WASHINGTON — The impeachment investigation into President Donald Trump turned a sharp corner Thursday, entering a more public phase of the historic inquiry that is roiling the White House, nearly paralyzing the Capitol and shadowing the upcoming 2020 elections.
In its first vote related to impeachment, the House narrowly approved a resolution affirming the investigation that has been conducted mostly behind closed doors since September and setting rules for public hearings to be held in coming weeks over whether the president inappropriately used foreign policy for personal gain.
The resolution passed 232-196. In a sign of the times, the vote split largely along party lines — unlike the bipartisan votes that launched impeachment inquiries into Presidents Richard Nixon in 1974 and Bill Clinton in 1998.
All Republicans, who have complained about being shut out of the process, voted against the measure, calling it too little, too late. Two Democrats — Reps. Jeff Van Drew, of New Jersey, and Collin Peterson, of Minnesota, both from districts that tilted heavily to Trump in 2016 — joined them.
Responding on Twitter, Trump denounced what he called “The Greatest Witch Hunt In American History!” In a campaign-fundraising email, Trump told his supporters that Democrats “hate the idea of you being in charge of our country. They want to ERASE your vote like it never existed.”
The vote marked significant progress for the House’s 5-week-old inquiry — and triggered an escalation in the partisan rancor that has dominated the impeachment process and much of Trump’s presidency.
The vote was the House’s first on impeachment and the Democrats’ response to repeated GOP complaints about a closed-door process. The expansive inquiry with a new phase of public hearings is likely to extend into the 2020 election year with a Senate trial.
The House vote turns a spotlight on the House Intelligence Committee, whose open hearings — led by Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif. — will surely be televised. That will introduce an unpredictable dynamic into the politics of impeachment.
By showcasing witnesses who, so far, have testified only behind closed doors, the hearings will put the public in a better position to make its own judgments about the credibility of the evidence and the gravity of the allegations against the president.
Democrats expect and hope the public phase — expected to start in about two weeks — will turn American voters even more in favor of impeachment.
For now, polls find that the public, like Congress, is divided largely along party lines over the wisdom of impeaching Trump and removing him from office.
Democratic presidential candidates support the effort, although most give campaign-trail priority to pocketbook issues like the economy and health care. The impeachment fight could pose a risk to Democrats in swing states and districts where they need to court Trump voters or those who, even if they think the president behaved inappropriately, do not believe it warrants his removal.
As the House voted, the Intelligence Committee continued gathering evidence about allegations that Trump, in a phone call, improperly urged Ukraine’s president to open investigations into Trump’s Democratic political adversaries at a time when Trump had frozen U.S. military aid to Ukraine in its conflict with Russia.
The panel heard Thursday from Timothy Morrison, who announced his resignation Wednesday as the president’s top adviser on Russia and Europe in the National Security Council.
Morrison was the second witness who had listened to Trump’s now-famous July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Morrison testified that he raised immediate concerns with NSC lawyers after the call, according to two sources familiar with the testimony, although he said he did not believe anything in the conversation was illegal.
Morrison echoed the testimony of Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman, another White House expert on Ukraine, who told the panel Tuesday that he was so alarmed after the call that he complained to the NSC’s lead counsel.
With the public phase of the probe now formalized by a roll-call vote, Republicans will face pressure to offer a less process-oriented defense of Trump. Republicans have argued that the Democrats’ inquiry is invalid because until Thursday there had been no House vote to establish it.
A federal judge gave Democrats a victory last week by ruling that such a vote is not required under House rules or the U.S. Constitution. The White House, which had long argued that it was under no obligation to make witnesses available or hand over subpoenaed documents without a vote, made clear Thursday that it was not satisfied with the one that occurred.
“With today’s vote, Speaker Pelosi and the Democrats have done nothing more than enshrine unacceptable violations of due process into House rules,” said White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham.
“This is a sad day”
Pressure to defend Trump on substantive grounds surfaced immediately at a post-vote news conference, when House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., was asked if Republicans would go on the record saying that the president did nothing inappropriate.
“Very clear, yes,” McCarthy said tersely, with other GOP lawmakers echoing his response.
Republicans are also turning to another argument that may have increasing resonance among swing voters as the 2020 election nears: that it is inappropriate to try to remove a president when Election Day is on the horizon.
“We are one year away from an election,” McCarthy said during the House debate. “Why do you not trust the people? Why do you not allow the people to have a voice?”
But Democrats say the resolution approved Thursday will improve transparency and allow Americans to learn more about what witnesses have said behind closed doors since the inquiry began on Sept. 24.
“It’s something I think we all felt we needed to do to get to the next stage where we have public hearings,” said Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J.
Public testimony is not expected before the week of Nov. 11, but lawmakers refused to share any timeline.
Although the resolution was cast as a procedural vote, the gravity of the moment was underscored when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., took the podium to preside over the vote, a job she usually delegates to others.
She tried to set a somber tone, devoid of partisan glee.
“This is a sad day,” she said before the vote. “This is a sad day because no one comes here to impeach the president of the United States.”
Democrats and Republicans saw Thursday’s vote as an initial proxy for how members will potentially vote on impeachment, though that decision is probably weeks away.
A few critics
Trump has made a series of personal overtures to congressional Republicans to keep his party behind him in the impeachment fight. After Thursday’s vote, he had a group of House Republicans to lunch at the White House.
While Republicans, so far, have stuck by Trump, they have been increasingly willing to criticize his scattershot approach to handling the controversy, his handling of foreign policy and schemes such as his proposal, now scuttled, to hold the Group of 7 conference at one of his golf resorts.
Rep. Justin Amash, of Michigan, an independent who left the GOP over Trump, was the only non-Democrat to vote for the impeachment resolution and had a stern warning for his former party colleagues.
“This president will be in power for only a short time, but excusing his misbehavior will forever tarnish your name,” Amash said on Twitter. “History will not look kindly on disingenuous, frivolous, and false defenses of this man.”
Included in the resolution is the authority to make public the transcripts of nearly a dozen depositions that have been taken behind closed doors over the last few weeks, something that could prove pivotal as Democrats work to convince their colleagues, and the public, of the case for impeaching Trump.
The resolution gives Republicans subpoena power, but only with the approval of the chairman or full committee.
The resolution also sets parameters for when and how Trump can participate in the House process, allowing his counsel to participate in any hearings held by the House Judiciary Committee, the panel that will ultimately decide whether there is enough evidence to recommend articles of impeachment against the president.
That means Trump’s counsel can suggest witnesses, offer evidence, cross-examine witnesses or object to questions.
But the resolution also limits that participation to the discretion of the committee chairman, Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., stating that if the administration refuses to comply with the investigation, the chairman can choose to deny its requests.
It also authorizes the House Intelligence Committee to continue to hold private meetings in the secure bunker set aside for classified information below the Capitol visitors’ center.