The House’s inquiry into whether President Trump should be impeached moves into a new phase this week with a significant — and in our view overdue — vote on a proposed set of rules for what Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the “ongoing, existing” investigation. Will congressional Republicans, who called for such a vote, now engage with the impeachment process seriously and stop serving as apologists and enablers for Trump? So far, the answer appears to be no.
The announcement of a floor vote, expected to take place Thursday, comes as witnesses continue to provide House investigators with damning context for the July 25 telephone call in which Trump pressed Ukraine’s president to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden.
Although the depositions have been taken behind closed doors, some of the witnesses’ opening statements have become public. They strongly support the notion that Trump’s conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was part of a larger effort by the Trump administration to link nearly $400 million in security aid for Ukraine to a demand for an investigation into Trump’s political rivals. On Tuesday, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, an Army officer who served on the National Security Council staff, told investigators that he twice conveyed his concerns about what he considered an improper demand that Ukraine investigate Biden and his son Hunter.
These damaging details are not the figment of Democrats’ partisan imagination, and they raise serious questions about whether Trump abused his office to such an extent that he should be impeached. That is probably why the White House and Republicans in Congress have fixated on what they say is the illegitimate process by which the Democratic-controlled House is scrutinizing those allegations, rather than on the troubling substance of the accusations against Trump.
But after initially resisting, Speaker Nancy Pelosi rightly has come around to the idea that the full House should vote on the next phase of the impeachment inquiry. Such a vote isn’t required by the Constitution, but it will put a majority of the chamber on record about the importance of the inquiry as it enters a new phase. It also may give the public more confidence in the probe by giving it the imprimatur of the House as a whole.
The resolution unveiled Tuesday addresses another Republican concern as well: the fact that depositions have been taken in private. The resolution calls for the House Intelligence Committee to release the transcripts of the depositions and to conduct future hearings in public. Those hearings are likely to include return visits by some of the witnesses already questioned in private.
Democrats initially argued that closed depositions made it easier to gather information expeditiously and prevent witnesses from coordinating their testimony. But at some point the public must have access to transcripts and be able to observe major witnesses being questioned in public; that will allow people to judge the witnesses for themselves, rather than relying on leaks and comments by partisan House members.
In a nod to previous impeachment inquiries, the draft resolution also would give Republicans on the House intelligence and judiciary committees the power to issue subpoenas, with the consent of the relevant committee’s chairman or a majority of its members. It also says that the House Judiciary Committee, which would decide on whether to recommend articles of impeachment to the full House for a vote, would “allow for the participation of the president and his counsel” — addressing another GOP complaint.
No matter what the resolution says, Trump can be expected to continue to rant about a “witch hunt” and a supposed Democratic attempt to overturn the results of the 2016 election. (If that was the Democrats’ intention, they’re waiting until the end of Trump’s term to act on it.)
The question is whether Republicans in Congress are capable of acting as independent investigators. For now, there is little evidence that they are willing to engage with the process other than to exploit it to push White House talking points.
For example, instead of taking satisfaction from the Democrats’ decision to hold a floor vote, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy suggested that the decision invalidates any progress the inquiry has made so far. McCarthy said it was impossible to “put the genie back in the bottle.” That’s also the administration’s line. On Tuesday White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham said that the resolution “confirms that House Democrats’ impeachment has been an illegitimate sham from the start.”
Republicans asked for a floor vote and procedures to guarantee the fairness of the impeachment process. Now they seem to be refusing to take yes for an answer or to recognize that the allegations against Trump are serious and deserve bipartisan scrutiny. That position will please Trump and his base, but history may render a harsher judgment.