Republican challenges Schiff to 'be Ken Starr' and testify in impeachment inquiry

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent

Republican Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia challenged House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff to give witness testimony to the Judiciary Committee once he delivers a report summarizing his impeachment investigation.

“Come to the Judiciary Committee,” said Collins, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee. “Be the first witness, and take every question asked of you.”

A Democratic aide involved in the inquiry told Yahoo News that Schiff may well testify.

“It’s possible, but no decision has been made,” the aide said.

Collins made his comments at the tail end of a press conference where a group of 40 or so Republicans gathered after the House of Representatives held a preliminary vote Thursday on impeaching President Trump that split along partisan lines.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff. (Photo: Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

The event became something of a pep rally, as Republicans stood shoulder to shoulder in the Rayburn Room while one after another came to a microphone to deliver talking points. Their physical proximity to each other was a visual metaphor for the unity they’d just shown in the House chamber, where 194 Republicans voted against moving forward with an impeachment inquiry.

No Republicans voted in favor of the resolution and three did not vote, for various personal reasons that kept them away from Washington.

This wasn’t even a vote for or against impeaching the president. It was a procedural motion, but it foreshadowed that the coming political battle figures to be the most partisan and divided impeachment in the nation’s history. Trump would be the third U.S. president to be so rebuked by the House of Representatives, and would be subject to a Senate trial that decides whether he should be removed from office.

Republicans came to the Rayburn Room Thursday to vent against the impeachment process so far, and to psych themselves up for a bruising political battle in which they will be defending a president whose actions are often hard to explain.

“You lost the conversation about process. Bring it on about substance,” New York Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin roared, speaking to Democrats who were — to be clear — not in the room.

House Minority Leader Steve Scalise, R-La., repeated his hyperbolic accusations that Democrats were conducting a “Soviet-style” inquiry, ignoring the fact that most of the process complaints he and other GOP members are making center around changes that were first made by Republicans over the past decade.

Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y., on Thursday. (Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

But Collins’s challenge to Schiff was intriguing because by comparing Schiff to Starr, the Republican endorsed the idea that Democrats are indeed in an investigative phase of the impeachment inquiry. This, Democrats say, is why much of what has happened so far has been behind closed doors and not in open hearings, which is a phase that comes after the investigation is finished.

“You want to be Ken Starr? Be Ken Starr,” Collins growled, speaking into the row of television cameras and over the airwaves to Schiff, who has become the point man for his party on the impeachment inquiry.

The mention of Starr was noteworthy. He was the independent counsel who conducted a four-year investigation into President Bill Clinton and then delivered an impeachment referral to Congress in September 1998, focused on Clinton’s sexual relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

It was only a month after Starr’s report was delivered that the House voted to authorize its impeachment inquiry.

Democrats say that Schiff is playing the role of Starr in the Trump impeachment, doing the investigative work that Starr did in 1998.

Schiff has been calling witnesses to talk about whether Trump pressured the Ukrainian government to investigate his political rival Joe Biden.

Schiff’s role as investigator is why interviews with witnesses have not been public, with transcripts yet to be released, Democrats say. This is how Starr conducted his investigation, and it’s how Republicans conducted their own investigations into the Obama administration.

In 1998, after Starr finished his work and sent his report to Congress, the Judiciary Committee held public hearings, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has approved a hybrid version of that model. Schiff will hold some public hearings with key witnesses, and then House Judiciary will hold some hearings so that Trump’s lawyers will have a chance to respond to evidence and call their own witnesses, subject to the approval of Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler.

Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., center, with fellow Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill. (Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

Collins followed his challenge to Schiff to “be Ken Starr” by saying that Schiff should testify before the Judiciary Committee about the report he will deliver once his investigation is completed.

Starr, in 1998, testified before Judiciary about his report.

Collins said Republicans would want Schiff to answer many questions, “starting with [his] own involvement with the whistleblower.”

The mention of the whistleblower is a reference to a New York Times report on Oct. 2 — after Schiff denied being in contact with the whistleblower — that the anonymous person who registered the complaint about Trump had first contacted Schiff’s committee staff. Schiff’s staff say they advised the whistleblower to seek legal counsel and speak to the inspector general of the intelligence community.

Asked by Yahoo News if Schiff would in fact testify to Judiciary after his investigation has been handed over to that committee, the Democratic aide involved in the impeachment process appeared amenable to the idea.

Democrats’ openness to Collins’s suggestion was an acknowledgment that it made sense for Republicans to want Schiff to testify. But the comparison of Schiff to Starr was an admission on the part of a top Republican that many of the GOP’s complaints about an unfair process are glossing over the fact that the impeachment inquiry is still in the investigative phase.

It was also an acknowledgment that for all the Republican complaints about the Trump impeachment process breaking with precedent, there aren’t many precedents to go by, and the circumstances in 2019 are very different than they were in 1998.

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