Trump Impeachment Hearings Open With Schiff on Hook to Make Case

Billy House

(Bloomberg) -- Donald Trump’s attempts to pressure Ukraine will be scrutinized in a historic public forum Wednesday as the House opens impeachment hearings that will pit him against Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, who is tasked with making the case to remove the president from office.

Trump has so far been able to count on the support of fellow Republicans, who seem unlikely to vote to remove him from office if the question reaches the Senate. But the public hearings set off a process that is almost certain to make Trump the third president ever to be impeached, a development that could reshape his presidency, as well as the 2020 election.

Schiff, who has been a frequent target of attacks from Trump and his Republican allies, will be trying to keep the proceedings from devolving into a partisan shouting match, while also avoiding any missteps that could fuel charges of bias.

Wednesday’s inaugural hearing is scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. with Schiff and Representative Devin Nunes, the top Republican on the panel, delivering opening statements. Schiff will lead off questioning of the witnesses, William Taylor Jr., the acting ambassador to Ukraine, and George Kent, deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs.

Schiff has sought to button-down potential partisan disruptions with a crisp set of rules that gives his party the advantage of a full 45 minutes to question the two veteran diplomats, before turning the microphone over to Nunes, a close Trump ally. Both are expected to delegate significant portions of questioning to staff members.

Additional extended questioning rounds can be added at the discretion of the chairman. Following the extended questioning, there will be 5-minute rounds of questioning alternating between majority and minority members. Under committee rules, the chairman has the ability to call members in any order.

In a memo on hearing procedures sent to House members, Schiff said that he won’t allow lawmakers to use the sessions to pursue questions about the “sham investigations” that Trump is accused of pressuring Ukraine to conduct.

“Nor will the committee facilitate any efforts by President Trump or his allies to threaten, intimidate, or retaliate against the whistle-blower” whose complaint led to the investigation, he wrote.

Democrats are attempting to make a case that Trump put pressure on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to conduct investigations targeting former vice president Joe Biden’s and his son Hunter Biden’s ties to a Ukrainian company, Burisma Holdings, and into a debunked conspiracy theory that Ukraine, not Russia, had interfered in the 2016 U.S. election.

They contend Trump sought to leverage an Oval Office meeting desired by Zelenskiy and the release of nearly $400 million in U.S. military assistance to Ukraine to get commitment for those probes.

But Republicans argue that no such investigations were undertaken by Ukraine and the aid was eventually released. As they question the witnesses, they’re likely to push the point that they don’t have first-hand knowledge about the president’s actions regarding Ukraine.

They will also seek to underscore that Trump had legitimate concerns about corruption in Ukraine.

“The context shows that President Trump has a deep-seated, genuine, and reasonable skepticism of Ukraine and U.S. taxpayer-funded foreign aid, independent of and preceding any mention of political investigations of Ukraine’s interference in the 2016 election,” according to an 18-page memo distributed to Republican members of the committee.

Taylor -- the envoy picked by Secretary of State Michael Pompeo to replace ousted Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch in May -- testified in a closed-door session that he grew increasingly concerned that Ukraine aid was being held hostage to White House demands for politically motivated investigations. Kent testified that he was told that Trump “wanted nothing less than President Zelenskiy to go to the microphone and say ‘investigations, Biden and Clinton.’”

QuickTake: Here’s the Story on Trump, Ukraine and Impeachment

In a separate hearing on Friday, Yovanovitch is expected to recount a pressure campaign led by Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, that led to her ouster, which she outlined in a closed deposition.

On Tuesday night, Schiff announced that eight more witnesses would appear before the committee next week, starting on Tuesday. Three of them, Trump’s former special envoy to Ukraine, Kurt Volker; David Hale, the undersecretary of State for political affairs; and Tim Morrison, who has served on the National Security Council, were among the witnesess requested by House Republicans, though all have given depositions that were sought by Democrats.

Schiff’s list did not include others that the GOP wanted, including Hunter Biden and the whistle-blower.

Questioners

Dan Goldman, a former federal prosecutor from the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan with experience going after Russian organized crime groups, will help lead Schiff in the opening 45 minutes of questioning controlled by Democrats.

Steve Castor, general counsel for Republicans on the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform for more than 14 years, will work with Nunes in the next 45 minutes of questioning. He has investigated matters including Internal Revenue Service targeting of Tea Party groups and the attack on a U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya in 2012.

There’s still no set timeline for how swiftly House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Schiff intend for his phase of the investigation to wrap up.

Officials familiar with Democratic plans say they hope to move rapidly from hearings to a report to be presented by December to the Judiciary Committee with recommended action. That panel would then decide on whether to draft articles of impeachment and advance them to a House vote, perhaps by the end of the year.

But unlike this investigative phase, Trump’s own lawyers would be allowed -- if they choose -- to mount a formal defense during the Judiciary Committee proceedings and cross-examine witnesses. The extent of that input could affect the timeline for whether a House floor vote on impeachment will occur by the end of the year.

But a push is on for Democrats not to delay, even to wait for court orders for some other potentially important witnesses to also testify, including former National Security Adviser John Bolton, who made an acrimonious departure from the White House on Sept. 10. He was in several meetings involving U.S. policy in Ukraine, including some that haven’t been discussed in testimony so far, according to his lawyer.

Bolton, like his former deputy, Charles Kupperman, wants a federal court to determine whether he must abide by an order from the president not to appear before the impeachment inquiry. That’s unlikely to happen before the hearings conclude.

To contact the reporter on this story: Billy House in Washington at bhouse5@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Kevin Whitelaw at kwhitelaw@bloomberg.net, Joe Sobczyk, John Harney

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