WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump this week faces a dilemma central to the impeachment inquiry against him.
He could opt to have his legal team take part in the next phase, a move that some of the president’s backers warn would grant the impeachment proceedings greater legitimacy. Or the White House could continue to reject any involvement, potentially allowing key elements of a Democratic-crafted narrative of official misconduct by the president to go largely unchallenged.
An early indication of Trump’s leanings came Sunday evening, when the White House said it would not take part in the first public hearing this week by the House Judiciary Committee. In the longer term, whichever course the president chooses will carry risks for both sides in historic proceedings that have so far broken down almost exclusively along partisan lines.
Congressional investigators have been examining whether Trump abused his power by trying to strong-arm the neophyte president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, into announcing investigations meant to damage Joe Biden, a potential 2020 challenger, and to undermine the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia interfered in the 2016 election.
Now, as lawmakers return from their Thanksgiving recess, the inquiry will pivot to weighing potential articles of impeachment against Trump. If the process moves on to a vote by the full House of Representatives, he could ultimately find himself only the third U.S. president ever to be impeached.
At incendiary campaign-style rallies across the country, Trump has repeatedly railed against the impeachment proceedings as a sham, a hoax and a witch hunt. A typical scenario unfolded at a rally last week in Sunrise, Fla., when he basked in crowd chants of an expletive he used to characterize the House probe, and accused “radical Democrats” of trying to overturn the last election.
Back in Washington, the House Intelligence Committee in recent weeks has heard from a dozen fact witnesses, all current or previous Trump administration officials, about the irregular foreign-policy channel set up by Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, and the unexplained holdup of $400 million in security aid to help Kyiv in its war with Russian-backed fighters in eastern Ukraine, Europe’s only active battlefront.
On Tuesday, the Intelligence panel, which has taken the lead in impeachment proceedings so far, is set to vote on a formal report, also including evidence gathered by the Foreign Affairs and Oversight committees.
The focus is then expected to shift to the House Judiciary Committee, which will craft and consider specific grounds for impeachment, a process somewhat akin to a prosecutor deciding to bring criminal charges.
Lawmakers at the first of those hearings, likely Wednesday, are expected to hear from legal and constitutional experts on the impeachment process.
White House counsel Pat Cipollone on Sunday evening ruled out participating in the first hearing, citing the fact that witnesses had not yet been named. But he did not rule out future participation. That, a White House statement said, would depend on whether “the Judiciary Committee will afford the president a fair process.” Among other things, the White House wants assurances that Republicans will be able to call witnesses without interference from Democrats.
The panel’s chairman, Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, set a deadline of Friday evening for the administration to say whether it would take part in more substantive hearings expected the following week.
In appearances on Sunday’s major news-talk shows, the president’s supporters continued to maintain he has engaged in no wrongdoing, while Democrats challenged them anew to provide evidence of his innocence. The White House has blocked the testimony of senior aides and refused to hand over requested documents relating to the probe, and Trump’s congressional supporters have said little about the substance of the allegations against him.
Appearing on ABC’s “This Week,” Rep. Val Demings, a Florida Democrat who sits on both the Intelligence and Judiciary committees, urged the president to put forth any exculpatory evidence.
“We are certainly hoping the president, his counsel, will take advantage of that opportunity,” Demings said. “If he hasn’t done anything wrong, we are certainly anxious to hear his explanation of that.”
Demings, a former police chief in Orlando, Fla., scoffed at the idea — frequently put forth by Trump’s defenders — that the eventual release of the crucial military assistance left Trump in the clear over allegations he pressured Zelenskiy to start investigations that would personally benefit Trump in return for the aid. A botched bank robbery or an unsuccessful burglary are still crimes, she said.
“The fact that the president got caught in the act does not relieve him of being held accountable,” she said.
Rep. Tom McClintock, appearing on the same program, said it would be “to the president’s advantage” to have his lawyers take part in this week’s Judiciary Committee proceedings. But the California Republican, who sits on the Judiciary Committee, added: “I can also understand how he is upset at the illegitimate process that we saw unfold” in Intelligence Committee hearings.
In those sessions, the Republican minority was allowed to pose questions and request witnesses, though not all were approved by the committee’s Democratic chairman, Rep. Adam Schiff of California. The head of the Democratic caucus, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, said on “Fox News Sunday” that relevant knowledge of facts surrounding Trump’s conduct on Ukraine would be the determining factor in whether witnesses would be summoned.
Republicans have demanded that figures such as Biden’s son Hunter Biden, who formerly sat on the board of a Ukrainian energy company, be called to testify. Trump’s backers, without offering any evidence, have accused the former vice president of pushing for the firing of an ex-Ukrainian prosecutor to protect his son. But U.S. partners such as the European Union and the International Monetary Fund also sought the dismissal of the prosecutor in question, saying he impeded anti-corruption efforts.
Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, signaled that the GOP would continue to use demands for particular witnesses to try to attack the integrity of the process. He said Schiff himself should be called to testify before the panel.
If the Democrats decline to call Schiff, Collins said on “Fox News Sunday,” then “I really question his veracity in what he’s putting in his report.”
Republicans also continued to press the idea that Trump was being vilified for a nontraditional communication style rather than for any actual wrongdoing.
In the now-famous July 25 call with Zelenskiy — in which a White House-released call record has the U.S. leader asking his Ukrainian counterpart to “do us a favor, though” — McClintock said Trump was merely talking like the brash Manhattan real estate developer he once was, rather than using the “delicate language of diplomacy.”
It will be up to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to make the final call on any articles of impeachment. The California Democrat has repeatedly said no one is above the law, but she also urged fellow lawmakers to bear in mind the extreme gravity of impeaching a president.
If the Democratic-controlled House votes to impeach, the proceedings would move to the Senate, where the Republicans hold a majority, for a trial to determine whether Trump should be convicted and removed as president.