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Sidelined for Months, Judiciary Panel Will Reclaim Impeachment Drive It Once Led


This spring, as President Trump defiantly rejected congressional attempts to investigate his conduct and policies, Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, asked his Democratic colleagues on his famously voluble panel a loaded question: When all is said and done, given the facts before us, are we heading toward impeaching this president?

The answer came back mixed, said people familiar with the private discussion in an office building across from the Capitol, with many of the panel’s progressive firebrands saying impeachment was inevitable, while some of its more senior members held back, wary of embracing a process likely to unleash forces well beyond their control.

Half a year later, after several twists and turns and the near-death of the prospect of impeaching Mr. Trump in the House, the answer to Mr. Nadler’s question has become clear, even as the divisions that were evident on that spring day remain.

After being unceremoniously sidelined for two months while the Intelligence Committee assembled a case that the president pressured Ukraine to help him in the 2020 election, the judiciary panel is poised to retake the national stage this week to swiftly draft and debate articles of impeachment and almost certainly vote to make Mr. Trump only the third president in history to be impeached.

“News of the Judiciary Committee’s demise has been greatly exaggerated,” said Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York, a top Democratic leader and member of the panel.

The panel, the arbiter of presidential impeachment proceedings past, will be thrust once again into the center of the maelstrom its Democratic members have been contemplating for months, to lead what is likely to be a raucous and messy process of formally charging the president with high crimes and misdemeanors.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic leaders have conspicuously avoided locking in a timeline for the inquiry, but privately they are said to be aiming for a full House vote on impeachment articles before the Christmas recess, barring unexpected developments. That would leave the Judiciary Committee with as little as two weeks to do its work.

The first milestone will come in the form of a written report from the Intelligence Committee, which is to be made available to members on Monday in advance of its approval on Tuesday. The handoff of the report, which will most likely form much of the basis for articles of impeachment against Mr. Trump, will be a stylistic and substantive turning point for the inquiry that will almost certainly inflame a debate that has already roiled Congress and divided the country.

Large, disorderly and stacked with some of Congress’s most outspoken progressives and conservatives, the Judiciary Committee is the polar opposite of the small and staid intelligence panel, where rules drafted to facilitate the handling of government secrets allowed Democrats to tightly control every aspect of the impeachment inquiry. The judiciary rules, instead, are fundamentally democratic, intended to provide wide latitude for divisive debates over the nation’s most pressing policy issues, many of the them cultural hot-buttons that fuel each party’s activist base. Barring some momentous new evidence, not a single lawmaker on either side is expected to budge.

And while the Intelligence Committee conducted much of its investigative work behind closed doors, the judiciary panel will work entirely in the public glare. House rules dictate that the panel will give Mr. Trump and his lawyers a role in the proceedings for the first time, allowing them to cross-examine witnesses, suggest others for testimony and possibly present the president’s defense case at a hearing all its own.

The stakes are high. For party leaders, who have warily eyed recent national polling that shows public opinion essentially unmoved by weeks of fact-finding laying out how Mr. Trump twisted the foreign policy process to meet his own domestic political interests, the debate offers perhaps a final chance to move independent voters behind them before putting Mr. Trump on trial in the Senate.

Democrats, led by Mr. Nadler, intend to try to rein in their more fiery progressives and infuse the proceedings with gravitas, mindful of their role in history. But the freewheeling nature of the panel, with its hyperpartisan members, does not easily lend itself to that task. And their handling of the report by Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel who investigated Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and the Trump campaign, earned Mr. Nadler and his committee a reputation for being unable to fully control its own proceedings.

Republicans instead want to mire Democrats in a sloppy fight, making the hearings into such a confusing mishmash of competing information that even Republicans troubled by Mr. Trump’s actions see no upside in breaking with him. They plan to take advantage of early impeachment advocacy by Mr. Nadler and Democrats on the panel to portray the Ukraine matter as simply another attempt by Mr. Trump’s critics to take him down.

“Any article to come out of this? There is no world in which a Republican, especially on the Judiciary Committee, will accept this,” Representative Doug Collins of Georgia, the panel’s top Republican, said in an interview. “We have seen this sideshow up close all year.”

