It all comes down to this.
House Democrats charging ahead with their impeachment investigation will hit a critical juncture this week, throwing the process into the public spotlight as they fight to convince voters of a verdict they themselves have all but ratified: that President Trump abused the office and should be sent packing.
The shift is a pivotal development in the seven-week-old investigation, one bearing enormous stakes for a Congress and country bitterly divided along partisan lines, while ensuring — even more than before — that the 2020 elections will be a referendum on the mercurial figure in the Oval Office.
Since Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) formally launched the impeachment inquiry on Sept. 24, Democrats have kept their investigation largely from the public eye, interviewing more than a dozen diplomats and national security officials — obscure figures, to the name — in a secluded meeting room of the Capitol, three stories below ground, where even lawmakers must check their cellphones at the door.
That will change on Wednesday, when Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, will launch a Phase 2 of public hearings into Trump’s dealings with Ukraine, featuring a pair of witnesses embroiled in the administration’s campaign to pressure foreign leaders in Kiev to find dirt on Trump’s political opponents at home.
William Taylor, the chargé d’affaires to Ukraine, and George Kent, another top State Department official overseeing Kiev, had both testified last month behind closed doors, delivering damning assertions that Trump and his allies had politicized U.S. policy in Ukraine at the expense of national security.
A third witness, Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who was abruptly removed from the post in May, is scheduled to testify Friday. She, too, had previously relayed deep concerns that Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani was conducting a shadow foreign policy in Kiev to advance Trump’s political interests at risk of empowering Russia’s hand in the region.
The investigation is historic: these will be the first public presidential impeachment hearings in more than 20 years.
Trump is just the fourth president to be subject to impeachment proceedings. And the hearings are a made-for-TV moment, one that’s sure to garner live blow-by-blow coverage from the major news networks — and provide voters for the first time with a clear window into deliberations that both parties, up to now, have said support their conflicting judgments about the propriety of Trump’s foreign pursuits.
The duration of the public stage remains unclear; Schiff has not said how many more hearings he’ll hold or when they’ll end. But both sides are digging in as Democrats appear increasingly hopeful they can wrap up their investigation — and potentially vote on impeachment articles — before year’s end.
That timeline is relatively short. Congress began televised public hearings on Watergate, for instance, 14 months before the House Judiciary Committee passed impeachment articles against President Nixon. And because impeachment is a political exercise, as much as a legal one, Democrats are effectively gambling that voters will quickly join their side once the TV footage starts rolling.
“The American public needs to understand we’re not dealing with a gray area here,” Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) said on CNN over the weekend. “This is a black-and-white violation of the Constitution.”
The impeachment inquiry was sparked by an anonymous whistleblower’s allegation that Trump had threatened national security by withholding U.S. military aid to Ukraine to press the country’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to open investigations into the 2016 elections and former Vice President Joe Biden.
For Trump, those investigations might have benefited him in two ways — both of them political. First, it would damage Biden, a leading presidential contender, amid Trump’s bid for reelection in 2020. And second, it would promote the theory that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that had interfered in the 2016 election, thereby casting new doubts on a central verdict of the Mueller report: that Moscow had meddled to help Trump get elected.
Republicans have dismissed the investigation, accusing Democrats of conducting a “witch hunt” designed to overturn a presidential election simply because they didn’t like the outcome. GOP leaders have repeatedly noted that the military aid was ultimately delivered even without Zelensky launching the investigations Trump sought, eradicating allegations of a quid pro quo.
“As we hear more testimony … it’s actually getting easier to defend the president from a standpoint there is no linkage between aid [and investigations],” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a staunch defender of Trump.
Democrats have reached different conclusions, pointing to mounting evidence — including witness testimony and the rough transcript of the July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelensky, released by the White House — which they say implicates Trump in a campaign to enlist a foreign leader to boost his reelection chances.
“He went on a telephone call with the president of Ukraine and said ‘I have a favor though’ and then proceeded to ask for an investigation of his rival,” Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), a member of the Intelligence Committee, said on ABC’s “This Week” Sunday. “This is a very strong case of bribery.”
To make that case, Democrats are leaning on accounts from a cadre of officials with long and distinguished careers in the foreign service, but no name recognition in the general public. Indeed, all the prominent Trump figures summoned by Democrats — Rick Perry, John Bolton, Mick Mulvaney — refused to appear, citing executive privilege. That blockade is sure to persist as the investigation goes public, as Trump and his allies — after blasting the closed-door phase as surreptitious — now say the process is too tainted to merit their participation.
“Why would we try to be complicit in an impeachment inquiry when we don’t know what it’s about?” asked White House counselor Kellyanne Conway.
Still, a long list of current and former administration officials have bucked the White House barricade to appear in private depositions, most of them under subpoena. And Schiff has declined to press the courts for the testimony of those refusing to cooperate — a significant tactical shift from House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler‘s (D-N.Y.) probe into Russia’s 2016 election interference, as outlined by the Mueller report.
In the Ukraine affair, Democrats think they have a cleaner narrative of Trump abusing power, one more easily digestible for the public — and with more power to sway independents and moderate Republicans.
“We’re not going to follow a rope-a-dope strategy where we have to wait months or even years to have people come in,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), a member of the Intelligence panel. “We have enough evidence here.”