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House Judiciary panel debates Trump’s conduct as it moves toward approval of articles of impeachment

  • Author: John Wagner, Colby Itkowitz, The Washington Post
  • Updated: December 12, 2019
  • Published December 12, 2019

WASHINGTON - Democrats and Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee engaged in a rancorous debate over President Donald Trump's conduct regarding Ukraine on Thursday as they moved toward approval of two articles of impeachment alleging abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.

At the heart of the Democrats' case is the allegation that Trump tried to leverage a White House meeting and military aid, sought by Ukraine to combat Russian military aggression, to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to launch an investigation of former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden, as well as a probe of an unfounded theory that Kyiv conspired with Democrats to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.

A Republican amendment to strike the article on abuse of power was defeated 23-17 after nearly three hours of debate. On Thursday afternoon, by a 23-17 vote along party lines, the committee rejected an amendment proposed by a Republican that would have added the name of Hunter Biden to the articles of impeachment.

There were several nasty moments throughout the day.

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., took a direct shot at Trump, whom he said "attacks everybody who won't bend the knee." Jeffries said his Republican colleagues appeared more focused on attacking the Bidens rather than discussing the allegations against Trump. He implored them to stay on task.

Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., argued that impeaching Trump for obstruction of Congress doesn't make sense because Republican lawmakers were "sent here to obstruct this Congress." While praising Trump's policies, he also chastised the deal Democrats made with the White House to provide all federal employees paid family leave for three months.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., pushed back on Buck, calling it "terrible ignorance" to suggest that obstruction is a good thing.

"Whether you think Congress is behaving well or badly, whether it's popular or unpopular, if you want a dictator, then you subvert the ability of Congress to hold the executive in check," Nadler said. "What is central here is do we want a dictator? No matter how popular he may be, no matter how good or bad the results of his policies may be. No president is supposed to be a dictator in the United States."

Nearly every lawmaker on the 41-member panel took the opportunity to speak, using motions to "strike the last word" to gain recognition from the chair.

Trump is just the fourth president in U.S. history to face the prospect of impeachment for alleged misconduct in office.

Congress has impeached only two presidents: Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998. President Richard Nixon resigned in 1974 before the House could vote on articles of impeachment in the Watergate scandal. Lawmakers drafted three articles against Nixon, including charges of "high crimes and misdemeanors" that mirror the abuse-of-power and obstruction allegations Trump now faces.

Shortly after Thursday's hearing convened at 9 a.m., Madeline Strasser, the Judiciary Committee's chief clerk, read in full the nine-page resolution that includes the two articles of impeachment.

It concludes that Trump "has demonstrated that he will remain a threat to the Constitution if allowed to remain in office, and has acted in a manner grossly incompatible with self-governance and the rule of law."

“President Trump thus warrants impeachment and trial, removal from office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any office of honor, trust, or profit under the United States,” the resolution says.

Soon after, Republicans on the committee launched their first procedural attack at the impeachment markup by protesting Nadler's refusal to respond to a request for a minority hearing day on impeachment.

The top Republican on the panel, Rep. Douglas Collins of Georgia, asked the majority on Dec. 4 to schedule a hearing for them to call their own witnesses on behalf of Trump, citing House rules allowing for the minority to have such events on major issues.

"The House rule does not require me to schedule a hearing on a particular day," Nadler, D-N.Y. said at Thursday's hearing. "Nor does it require me to schedule the hearing as a condition precedent to taking any specific legislative action. Otherwise, the minority would have the ability to delay or block majority legislative action, which is clearly not the purpose of the rule."

Collins blasted Democrats for trampling minority rights: "Minority rights are dead in this committee."

Democrats are confident they have the votes to approve both articles, setting up votes by the full House next week before the holiday break.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has said a trial would begin in his chamber in early January. He met Thursday with Eric Ueland, Trump's legislative affairs director.

The White House will be "cooperative and very collaborative" as the Senate moves to a trial, Ueland said after leaving McConnell's office.

"We're having good close communication and conversation with Senate Republicans in the event the house goes ahead and actually produces articles of impeachment," Ueland said. "We're going to continue to work closely with Senate Republicans as well as other members of Congress on the questions and we'll continue to be very cooperative and very collaborative with our friends up here on the Hill as we work through this process."

Ueland, who visited Capitol Hill with White House counsel Pat Cipollone, wouldn't respond to specific questions about process or whether the White House would want Senate GOP to call witnesses.

"I think the president's been pretty clear on priorities that he'd laid out when it comes to this, but while we focus on the questions of how best to deal with the process in the Senate, we're also focused on substantive results on the president's agenda on the American people," Ueland said.

Senate Republicans are coalescing around a strategy of holding a short impeachment trial early next year that would include no witnesses. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., signaled Thursday that he would support a short impeachment trial in the Senate.

"If it goes over to the Senate, I don't think it should have to last too long," McCarthy said at his weekly news conference.

But such a plan could clash with Trump's desire to stage a public defense of his actions toward Ukraine that would include testimony the White House believes would damage its political rivals.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., showed no concern Thursday about the prospect of Democratic defections when impeachment comes to the House floor for a vote next week.

"This is a vote that people are going to have to come to their own conclusions on," she said at a weekly news conference. "People will vote the way they vote."

Two Democrats opposed an Oct. 31 resolution setting rules for the impeachment inquiry: Reps. Collin Peterson of Minnesota and Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey. Democratic aides believe a handful more may follow on the actual impeachment vote but nowhere near enough to imperil passage of the two articles.

During Thursday's House Judiciary Committee meeting, moderate Democrats voiced support for the articles of impeachment.

Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., said in a statement Thursday that he would support both articles of impeachment, noting that Trump's actions regarding Ukraine "were illegal and he obstructed justice by refusing to cooperate with Congressional investigations."

Trump returned to Twitter early Thursday morning to push back on Democratic efforts to impeach him. In one tweet, he said that new polls show most Americans oppose impeachment, attributing that information to the Fox News show "Fox & Friends."

Some polls in recent days have showed a slim majority opposed to removing Trump from office, but others have showed slightly more Americans in favor of removing than keeping him.

Trump weighed in deliberations again later in the morning, resurrecting a claim that military aid to Ukraine was withheld in part to try to get other nations to contribute a greater share.

"I also have constantly asked, 'Why aren't Germany, France and other European countries helping Ukraine more?'" Trump tweeted. "They are the biggest beneficiaries. Why is it always the good ol' United States? The Radical Left, Do Nothing Democrats, never mention this at their phony hearing!"

U.S. aid to Ukraine resumed without a change in levels of aid from those countries.

The president and first lady Melania Trump are scheduled to host an annual congressional ball at the White House on Thursday night.

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The Washington Post’s Rachael Bade, Mike DeBonis, Karoun Demirjian, Seung Min Kim and Elise Viebeck contributed to this report.