Lawyers for President Donald Trump said they will not participate in the House Judiciary Committee’s first public hearing Wednesday as House Democrats prepare to shift the direction of the inquiry toward drafting articles of impeachment against the president. Here's why:
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., the chairman of the committee, had offered the president or his lawyers the opportunity to participate in the hearing as part of the impeachment inquiry, when a panel of legal experts will offer an assessment of whether Trump committed impeachable offenses.
“We’re certainly hoping that the president, his counsel, will take advantage of that opportunity if he has not done anything wrong,” said Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., a member of the Intelligence and Judiciary committees. Speaking on ABC’s “This Week” before the White House announcement, she added, “If he has not done anything wrong, we’re certainly anxious to hear his explanation of that.”
What it means
Wednesday’s hearing will be a milestone. It is expected to convene legal experts whose testimony, alongside the report from the Intelligence Committee, could lay the groundwork for possible articles of impeachment, which the panel is expected to draw up soon.
Democrats are focused on whether Trump abused his office by withholding military aid approved by Congress and a White House meeting as he pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to launch investigations into Trump’s political rivals. The report also is expected to include evidence of possible obstruction of Congress by Trump’s instructions that officials in his administration defy subpoenas for documents or testimony.
White House response
Trump maintains he did nothing wrong and along the way has sought to block witnesses and documents. His lawyers had privately questioned whether to participate in the Wednesday hearing, as the president and his allies continue to call the proceedings “deranged” and a “witch hunt.”
People familiar with the president’s legal strategy have said privately that his lawyers are deeply suspicious of taking part in a process they view as unfair to Trump.
Late Sunday, White House counsel Pat Cipollone denounced the “baseless and highly partisan inquiry.” In a letter to Nadler, he also declined the invitation for the president’s counsel to appear before his panel Wednesday.
Cipollone, in continuing the West Wing’s attack on the House process, said the proceeding “violates all past historical precedent, basic due process rights, and fundamental fairness.” Trump himself was scheduled to attend a summit with NATO allies outside London on Wednesday.
“We cannot fairly be expected to participate in a hearing while the witnesses are yet to be named and while it remains unclear whether the Judiciary Committee will afford the president a fair process through additional hearings.” — White House counsel Pat Cipollone
“We cannot fairly be expected to participate in a hearing while the witnesses are yet to be named and while it remains unclear whether the Judiciary Committee will afford the president a fair process through additional hearings,” Cipollone wrote. “Under the current circumstances, we do not intend to participate in your Wednesday hearing.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Monday it’s “very unfortunate” the Judiciary Committee is holding its hearing at the same time that Trump is representing the U.S. at the NATO summit.
"I regret that they've chosen to hold these hearings at the same time that the president and our entire national security team will be traveling to Europe, to London, to work on these important matters," Pompeo said.
On Friday, Nadler informed the administration the president and his lawyers had a week to tell the committee whether they would call witnesses or present evidence as part of their defense against possible impeachment articles stemming from allegations that Trump pressured Ukraine to help him in his reelection campaign.
Where Republicans stand
Republicans want Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the chairman of the Intelligence Committee and the lead Democrat overseeing last month’s public testimony to testify before the Judiciary Committee, though they have no power to compel him to do so, as they joined the White House effort to try to cast the Democratic-led inquiry as skewed against the Republican president.
Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., a Judiciary Committee member, said on on ABC’s “This Week” that he believes Trump would benefit if he presents his own defense. McClintock said he doesn’t believe Trump did anything wrong in the July 25 call with Zelensky that is at the heart of the investigation.
“He didn’t use the delicate language of diplomacy in that conversation, that’s true. He also doesn’t use the smarmy talk of politicians,” McClintock said.
To McClintock, Trump was using “the blunt talk of a Manhattan businessman” and “was entirely within his constitutional authority” in his dealings with Ukraine’s leader.
The Georgia angle
A number of Trump’s allies appeared on television shows Sunday morning to aggressively condemn the impeachment process outlined by the House.
Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, questioned why the White House would want to participate in “just another rerun.”
"It’s easy to hide behind a report," Collins said. "But it’s going to be another thing to actually get up and have to answer questions.”
Collins called the hearing Wednesday “a complete American waste of time.” He wanted the witness list expanded to include those suggested by Republicans. “This is why this is a problematic exercise and simply a made-for-TV event coming on Wednesday.”
“We’ve already had constitutional scholars in the committee talking about — from the Mueller report and others, is there an impeachable offense?” he said on “Fox News Sunday.”
Collins renewed demands for Schiff to testify. (It is unlikely that Schiff will do so.)
“It’s an internal kind of time frame to try and finish this out by the end of the year because they want to get at this president right now before everybody completely sees through the process sham of the elections for next year,” Collins said. “We’re rushing this.”
The House impeachment report on Trump is being unveiled Monday behind closed doors for key lawmakers as Democrats push ahead with the inquiry despite the White House’s declaration it will not participate in the first Judiciary Committee hearing.
The House Intelligence Committee is expected to approve a written report of its findings in its investigation of Trump’s dealings with Ukraine on Tuesday, after which the focus of the impeachment proceedings will shift to Nadler’s panel.
The Democratic majority on the House Intelligence Committee says the report, compiled after weeks of testimony, will speak for itself in laying out what Schiff called the evidence of “wrongdoing and misconduct” by the Republican president over his actions toward Ukraine. It was being made available for committee members to review ahead of a vote Tuesday to send it to the Judiciary Committee for Wednesday’s hearing.
“If you are serious about conducting a fair process going forward, and in order to protect the rights and privileges of the President, we may consider participating in future Judiciary Committee proceedings if you afford the Administration the ability to do so meaningfully” — White House counsel Pat Cipollone, in a Sunday letter
Cipollone’s letter applied only to the Wednesday hearing, and he demanded more information from Democrats on how they intended to conduct further hearings before Trump would decide whether to participate in them. House rules provide the president and his attorneys the right to cross-examine witnesses and review evidence before the committee, but little ability to bring forward witnesses of their own.
“If you are serious about conducting a fair process going forward, and in order to protect the rights and privileges of the President, we may consider participating in future Judiciary Committee proceedings if you afford the Administration the ability to do so meaningfully,” Cipollone said in the Sunday letter.
Democrats are aiming for a final House vote by Christmas, which would set the stage for a likely Senate trial in January.
— Information from The New York Times and The Associated Press was used to complete this report. Compiled by ArLuther Lee / The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
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