Mr. Collins, a Georgia lawyer with an auctioneer’s cadence and a lawyer’s knack for tripping up committee business with time-consuming parliamentary tactics, is ready to make the proceedings as painful as possible for Democrats. He warned that if Mr. Nadler intends to jam articles of impeachment through the committee, he will go down in history as “a giant rubber stamp” for Ms. Pelosi and Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, the Intelligence Committee chairman.

It will be up to Mr. Nadler, a loquacious progressive from Manhattan’s Upper West Side who is now one of the House’s leaders, to maintain order and inject gravity and fairness into the proceedings. Democrats have spent weeks speculating that his relationship with Ms. Pelosi had been badly strained by his earlier push for impeachment, which she publicly opposed, believing the process was too divisive and unlikely, in any event, to result in the president’s removal. Both sides deny it, but privately lawmakers around him conceded they were wary of comparisons to Mr. Schiff, who oversaw hearings in the Intelligence Committee with an iron fist and tight lips.

Republicans have been quick to weaponize Mr. Nadler’s patience against him in the past, taking advantage of his reticence to simply gavel them into silence. Mr. Nadler, in consultation with Ms. Pelosi and his members, will now have to decide how to handle requests from Republicans and the president’s lawyers, weighing a desire to demonstrate fairness against a determination to maintain forward momentum, shutting down any dilatory tactics.

“We will bend over backward to be fair,” said Representative Pramila Jayapal, Democrat of Washington. “Let’s see if he stands straight instead of standing corrupt. Let’s put the onus on the president to for once perhaps behave.”

The clash will begin on Wednesday, when the committee summons legal experts to help inform its debate over whether Mr. Trump’s conduct warrants impeachment.

The panel is also expected to convene another session in the coming days for Mr. Schiff or his staff members to formally present the Intelligence Committee’s findings for consideration, a spectacle akin to the presentation of evidence by Ken Starr, the independent counsel, during President Bill Clinton’s impeachment.

Articles of impeachment themselves will be drafted in private, but debated, edited and amended out in the open — a process that could take two to three days of public work.

Privately, Democrats believe they could end up with three to four articles of impeachment: one or two focused on the president’s alleged abuse of power related to Ukraine, another chronicling his obstruction of congressional requests for witnesses and documents, and potentially an article focused on findings by Mr. Mueller charging Mr. Trump with obstructing justice when he tried to thwart the Russia investigation.

That last potential charge is the subject of a lively private debate among Democrats about how broad of a case to make against the president. At least one senior member of the committee, Representative Zoe Lofgren, Democrat of California, said in an interview that she remained unconvinced that Mr. Mueller’s case united House Democrats in the same way the Ukraine affair has.

“As you will recall, I did not step forward urging movement for impeachment based on the Mueller report,” said Ms. Lofgren, who worked for the committee during impeachment proceedings against President Richard M. Nixon and served on it during Mr. Clinton’s. “What we have got before us, which has been explored factually by the Intelligence Committee, is clear and serious.”

Mr. Nadler and other members of the Judiciary Committee spent months this summer aggressively pushing within their caucus for impeachment based on Mr. Mueller’s findings, making only limited headway amid historic White House stonewalling and drawing public criticism for seeming to fumble a case many Democrats once thought would be an ironclad shot at impeaching Mr. Trump. That was the state of play in September when they were thrust to the side by Ms. Pelosi after an anonymous whistle-blower complaint related to Mr. Trump’s dealings with Ukraine found its way to the Intelligence Committee.

Democrats on the judiciary panel have spent the interim preparing out of public view to close whatever case the caucus can agree on. A small army of staff lawyers has spent weeks exhaustively researching House rules and precedents from the Clinton and Nixon impeachments to help Mr. Nadler navigate the coming hearings. And like millions of other Americans, they have had their televisions tuned to the intelligence hearings and the evidence that will soon be in their hands.

“The judiciary committee has been very closely watching the testimony,” said Representative David Cicilline, Democrat of Rhode Island.


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