Divided House Backs Impeachment Push Against Trump

House members vote on the House resolution to move forward with procedures for the next phase of the impeachment inquiry into President Trump in the House Chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington on Thursday. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

WASHINGTON (CN) – The House of Representatives brought President Donald Trump one step closer to facing impeachment Thursday as lawmakers voted 232-196, split on party lines, in favor of a resolution that outlines precisely how the impeachment inquiry will unfold in the coming weeks and months.

Just the last 37 days have seen a litany of depositions take place behind closed doors at a rapid clip as lawmakers on the House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight Committees interviewed one Trump administration official after the other about the president’s July 25 phone call with Ukraine President Volodomyr Zelensky.

For Democrats who will have a hard fight to move articles of impeachment from the House and to the Senate, transparency and accountability now are key.

“I support this resolution because it’s indefensible that any official demand of an ally, and one depending on our support in an existential struggle with Russia, to investigate his political adversaries,” House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler said during debate on the House floor Thursday. “No person, Republican or Democrat should be permitted to jeopardize American’s security and reputation for self-serving purposes.”

Representative Tom Cole, the ranking Republican on the House Rules Committee, blasted Democrats as unfair to the president and motivated by a wish to take due process out of the inquiry. 

“This Congress should have the right to review the records that are produced but the majority rejected that,” the Oklahoma congressman said. “We offered an amendment with rules that would allow for the participation of the president and his counsel on matters by the Intelligence, Oversight and Foreign Affairs committees, but the majority rejected that.”

No transcript of the July 25 call has been made public and to date the White House has only released a summary. But testimony from officials with firsthand knowledge of the call, like Lieutenant Colonel Alex Vindman, did little to help the president’s defense that the call with Zelensky was “perfect” and never featured a threat to withhold military aid lest Ukraine launch a probe into former Vice President Joe Biden, Biden’s son Hunter and Burisma Holdings, the Ukrainian energy firm where Hunter formerly served as a board member.

Vindman, the top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council, told lawmakers the ellipses in the White House summary of the transcript left out mentions of the Bidens and Burisma. That testimony also traced the cover-up all the way up to one of the White House’s own lawyers, John Eisenberg, according to reports published late Wednesday, citing sources familiar with the confidential hearing.

Eisenberg is said to have gotten wind about the lieutenant colonel’s concerns about the call, then taken the transcript and housed it on a highly classified server where fewer people could access it. The lawyer is expected to be called for testimony on Nov. 4 but it is unclear if he will cooperate.

Vindman’s testimony only further whet the appetite for Thursday’s resolution among Democrats who say they are eager to outline the rules of the road for the inquiry as it transitions from a closed setting to an open one. Given the national-security implications of testimony, it is expected that some hearings will still be held behind closed doors.

Impeachment historically has been a function of the House Judiciary Committee, but Thursday’s resolution means the impeachment hearings will be led by the House Intelligence Committee and its chairman, Adam Schiff, a California Democrat. Democrats say this structure is appropriate since Schiff’s committee has purview over the intelligence community and since the whistleblower complaint that triggered the inquiry came to Schiff directly. As for blocking the amendment that would let Trump participate, Democrats say the man at the center of the investigation can’t have complete access to the body investigating him.

The House Foreign Affairs and House Oversight Committees will also continue to have a hand in the inquiry moving forward. So, too, will the House Ways and Means and House Financial Services committees, though their participation has drawn sharp rebuke from Republicans who argue Democrats are exploiting those committees’ powers, without need for their oversight, to obtain purportedly unrelated financial records from the president.

As the inquiry continues, Thursday’s resolution permits 45-minute rounds of questioning for Schiff and Representative Devin Nunes, the Republican Party’s ranking minority member on the House Intelligence Committee.

Lawmakers can pick staff members for questions. The ranking member has subpoena powers to invite witnesses for testimony, so long as he provides a detailed report on the relevance of any testimony he attempts to subpoena.

