WASHINGTON, D.C.—Last week, for only the fourth time in its history, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to formally consider the impeachment of a president. This will move the process out of confidential depositions into public hearings in the coming weeks, and move the nation closer to the possibility of seeing President Donald Trump removed from office.
As Columbia University legislation professor Richard Briffault noted, there aren’t many precedents for how an impeachment inquiry might proceed — and “each one is unique” — but there are some things that can be expected in the next stage of the process.
Less leaked secret testimony, more televised hearings
In the weeks since the investigation into the whistleblower complaint about the president began, a news rhythm has developed of closed hearings followed by leaked statements and excerpts of testimony. After the House vote late last week, that has already begun to change, as full transcripts of some of the depositions that were taken in those earlier hearings were released Monday and Tuesday.
Sometime in the next few weeks, the public hearings will begin, with many of the same witnesses appearing before Congress for televised questioning.
As summarized nicely by Brookings think tank fellows Molly Reynolds and Margaret Taylor last week, the procedural rules allow the chair of the House Intelligence Committee and his Republican counterpart 45 minutes each of questioning at the beginning of each witness’s testimony. This will allow them to dig in deeper than the standard committee questioning to pursue a line of examination, as lawyers do in court.
Adam Schiff, the intelligence committee chair, is an experienced prosecutor, so we may see him display his skills as a trial lawyer. We might also see hired guns do the heavy lifting — the rules allow both sides to delegate their questioning to staff lawyers.
A narrowing focus
Even as the hearings proceed, the various House committees that have been investigating the actions of the president will continue their work, Reynolds and Taylor write.
Yale University law professor Howard Koh says he expects them to narrow their focus onto the Ukraine matter — but just how narrow remains an open question.
“They’re using the Nixon impeachment as the template, which had three counts: abuse of power, obstruction of justice and contempt of Congress — contempt of Congress being he refused to obey subpoenas,” Koh said. “They’ve got a fair amount on obstruction of justice and a fair amount on contempt of Congress. On the abuse of power issue, the big question is going to be how broad or narrow do they want to go.”
They could focus in on the phone call with the Ukrainian president that prompted the whistleblower complaint, which keeps things easily understood. “The problem is, that’s not the strongest case, because what’s been emerging with people like (Ukraine envoy) Bill Taylor, is that it was actually a trade of aid. So it’s not just the White House visit, it’s $400 million” of military aid that had been approved by Congress before being held up by the president. This points, he says, to a parallel private foreign policy being run by Rudy Giuliani on behalf of the president, which is more clearly the sort of impeachable offence envisioned by the framers of the Constitution.
In theory, the House could present dozens of articles of impeachment, Briffault said, but he also expects it to focus on just a few. “Certainly the Ukraine intervention will be front and centre.”
An uncertain but still compressed timeline
“No one knows how long this is going to last, so let’s say several weeks,” Briffault said. “I mean, probably more than two.”
Koh noted that there is a built-in deadline. “I think they’ve got about 100 days to get this done, since that’s the start of the (presidential election) primaries. I think it’s possible that it could go into February.”
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One eye on public opinion
Briffault emphasized that while impeachment is a legal process set out in the U.S. Constitution, it is conducted by politicians. “They do have their constitutional duties, but they also have, obviously, their political concerns,” he said, meaning that how the public reacts to the hearings could influence the outcome.
“They are going to cast their votes based on what they believe is their constitutional obligation, but it does have to be legitimate in the eyes of the public, too,” he said. “I mean, it is a kind of a momentous thing.”