World / Politics

Trump impeachment inquiry at a crossroads: Keep going or time to vote?

by Lisa Mascaro and Mary Clare Jalonick

AP

They have heard enough. With stunning testimony largely complete, the U.S. House of Representatives, Senate and the president are swiftly moving on to next steps in the historic impeachment inquiry of Donald Trump.

“Frankly, I want a trial,” Trump declared Friday, and it looks like he is going to get it.

Democratic House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff’s staff and others are compiling the panel’s findings. By early December, the Judiciary Committee is expected to launch its own high-wire hearings to consider articles of impeachment and a formal recommendation of charges.

A vote by the full House could come by Christmas. A Senate trial would follow in 2020.

Congress’ impeachment inquiry, only the fourth in U.S. history, has stitched together what Democrats argue is a relatively simple narrative, of the president leveraging the office for personal political gain, despite Republicans’ assertions that it is complex, contradictory and unsupported by firsthand testimony.

House Democrats may yet call additional witnesses first, notably John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser. But Senate Republicans are already looking ahead to their turn: the January trial that would follow House approval of impeachment charges.

Should they try to dispatch with such a trial in short order? They may not have the votes, despite holding 53 seats in the 100-member Senate. Or should they stretch it out? This could disrupt the Democrats’ presidential primaries if it helps more than hurts the GOP and Trump.

At this point it seems very unlikely the 45th president will be removed from office. And he knows it.

“The Republican Party has never been more unified,” Trump declared on Friday, calling in to the appropriately named “Fox & Friends” to talk about his achievements for nearly an hour. The Democrats haven’t got anything to impeach him on, he claimed, and if the House proceeds their work will come crashing down in the Senate.

He wants that trial, he said.

It all stems from Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukraine’s newly elected president. In it, Trump asked Volodymyr Zelenskiy for “a favor,” which involved investigating Democrat Joe Biden and a theory — debunked by U.S. intelligence — that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. In return, Democrats say, it was made clear to Zelenskiy by others that he would get a coveted White House visit. And at the same time, Trump was holding up $400 million in military aid the Eastern European ally relies on to counter Russian aggression at its border.

For Democrats, it amounts to nothing short of a quid pro quo “bribery,” spelled out in the Constitution as grounds for impeachment. They say they don’t need Bolton or anyone else to further a case they contend was well established by the White House’s rough transcript of the phone call — the transcript Trump himself implores America to read.

“We Democrats are tired of a president who is willing to put his own personal interests above the Constitution,” said Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Judiciary Committee member. “I don’t think we should be waiting.”

Trump insists he did nothing wrong and Friday revived the Ukraine interference idea, which he relied on to push investigations of Biden’s son Hunter, who served on the board of a gas company in Ukraine. Trump’s former security aide Fiona Hill warned Republicans in Thursday’s hearing that it is a “false narrative ” dangerous for the U.S. and playing into Russia’s hands.

Now Trump ally Lindsey Graham, a senator from South Carolina, has asked the State Department for documents on the Bidens and Burisma, the gas company.

The Judiciary Committee chairman and other senators met with White House Counsel Pat Cipollone as Republicans consider Trump’s rebuttal to whatever impeachment articles may arrive from the House.

Another Republican senator, Ted Cruz, said on “The Ben Shapiro Show” that if the White House wants to call Hunter Biden as a witness or the anonymous government whistleblower who alerted Congress to concerns about the phone call, “I think they should be allowed to call them.”

Despite Trump’s denials, Schiff says the testimony in the hearings has largely confirmed the accusations against the president.

“What have we learned through these depositions and through the testimony?” Schiff said as he gaveled the final session closed late Thursday. “So much of this is undisputed.”

Bolton hasn’t been questioned. Other testimony has him fuming at the White House over what he called the “drug deal” Trump’s team was “cooking up” over Ukraine.

Bolton said he didn’t want to have any part of it and left his post in September, not long after the whistleblower filed the complaint.

A former United Nations ambassador, Bolton declined a request to appear before Schiff’s committee, standing by the White House’s instructions not to comply with the probe. But he suddenly resurfaced Friday on Twitter.

He said the White House had blocked and “never returned access to my Twitter.”

A senior Trump official said the White House did no such thing and wouldn’t even have the means to do so.

There is also Rudy Giuliani, the president’s lawyer, who witnesses put at the center of it all, fueling the theory of Ukraine’s role in election interference and enlisting diplomats like Ambassador Gordon Sondland to push the Ukrainians to announce the investigations.

Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said this past week that no decisions have been made on further hearings.

“As I said to the president, if you have any information that is exculpatory, please bring it forth, because it seems that the facts are uncontested as to what happened,” she said.

In the Senate, much of the next steps will depend on Trump, whose shifting views have forced GOP senators to readjust their own. They left the White House meeting without consensus but plan to meet again, according to a person familiar with the session.