The committee would also have to take the ranking member’s request to a vote.

Schiff must issue a final report at the inquiry’s conclusion with recommendations before finally passing the baton to the House Judiciary Committee, the only committee in Congress with the authority to advance articles of impeachment to the Senate.

Representative Doug Collins, the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, railed during debates, his booming drawl echoing across the floor.

“This is a dark day, and a cloud has fallen on this House,” he said. “Democrats say these are the same rules as when Clinton or Nixon were impeached. There are some similarities — some better, some not — but they are not the same. The problem I have with the resolution is that it isn’t about transparency, it’s about control. … This committee has been here 200 years, and our committee has been neutered. We’ve been completely sidelined.”

While Collins and other Republicans accuse Democrats of underhandedness and of rewriting impeachment history, Ken Hughes, an expert on Watergate with the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, said Thursday that anyone who thinks closed-door sessions are unprecedented in the process is “just making history up.”

“Most of the evidence for Nixon’s impeachment was presented to the committee behind closed doors in executive session,” Hughes said. “The head of the inquiry, House Judiciary Committee chairman Peter Rodino, said secrecy was necessary to avoid prejudicing the rights of defendants in ongoing criminal trials related to Watergate and to avoid defaming the president and prejudicing his impeachment case and potential Senate trial.”

Hughes continued: “House Democrats not only gave Nixon the right to appear before the impeachment inquiry but reserved the right to subpoena him to testify. What’s different now is the lack of congressional Republican support for the impeachment inquiry. [In 1974,] the House voted 410-4, a big bipartisan majority, to authorize the impeachment inquiry to subpoena all evidence and all testimony, including the president’s.”

For now, House Republicans appear to be steadily echoing Trump’s cries that the inquiry is another “witch hunt” like Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe.

“People want to impeach him not because of high crimes and misdemeanors, but because they have always wanted to impeach him,” Republican Minority Whip Steve Scalise said Thursday.

Representative Eric Swalwell, a California Democrat, said the past month’s investigations tell another story.

“We’ve heard powerful, corroborating evidence that Trump led an extortion scheme … leveraging $391 million of taxpayer dollars to have a foreign power assist him in his future campaign,” Swalwell said during debates.

When Representative Jamie Raskin was asked Thursday if all Democrats backed the inquiry, he said he wasn’t sure but there was at least a mutual understanding.

“I think people understand that these rules are at least as fair, and in some ways more fair, to the president than the Clinton impeachment rules were or the Nixon impeachment rules were,” said Raskin, a Maryland Democrat. “But despite the fact that the House constitutionally operates as a constitutor and not a jury, making a case go over to the Senate where a trial takes place, we’ve built lots of due process protections in the investigatory and prosecutorial things.”

Other Democrats leaned on civic duty, with Speaker Nancy Pelosi opening today’s vote by reciting the preamble of the U.S. Constitution, standing beside a large, simple poster of the flag beside.

The chamber erupted in cheers and applause as Representative Hakeem Jeffries drew on the Founding Fathers in his remarks.

“The House should be a rival to the executive branch,” Jeffries said, quoting framer James Madison. “The Founders didn’t want a king. They didn’t want a dictator. They wanted a democracy and that is exactly what we are defending right now. No one is above the law.”

Meanwhile, President Trump seemed to be watching the vote unfold as he took to Twitter mere moments after the Republican defeat.

“The Greatest Witch Hunt in American History!” he wrote.

Republicans have long blasted the process of the impeachment probe without addressing the merits, and Representative Mark Meadows, R-N.C., said the resolution adopted Thursday does little to address these concerns.

“Today’s vote further empowers Adam Schiff to call the shots,” Meadows said. “It is not a fair process. The American people are sharp. They’re going to judge for themselves and at the end of the day, they’re going to see this for what it is; an unfair process without the ability to presume innocence until proven guilty.”

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