WASHINGTON — In the halls of Congress, this is not the most wonderful time of the year.
Democrats and Republicans were in a bitter mood Wednesday as the impeachment inquiry into President Trump entered a new phase with the first Judiciary Committee hearing. Both sides know they’re not going to get what they want during this holiday season, and they hardly relish the prospect of working straight through to an expected impeachment vote in the days before Christmas.
Democrats understand that if they impeach Trump over the Ukraine controversy, the Senate almost certainly won’t vote to remove him from office. The Republicans just want the whole thing to go away, but House Democrats indicated Wednesday they were as committed as ever to pushing forward with impeachment.
The atmosphere was summed up succinctly by one of the four constitutional scholars who testified Wednesday.
“We are living in the very period described by Alexander Hamilton, a period of agitated passions,” said Jonathan Turley of George Washington University. “I get it, you’re mad. The president’s mad. My Republican friends are mad. My Democratic friends are mad. My wife is mad. My kids are mad. Even my dog seems mad.”
Turley, who was invited by Republicans, testified before the committee alongside three other professors called by Democrats. The four offered a history lesson in impeachment and their own analyses of whether Trump’s actions surrounding his July phone call with the Ukrainian president amount to impeachable offenses.
And yet despite the aim of Wednesday’s hearing to be somewhat academic, what came through were the same dug-in partisan attitudes that have characterized the impeachment process this fall.
“The facts before us are undisputed,” declared Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler as he opened the hearing. “There are no set facts here,” Representative Doug Collins, the senior Republican on the committee, responded in his own opening statement moments later.
Republicans would not concede that Trump committed any wrongdoing when he asked Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to investigate former vice president Joe Biden and his son — and whether it was Ukrainians, not Russians, who hacked Democrats’ computers during the 2016 election. Nadler and other Democrats said it is a national imperative to seek justice for Trump’s actions because the fate of the country depends on it.
“We cannot wait for the election to address the present crisis. The integrity of that election is one of the very things at stake,” Nadler said.
The three scholars called by Democrats said they believe Trump’s actions do constitute impeachable offenses. Turley said they do not. What followed was a daylong affair of jabs by both sides at the stubbornness of the others.
The hearing reflected the partisan rancor as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi prepared to light the US Capitol Christmas tree Wednesday night.
After returning from their Thanksgiving recess his week, Republicans again accused House Democrats of ignoring more important issues like health care, trade, and jobs because they are so focused on impeachment.
“The speaker said they can walk and chew gum at the same time. Well, I’m not sure if they’re walking or chewing gum. but they’re only doing one thing and that one thing looks like it’s headed toward an almost totally partisan impeachment vote,” said Republican Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri.
Democrats fired back, saying they have passed many bills on other topics but the Republican-controlled Senate refuses to take them up. And they defended the importance of holding Trump accountable even as many said how sad they were to be considering impeachment.
“This is not a proceeding that I looked forward to. It’s not an occasion for joy, it’s one of solemn obligation,” said Representative Zoe Lofgren of California.
Public opinion is divided on impeachment, and one objective of Democrats is to use the televised hearings to convince more Americans that the president’s actions reach the threshold of impeachable offenses.
Texas Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, a Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said a cross-section of people in her Houston district believe Trump’s actions were wrong. Speaking to reporters during a break in the hearing, she offered some insight into Democrats’ strategy.
“If we keep our message that it is not about us, it is about the American people, we will ease and soothe the feelings of anger, because it will be not about any one of us personally, it will be clearly about the American people,” she said.
During a closed-door meeting of House Democrats Wednesday morning, Pelosi reportedly asked her colleagues, “Are you ready?” to move forward on impeachment. The answer was a resounding yes.
This is just the third time in modern US history the House Judiciary Committee has held impeachment hearings, and those who worked on Capitol Hill during the last one — of President Bill Clinton in 1998 — agreed this time around is much more partisan.
Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist who worked as press secretary to Massachusetts Senator Edward M. Kennedy at the time, noted that both parties have used the current inquiry as a fund-raising opportunity, something unthinkable back then.
Doug Heye, a Republican strategist, said impeachment dominated the news during the Clinton procedures but not in the all-consuming way it has overtaken Washington today. That this comes after Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation only adds to people’s fatigue, he said.
“These have been two and a half, almost three years now of just wearing people down. The exhaustion is, I think, palpable,” Heye said. “And I think that’s one of the reasons why it’s not been a fun process for Democrats by and large.”
Democrats and Republicans learned on Monday that they will be in session the week before Christmas instead of at home with their families. Representative Lori Trahan, a Democrat from Lowell, said they would do whatever is necessary to fulfill their constitutional duty.
“So I think whether that happens before Christmas, after Christmas, it’s hard to say from a timing perspective,” she said. “We just have to let that process play out.”