House Democrats’ hopes for a short and focused impeachment inquiry against President Trump are being put to the test by a string of new leads that could lengthen their investigation, as well as by some moderate Democrats who remain skeptical about whether the case has been made for impeachment.
Three weeks into their inquiry, Democrats have managed to break down the White House’s attempt to block them from hearing from several current and former administration witnesses. Those officials have provided details on the way the White House sidelined career diplomats in Ukraine in an attempt to install loyalists to lead U.S. foreign policy there, often in ways that would benefit Trump politically.
The very fact that government officials are willing to defy the White House directive and testify has some Democrats grappling now with the idea that the impeachment-related House committees may need to continue gathering evidence for several weeks, and that a House floor vote by Thanksgiving — once viewed by some rank-and-file lawmakers as an unofficial goal — is a long shot. The question they’re asking themselves is, when is enough enough?
“Everyone that I talk to would like this to be done in 2019,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), a member of the House Judiciary Committee, which would have to write and approve articles of impeachment. “The problem is that the president is a one-man crime wave and he has generated a number of arguably impeachable offenses, and we have a responsibility” to address them, Raskin said.
The depositions have also raised new questions for investigators and drawn in other administration officials and Trump associates, including former national security advisor John Bolton, acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and Trump lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani.
Mulvaney on Thursday confirmed that Trump withheld aid from Ukraine partially to motivate the country’s leaders to investigate Democrats. The startling statement, issued in the White House briefing room, cuts to the heart of the impeachment inquiry.
“There are a lot of witnesses to talk to and a lot of documents to look at. I just think we have to surface as much evidence as possible as quickly as possible,” said Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee. “We have to do this expeditiously, but at the same time it has to be a thorough job.”
It’s created a dilemma for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), who has always voiced caution about proceeding with impeachment and has never publicly committed to a firm timetable on the investigation. Initially some Democrats wanted to focus narrowly on Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in which Trump pressed Zelensky to investigate Trump’s political opponents. At the time of the call, Trump was withholding much-needed aid to Ukraine and resisting Zelensky’s attempts to have an in-person meeting with Trump.
Democrats’ thinking was that a quick impeachment based on what some viewed as clear abuse of presidential power might be easier for moderate Democrats to join and would avoid a long, divisive process that might overshadow the 2020 presidential race.
A lengthy inquiry is also troubling to some Democrats who want to ensure that the House doesn’t become consumed by the impeachment inquiry and has plenty of time for legislation, such as lowering the cost of prescription drugs.
But as additional evidence emerges that Trump used the State Department and American diplomacy for his political gain, Democrats must now decide whether to allow Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), who is leading the inquiry in the House Intelligence Committee, to follow the growing number of threads, even if that takes more time. Uncovering additional misconduct could bolster Americans’ approval of the process, and polls suggest support is already growing.
But it also gives Republicans more time to attack the inquiry’s credibility and reverse momentum by accusing Democrats of launching a fishing expedition to damage Trump. And a long, drawn-out impeachment process could backfire if Americans become fatigued.
Democrats may have another motivation to slow down: convincing more moderate members that impeachment is warranted.
Full details of the committees’ depositions remain confidential, even to many members of Congress outside the three key committees on intelligence, oversight and foreign affairs. But based on what is publicly known so far, a few moderate Democrats say they are nowhere near ready for a vote on articles of impeachment.
Those feelings came to a head in a closed-door meeting of House Democrats in the basement of the Capitol on Tuesday after lawmakers were away from Washington for two weeks. According to several people in the room, Schiff told lawmakers the most significant evidence for impeachment has already emerged: the White House’s memo of the call between Trump and Zelensky.
The remark concerned several centrist Democrats because they fear that the investigating committees — which have been working behind closed doors — have not uncovered any more powerful evidence, according to three Democrats who did not want to be named and have not been part of the depositions.
“It’s not enough,” one of the lawmakers said, though the person acknowledged not seeing all the evidence that exists.
Schiff’s point, he said in a brief interview, was that the “best evidence of what took place on that call is the call record itself. That call record is damning because it goes to the president’s conduct directly.” He declined to reveal specifics on what further evidence has been uncovered.
“That call is the Watergate tapes of the Ukraine investigation,” he said, referring to the secret Oval Office tapes that helped turned public perception against President Nixon. “There may very well be other things that are egregious and significant, but people shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that one of the most powerful and damning pieces of evidence has already come out.”
So far, Republicans have shown little to no appetite for the inquiry. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.), who did not support Trump in 2016, said the president has committed acts worth investigating, but she said Democrats have badly fumbled the process by conducting it behind closed doors.
“To me, you can’t mess around and do this in a partisan way,” she said. She tried to obtain a transcript of a deposition conducted last week as part of the inquiry and was denied. “So you’re going to put together articles of impeachment behind closed doors without allowing [the public] access to the information that causes you to bring those forward? That’s a goat rodeo. That’s an easy ‘no’ from me.”
Schiff has indicated that transcripts will be released with redactions for classified or sensitive information, but only at a time that won’t interrupt the investigation.
Democratic leaders have held close details of how many more subpoenas they may have issued or how many more depositions they hope to hold. They have released no specifics on when they might decide to end the investigation and make a potential referral to the House Judiciary Committee.
There are no outstanding public document demands or subpoena deadlines beyond Friday; however, many individuals have been mentioned as potential witnesses, including William B. Taylor Jr., one of the top American diplomats in Ukraine, who may appear Tuesday.
Pelosi and other Democratic leaders have not committed to a public timetable, only suggesting that they would prefer to finish before the end of the year and pledging to follow where the facts may lead. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said Tuesday that he hopes it is completed “sooner rather than later.”
“I hope,” he said, “no longer than months, and not a lot of months.”