Democrats push impeachment to next phase with Dec. 4 hearing

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 13: U.S. President Donald Trump listens during a joint news conference with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the East Room of the White House on November 13, 2019 in Washington, DC. During their meeting, Trump and Erdogan were scheduled to discuss Turkey's purchase of a Russian air defense system as well as the Turkish offensive against the Kurds in Syria. Also in DC today, the first public impeachment hearings took place in the House Intelligence Committee, where Democrats are trying to build a case that President Trump committed extortion, bribery or coercion by trying to enlist Ukraine to investigate his political rival. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — The House Judiciary Committee is set to take over the impeachment probe of President Donald Trump, Democrats announced Tuesday, scheduling a hearing for next week as they push closer to a possible vote on actual charges of “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

The Judiciary panel scheduled the hearing as the separate Intelligence Committee released two last transcripts from its depositions, including from a White House budget official who detailed concerns among colleagues as President Trump ordered them, through intermediaries, to put a hold on military aid to Ukraine.

President Trump ordered the hold as he was pressuring Ukraine’s president to investigate Democrats — the issue at the heart of the impeachment probe.

The Intelligence Committee is wrapping up the investigative phase of the probe and preparing its report for the next.

The initial Judiciary hearing on Dec. 4 will feature legal experts who will examine questions of constitutional grounds as the panel decides whether to write articles of impeachment against President Trump — and if so what those articles will be.

Democrats are aiming for a final House vote by Christmas, which would set the stage for a likely Senate trial in January.

Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., said Tuesday that his panel’s hearing will “explore the framework put in place to respond to serious allegations of impeachable misconduct.”

President Trump and his lawyers are invited to attend the Judiciary hearing and make a request to question witnesses, according to Democratic rules approved by the House last month. The committee released a letter from Nadler to the president, saying that he hopes President Trump will participate, “consistent with the rules of decorum and with the solemn nature of the work before us.”

It’s unlikely that the president himself would attend, as President Trump is scheduled to be overseas on Dec. 4 for a summit with NATO allies outside London — a split-screen showing leadership that President Trump’s allies might find favorable. The Judiciary panel gave the White House until Sunday evening to decide whether President Trump or his lawyers would attend.

If Democrats stay on schedule, the committee will introduce articles of impeachment, debate them and then hold a vote, a process that could take several days. If charges are approved by the end of the second week of December, the House could hold a formal impeachment vote the third week of the month just before leaving for the holidays.

The charges are expected to mostly focus on Ukraine. Democrats are considering an overall “abuse of power” article against President Trump, which could be broken into categories such as bribery or extortion. That article would center on the Democrats’ assertion, based on witness testimony, that President Trump used his office to pressure Ukraine into politically motivated investigations.

Democrats are also expected to include an article on obstruction of Congress that outlines President Trump’s instructions to officials in his administration to defy subpoenas for documents or testimony.

Though several government officials called by Democrats cooperated with the committee, several key witnesses — including acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Energy Secretary Rick Perry and former National Security Adviser John Bolton — refused, following President Trump’s orders.

Lastly, Democrats could include an obstruction of justice article based on special counsel Robert Mueller’s report released earlier this year. Mueller said he could not exonerate President Trump on that point, essentially leaving the matter up to Congress.

When and if the House approves articles of impeachment, the Republican-controlled Senate would be expected to hold a trial in early 2020. Unless political dynamics change drastically, President Trump would have the backing of majority Republicans in that chamber and be acquitted.

It’s still unclear how long a trial might last, what it would look like and who might be called as witnesses.

While the matter remains in the House, Schiff said in a letter to his colleagues on Monday that his committee “will continue with our investigative work” and could still hold depositions or hearings. But Schiff said it would not prolong a fight to obtain documents or testimony in court.

“The president has accepted or enlisted foreign nations to interfere in our upcoming elections, including the next one,” Schiff said in the letter. “This is an urgent matter that cannot wait if we are to protect the nation’s security and the integrity of our elections.”

In a transcript of closed-door testimony released Tuesday, Office of Management and Budget official Mark Sandy told lawmakers that his office was notified as early as July 12 by the White House chief of staff’s office that President Trump was withholding the military aid. That was two weeks before President Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in a phone call to investigate Democrats.

Sandy testified that President Trump himself requested additional information about the aid on July 19 after seeing an unidentified “media report.” The office then started the official process of withholding the money on July 25, the day of the call between President Trump and Zelenskiy, Sandy said.

He said that he raised concerns about the legality of the holdup, but wasn’t given a reason until September when he was told that President Trump was concerned “about other countries not contributing more to Ukraine.”

The intelligence panel also released a transcript of the deposition of State Department official Philip Reeker, who detailed concerns about the removal of U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch.

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