House Democrats are moving aggressively to wrap up their historic, weeks-long investigation into President Trump before 2020, potentially setting up a climactic vote to impeach him just before Christmas.
The timeline has come into sharper focus as Democrats have made a series of critical moves signaling they are shutting down the closed-door fact-finding phase of the inquiry and shifting now to Phase 2: making the case for impeachment to the American public.
Congressional investigators, led by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), appear to have wrapped up the last of 15 private depositions of current and former Trump administration officials. This week they began publishing thousands of pages of transcripts from those interviews.
And next week, Democrats will launch the first public, televised hearings of their nearly seven-week-long impeachment inquiry, calling three career foreign service officials who have already testified that Trump, his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani and their allies were seeking a brazen quid pro quo with Ukraine.
“I think, without being hasty, again, but being expeditious and deliberative, that the House ought to set for themselves a target of having dealt with this in the Intelligence Committee and Foreign Affairs and Oversight and the Judiciary Committee and on the floor by Christmas,” Rep. Denny Heck (D-Wash.), a member of the Intelligence Committee, told CNN’s “The Situation Room” on Thursday night.
“That’s a tough schedule. But it’s a doable schedule, given where we’re at and all the work that’s been done thus far,” Heck said.
There are other signs that Democrats are charging toward a December floor vote to make Trump just the third president in U.S. history to be impeached.
Several top Trump officials who played pivotal roles in the administration’s dealings with Ukraine — including Energy Secretary Rick Perry and acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney — have defied subpoenas compelling them to testify behind closed doors, but Democrats have shown little appetite to resolve the matter in court.
After watching their Mueller and Russia probes get bogged down in never-ending court battles, Democrats appear to be moving on without testimony from those key witnesses rather than engage in another lengthy lawsuit against the administration.
“We’re not going to delay our work. That would merely allow these witnesses and the White House to succeed with their goal, which is to delay, deny, obstruct,” Schiff recently said.
If Democrats can stick to their aggressive timetable, they could be on track to reach the end of their impeachment inquiry in the days right before Christmas.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and other Democrats insist that they’ll take as long as the process requires, but many hope it can be wrapped up before the presidential campaign begins in earnest with the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 3.
To speed things along, Democrats have indicated their witness list for the public hearings will be limited. That means they will only bring in people who offered the most detailed or firsthand knowledge of events during earlier closed-door appearances.
“The Majority does not intend to request public testimony from every witness who previously testified in depositions or interviews as part of the impeachment inquiry,” Schiff wrote in a letter to Rep. Devin Nunes (Calif.), the top Republican on the Intelligence panel, offering the opportunity for the minority to request public witnesses. Democrats have veto power over any GOP requests.
The public hearings will start with a bang on Wednesday when Democrats call William Taylor, the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who testified it was his “clear understanding” that the administration was withholding nearly $400 million in military aid until Kiev opened investigations into Trump’s political opponents, including former Vice President Joe Biden.
George Kent, another top State Department official, also will appear before Congress that day.
Then on Friday, Marie Yovanovitch, the former ambassador to Ukraine who was recalled from her post due to perceived insufficient loyalty to Trump, will go before the cameras.
“Giuliani and his team were running a shadow operation of U.S. foreign policy. The real public servants of America were trying to dislodge corruption, and Giuliani and his team were trying to exploit corruption and deepen corruption,” Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), a member of the Oversight and Judiciary committees who has been attending the private depositions, told The Hill.
“The Ukraine shakedown was not some kind of aberration but rather the expression of the complete policy on the part of the president,” Raskin added. “The goal of public hearings is to situate the president’s potential high crimes and misdemeanors within a comprehensible history.”
Those three hearings will be followed by second week of public testimony before Congress adjourns for a weeklong break for the Thanksgiving holiday. Two National Security Council staffers, Fiona Hill and Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, are among those who could be called to testify then.
Sometime in early December, Schiff — along with the chairs of other two investigating committees — is expected to forward a report and recommendations for articles of impeachment to Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), who is in charge of the third phase of impeachment. The veteran lawmaker will be tasked with figuring out which articles get sent to the House floor for a vote.
Nadler also could hold public hearings, where the president and his counsel could be present, though it remains unclear whether the Judiciary panel plans to take those steps.
“It depends on, does the president or minority want to call witnesses who haven’t been fact witnesses, who haven’t been testified already. I don’t know that. … We’ll have to see,” Nadler said on MSNBC’s “All in with Chris Hayes.”
From there, the 41-member Judiciary Committee would draft articles of impeachment — likely focusing on things like abuse of power and obstruction of justice — and vote to send them to the House floor. Only then would all House lawmakers be able to vote on impeachment, potentially the week before Christmas.
From there the impeachment process would move over to the Senate, which under current rules would be required to conduct a trial that could take weeks to complete. Both parties have a political incentive for an expeditious trial that could arrive as soon as January: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) wants to quickly acquit Trump so Republicans can shift to other priorities like confirming judges; Democrats don’t want their 2020 presidential hopefuls, like Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), to get stuck in a lengthy, inside-the-Beltway impeachment trial.
One possible complication to the emerging timeline is the fact that lawmakers also need to figure out how to avoid another government shutdown amid the partisan acrimony.
Government funding expires on Nov. 21. But given the lack of progress on appropriations — despite a bipartisan budget deal struck in late July — congressional leaders are eyeing another stopgap measure to extend funding to sometime in December.
That means the House could be faced with an impeachment vote just as the threat of another holiday-season shutdown looms.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said in a letter to colleagues on Friday that he is “hopeful” lawmakers can fully fund the government before year’s end, even amid the impeachment fight.
“The House is continuing to do important work for the people, even as our committees continue the impeachment inquiry. We can, and we will, continue to make progress on critical issues while upholding our Constitutional duty,” Hoyer wrote.