WASHINGTON — President Trump’s impeachment inquiry has already stoked boisterous scenes of partisan showboating, and it’s not even public yet. Now, Democrats are putting forward a plan to keep chaos to a minimum when the process eventually goes public.
Democrats unveiled rules for the House impeachment inquiry that put the House Intelligence Committee in the driver’s seat. They hope this process will help them make a clear, public case that Trump abused his office by pressuring Ukraine to investigate his political enemies.
To that end, they’re allowing for witnesses to be questioned by dedicated House attorneys first, before the members of Congress jump in. And while these new rules give House Republicans the right to subpoena their own witnesses, any GOP subpoena will have to get the House intel committee’s Democratic chairman’s approval.
"If they want to make it into a goat rodeo, we’re not going to give them the rope to do that”
Those terms are meant to limit the ability of the GOP to pull the proceedings away from Trump’s attempt to pressure Ukraine and tilt the focus onto tangential narratives that might be more politically beneficial to Trump — such as an examination of Joe Biden’s son Hunter’s business activities in Ukraine.
"If they want to make it into a goat rodeo, we’re not going to give them the rope to do that,” Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), a member of House Democratic leadership, told VICE News shortly before the rules package was released. “We’re going to keep this focused on what this should be focused on.”
Trick or Tradition?
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), one of Trump’s most vocal defenders in Congress, slammed the new rules as “a joke,” and accused Democrats of bad faith.
“They’ve had this make-it-up-as-you-go-along process that denies us all kinds of rights,” Jordan said. “They kind of put a bow on it and called it a resolution.”
But historians and experts on past impeachment fights told VICE News that the rules Democrats proposed appear steeped in impeachment tradition. The effective veto by the majority over subpoena requests from the minority party, for example, reflects similar arrangements during the impeachment proceedings of both former presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton.
“The Nixon rules for the Judiciary Committee provided the same basic process” for issuing subpoenas, said Frank Bowman, author of High Crimes and Misdemeanors: A History of Impeachment for the Age of Trump.
If the Democratic chair vetoes a Republican subpoena request, the GOP ranking member could theoretically override the veto with a majority vote by the committee — though that would require Democratic defections to Trump’s team.
Congressional experts who spoke with VICE News hailed another new provision: Staff-led questioning.
House hearings traditionally give each member a five-minute window to ask questions — leading to complaints of grand-standing, lengthy questions, and disjointed rounds of dialogue that leave plenty of room for clever witnesses to avoid answering questions altogether.
But Trump’s impeachment hearings, like those of Nixon and Clinton, will put members of Congress in the back seat.
Staff attorneys for either party will kick off witness interviews with uninterrupted, alternating 45-minute blocks of interrogation, before turning the session back over to the career politicians for their five minutes of questioning.
“This is critical,” said Nick Akerman, a member of the Nixon-era Watergate prosecution team. “Otherwise, it gets totally disjointed and meaningless.”
House Republicans aren't convinced, however. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.), a vocal Trump defender who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters that the new rules were too little, too late.
“It doesn’t say anything about the minority party being guaranteed that we’ll be able to call witnesses,” he said. “It’s a missed opportunity. A resolution, drafted correctly, should have been done weeks ago.”
But Democrats argue there’s just no pleasing Republicans aimed at sticking by Trump through thick and thin.
“There’s pretty good evidence that these guys don’t care about any of the facts,” Rep. Kildee said. “They can’t even accept as a fact something that the president has already acknowledged. So the idea that suddenly we're going to turn the keys over to them — they're not in the majority. We are."
Cover: Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, right, accompanied by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., left, speaks about the House impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)