WASHINGTON — House Democrats spent weeks presenting explosive testimony against President Trump on live television. And now, as the impeachment inquiry moves to its next phase, the question is whether they can turn those facts into a story that resonates with the American public.
The prime responsibility for that sales pitch shifts from House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) to House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.).
And while the two congressmen are on the same page about how alarming they found Trump’s actions toward Ukraine, they come at the inquiry with different stylistic approaches — and different roles.
Schiff’s job was to uncover Trump’s apparent attempts to extort politically motivated investigations from Ukraine. Nadler’s will be to convince the American public that Trump's actions warrant his removal.
The Judiciary Committee will take the handoff on Wednesday after the House Intelligence Committee releases its report Tuesday night. Here are four key questions as we enter the next phase of the impeachment process.
Can Nadler handle the spotlight?
Schiff earned praise from Democrats and grudging respect from Republicans for the way he handled his committee's high-profile impeachment hearings.
But Nadler’s style is a lot more professorial than the prosecutorial Schiff — and it hasn’t always worked well in public hearings.
Many Democrats felt Nadler was rolled by former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, who along with the committee’s GOP members turned his hearing into a circus.
And his committee’s much-ballyhooed deposition of Special Counsel Robert Mueller turned into a snoozefest that failed to damage Trump, though Democrats lay the blame largely on Mueller’s reluctance to engage them beyond his final report.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, left, and Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., conduct a news conference on the testimony of former special counsel Robert Mueller on his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election on Wednesday, July 24, 2019. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via AP Images)
Nadler has also struggled at times to clearly explain Democrats’ message, throughout these various and complicated investigative efforts into Trump’s White House.
Democrats defended their chairman — but admitted he’ll need to do better.
“Chairman Nadler will be stronger. He tried to be as fair as possible to Republicans during the Lewandowski and Mueller hearings, bent over backwards to give them every opportunity and rule in their favor. I don’t think he’ll be quite that lenient and tentative in his ruling this time,” said Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), a member of the Judiciary Committee. “He was trying to be fair, overly fair, and you can’t be fair with a crowd that doesn’t fight fair.”
Nadler announced the committee's first hearing will be with a quartet of constitutional law professors — not exactly a made-for-TV lineup. But the hearing’s format, with longer questioning periods for each side, will make it harder for Republicans to interrupt and derail the procedure like they did during Lewandowski’s visit on the Hill.
“He wants to get to the truth. The fireworks seem less important”
Perhaps most important of all, Nadler will play a key role in deciding what articles Democrats decide to actually impeach Trump on. Some on Judiciary want to include articles that address Trump’s self-enriching business deals, which they say violate the Emoluments Clause, as well as include an obstruction of justice charge based on the Mueller investigation. But moderates fear that might look too much like a political grab bag. How broad the committee decides to go could renew tensions between Nadler and Pelosi.
Linda Rosenthal, a New York state assemblywoman and former senior Nadler aide, said his staid style would help lend gravity in this high-profile setting. But she admitted it’s hard to predict how things will go with a GOP hellbent on derailing the process.
“He wants to get to the truth. The fireworks seem less important,” she said. “But it’s a new era in D.C. I can’t predict how it will go.”
Can Democrats break through with persuadable voters?
The Intelligence Committee’s witnesses delivered a number of bombshells during the pre-Thanksgiving public impeachment hearings. But they hardly seemed to make a dent in the polls.
Voters are closely divided on whether Trump should be removed from office, and polls have barely moved in the last month-plus on that question. Trump’s net approval rating in poll averages is also basically the same as it was when the impeachment process began, in late September.
“All of this has been an exercise in uncovering and exposing the truth and the president’s actions. We expect more of that”
Democrats argue they’ve been more focused on finding out what happened than selling impeachment to the public, and argue that once they lay out what Trump did and why it’s impeachable, voters will move their way.
“All of this has been an exercise in uncovering and exposing the truth and the president’s actions. We expect more of that,” one House Democratic leadership aide told VICE News. “We haven’t even had a conversation with the American people about accountability, so I’m not surprised that number hasn’t moved yet.”
Impeachment doesn’t appear to be hurting Democrats in the polls, and new facts could further shift the public against Trump. But if the facts of the case the Intelligence Committee laid out weren’t enough to move public opinion — a hard thing to accomplish in a hyper-polarized political environment — it’s hard to imagine what will.
How will Republicans defend Trump?
The GOP’s defense in the House Intelligence Committee seemed designed largely to please President Trump and his hard-line supporters. Ranking Member Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) did that by mostly ignoring the facts and peddling debunked conspiracy theories.
It appears that their Judiciary brethren will continue on that same path, attacking Democrats on process while spinning a false narrative about Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election.
Judiciary Ranking Member Doug Collins (R-Ga.), a Trump devotee, is already at it. He ripped Nadler for scheduling the first hearing so soon after the Intelligence Committee report is to be released, calling it “a problematic exercise and simply a made-for-TV event coming on Wednesday” and accusing Democrats of “hiding” the report until the last minute, while demanding that Schiff testify to Judiciary.
He'll have help from some House Intel overlapping members, including fire-breathing Reps. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and John Ratcliffe (R-Texas).
Will Democrats expand their scope or push to finish impeachment by the new year?
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and the relevant committee chairs haven’t committed to a firm timeline on impeachment, but the widely held assumption has been that Democrats plan to get impeachment over to the Senate before the holidays rather than wait weeks and possibly months to see if the courts give them a chance to grill other key witnesses with valuable information.
“We’re going to have a week [of committee hearings] this week and next week and then part of the week after on the [House] floor,” Cohen predicted.
Most House Democrats expect the same. And Democratic leaders aren’t dissuading them: Schiff called the evidence “conclusive” in a letter to House colleagues last week, while Pelosi said the House “cannot be at the mercy of the courts” in waiting for rulings that could compel more witnesses to testify.
But some Democrats have voiced concern they’re rushing things. They haven’t subpoenaed a number of key witnesses who they think won’t willingly participate, and there’s a case to be made that Democrats should wait to see whether former National Security Adviser John Bolton can be compelled by the courts to testify. Bolton was strongly critical of Trump’s actions and has hinted he has valuable information — but will only testify if the courts rule that he should.
Another wrinkle is Lev Parnas, a former business associate of Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer who helped lead the shady efforts in Ukraine. Parnas’ attorney has said he’s willing to testify, but there are complicating legal issues because of Parnas’s own trial. Democrats haven’t closed the door on bringing him in, but don’t seem inclined to wait for him to move forward with their investigation either.
The GOP’s star witness for the first Judiciary hearing has voiced similar concerns about the speed of the inquiry.
George Washington University Professor Jonathan Turley recently wrote that if House Democrats pushed through impeachment this month without more evidence “they would be presenting the thinnest record and fastest impeachment investigation in history,” and advised them to “reschedule, refrain and repeat” the entire impeachment process.
House Intelligence Committee Republicans meanwhile released their own report on the impeachment hearings, calling them “an orchestrated campaign to upend our political system.” Schiff fired back that Trump “undermined our national security and the integrity of our elections” with his actions towards Ukraine.
There’s no way House Democrats will go back to square one or wait for the spring to complete this process, like Turley has advised. But how fast they'll push this through is hardly certain.
Cover: U.S. President Donald Trump grimaces during a meeting with NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg at Winfield House in London, Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2019. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)