Schiff, D-California, will get to call witnesses. The Post has reported that he is already considering the current acting ambassador to Ukraine, William B. Taylor, and the ousted one, Marie Yovanovitch, to testify again, this time in public. It’s a safe guess he would like the impeachment inquiry’s star witness so far, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, to also publicly testify about what he heard firsthand on Trump’s July call with Ukraine’s president.
Q: What can Republicans do in these hearings?
A: Democrats control the majority in the House and, thus, the Intelligence Committee and, thus, this process. But this resolution will set up some authority for Republicans, such as:
— However long Schiff gets to question witnesses (up to 45 minutes at a time, way more than the usual five minutes per member in a regular hearing), the top Republican on the committee gets the same amount of time. That’s Devin Nunes, R-California, who is a staunch Trump ally.
— Republicans can try to subpoena other witnesses and documents, but Democrats can vote those recommendations down with a committee vote.
The resolution also tries to lift the veil of what’s been happening behind closed doors for the past six weeks. Schiff can release any transcripts of the depositions he wants to. That means we’ll hear what people testified beyond their leaked opening statements. We’ll also get a better understanding of how serious Republicans on the three committees involved in these depositions are taking the investigation.
Finally, this resolution confirms that the Intelligence Committee will write a report about what it found. That report will go to the Judiciary Committee, which will use it to consider what articles of impeachment to write up against Trump.
Q: How will the Judiciary Committee write up articles of impeachment?
A: The Judiciary Committee can decide to hold hearings, too. These would probably be focused less on what people knew about Trump’s efforts to politicize Ukraine policy and more about why Trump deserves to be impeached. During these hearings, Republicans can also request or even subpoena witnesses, but they’ll be subject to a vote by a committee that Democrats control.
Throughout the process in the Judiciary Committee, Trump’s legal counsel can attend the hearings, ask questions of the witnesses, give written explanations, raise objections to some witnesses and ask Democrats to invite other witnesses. But this is all at the discretion of House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-New York. And as The Post’s Mike DeBonis reports, if Nadler deems Trump noncompliant with the subpoenas, the lawmaker can take away the president’s right to cross-examine witnesses and produce new evidence.
When that’s all done, “the Committee on the Judiciary shall report to the House of Representatives such resolutions, articles of impeachment, or other recommendations as it deems proper,” its rules read.
This is pretty standard stuff, as far as impeachment inquiries go. As Democrats noted in talking points, these are all rights that were afforded Presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton during their impeachment inquiries.
Q: What are Republicans saying about this resolution?
A: They’ve been trying to undermine the impeachment inquiry by arguing it’s not legitimate until they have a vote. Now that there will be a vote, Trump’s defenders are saying it doesn’t change the fact that Democrats are out to get Trump. “They can’t undo what they’ve done thus far,” Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, said.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said Wednesday that “it falls way short, way short” on protections for Trump, taking issue with the fact that Democrats have all the discretion on how and whether the president’s attorney can present competing evidence.
But it’s important to remember that much of Republicans’ criticism about the process being unfair is disingenuous. That’s because, as they surely know, the inquiry itself isn’t a trial. The trial happens in the Republican-controlled Senate, where McConnell is in charge, if and when Trump gets impeached by the House.