House Judiciary Committee Democrats were set to hold a key vote to adopt the two articles of impeachment against President Trump, following an ongoing all-day marathon hearing in which seemingly no topic — from Hunter Biden’s rampant drug use to a Republican congressman’s past drunken-driving arrest — was off-limits.
In a striking moment, Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., claimed that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky looked “as if his daughter was downstairs in the basement, duct-taped” when he publicly undermined Democrats’ case by declaring at the United Nations in September that he felt no undue pressure from the president to conduct any political investigations.
“There’s an imbalance of power in that relationship,” Johnson said, as some attendees laughed.
There was even some intrigue during breaks in the proceedings when a Reuters photographer, Josh Roberts, was caught on camera approaching the dais and furtively taking photographs of private documents that Louisiana GOP Rep. Mike Johnson said belonged to Republicans.
Roberts was later escorted out of the Capitol building, and Florida GOP Rep. Matt Gaetz said Roberts had in fact photographed Democrats’ desks. Reuters posted wire photos apparently showing the desk of California Democratic Rep. Ted Lieu, who was not in attendance at the hearing.
“Media spy games,” House Intelligence Committee ranking member Devin Nunes, R-Calif., wrote on Twitter.
It remained unclear how long the markup would last, although Fox News is told it could go until well after midnight E.T. In 2009, a congressional markup on the Affordable Care Act lasted until 4 a.m. ET.
“Look, we’re gonna be here a long time tonight,” Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Doug Collins, R-Ga., told reporters when asked whether the White House Congressional Ball in the evening might affect the schedule. “Don’t let anybody worry. There are plenty of balls we can go to, so if anybody thinks that’s in our midst, don’t worry about it.”
Fox News expects that, once the articles are adopted by the 41-member Judiciary Committee, likely on a party-line vote, they will find their way to the House Rules Committee, which controls access to the House floor. The Rules Committee is expected to craft a rule next week to set parameters for the impeachment debate. Then, sometime next week, the full House will debate and vote formally on the articles of impeachment of the president — which, if successful, would send the matter to the GOP-controlled Senate for a trial and virtually certain acquittal.
All eyes have been on the 31 moderate House Democrats from districts Trump won in 2016, most of whom have remained mum on how they’ll vote, as support for impeachment has flatlined in several battleground-state polls.
During the day’s markup, as members debated the language of the impeachment resolutions, Republicans repeatedly pointed out that Trump was not accused of any offense actually defined anywhere by law: neither “abuse of power” nor “obstruction of Congress” was a recognized federal or state crime.
Early in the hearing, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., supported Ohio GOP Rep. Jim Jordan’s amendment to strike Democrats’ “abuse of power” article of impeachment entirely, arguing, “There was no impeachable offense here.”
But, Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., responded that impeachment articles did not necessarily have to include statutory crimes — and that Trump’s actions would satisfy criminal statutes such as bribery anyway.
This led Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, to retort, “Well then, why aren’t they in this impeachment document?”
Democrats had floated the idea of formally accusing Trump of bribery, after focus groups suggested voters would like that term more. But, the idea fell out of favor after news of the focus group leaked, and analysts pointed out that Trump’s conduct didn’t seem to constitute bribery.
Later in the day, Gohmert observed that the Trump administration ultimately provided lethal aid to Ukraine, unlike former President Barack Obama, who also withheld military aid to Ukraine and “just let people die over there” by providing only nonlethal assistance.
Gohmert went on to object to the “obstruction of Congress” article of impeachment as “tyrannical,” saying it violated separation-of-powers principles for Congress to impeach the president whenever he failed to cooperate fully with their investigations.
Under Obama, the White House repeatedly refused Republicans’ document requests concerning the “Fast and Furious” gunrunning scandal, leading Congress to hold then-Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt. No impeachment proceedings were commenced.
Democrats countered that it simply was not “credible” that Trump was withholding aid to Ukraine for legitimate anticorruption evidence, even though he also withheld $100 million in assistance to Lebanon this year.
“The president has been talking about foreign corruption and the misuse of American taxpayers’ [funds]” since before the 2016 election, Johnson, R-La., said, emphasizing that it was in-character for the president to rein in excess spending for NATO and elsewhere.
“Everybody knows the president s concerned about the misuse of taxpayer dollars overseas. It’s one of his primary driving forces. It’s one of his main talking points… Oh, Ukraine, the third-most corrupt nation in the world, is the only one he wasn’t concerned about? It just doesn’t make sense. Let’s stop with the games.”
At a particularly heated moment in the hearing, Gaetz, R-Fla., brought up Hunter Biden’s admitted past substance abuse issues — and Johnson, D-Ga., shot back by alluding to Gaetz’s own past arrest for drunken driving.
Gaetz was arguing that Biden was incompetent and corrupt, citing his lucrative job on the board of the Ukrainian natural gas company Burisma Holdings while his father was overseeing Ukraine policy as vice president. The impeachment inquiry began after Trump suggested the Ukrainians look into Joe Biden’s successful effort to pressure Ukraine to fire its top prosecutor by withholding $1 billion in critical U.S. aid — at a time when Burisma was under criminal scrutiny.
The Florida lawmaker referenced an article in The New Yorker, which included interviews with Hunter Biden and reported on a 2016 car crash in which the younger Biden was involved. According to that story, employees at a rental car agency claimed they found a crack pipe inside the vehicle. It also quoted Hunter Biden describing his attempts to buy crack cocaine in a Los Angeles homeless encampment.
“The pot calling the kettle black is not something we should do,” Johnson said. “I don’t know what members, if any, have had any problems with substance abuse, been busted in DUI. I don’t know, but if I did, I wouldn’t raise it against anyone on this committee.” Johnson added: “I don’t think it’s proper.”
Separately, Gaetz introduced a December 2017 article in The New York Times discussing House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler’s contemplation about impeaching the president years ago. Democrats, Gaetz and other Republicans said, have been trying to impeach and remove the president ever since he stunned the world by defeating Hillary Clinton, first by peddling discredited allegations that his campaign criminally conspired with Russians.
The markup began late Wednesday and saw Republicans lambasting Democrats and the media for pushing discredited claims about the Trump campaign’s Russia ties. The rapid pace of the markup and vote came as numerous polls showed declining support for impeachment in key swing states. For example, impeachment and removal was opposed by 50.8 percent of voters in Michigan, 52.2 percent of voters in Pennsylvania, and 57.9 percent of voters in Wisconsin, according to the Firehouse/Optimus December Battleground State Poll.
Two other polls released Wednesday showed that most Americans did not want Trump impeached and removed.
Politico reported earlier this week that the numbers were making a “small group” of moderate Democrats, who have held seats in districts where Trump won in 2016, nervous about how to vote. They instead have suggested Trump be censured instead, which would prevent the GOP from holding a potentially damaging Senate trial and give them political cover in the upcoming election.
As the members debated Wednesday night, the White House Office of Management and Budget released a lengthy legal justification for the withholding of aid to Ukraine, which was obtained by Fox News. OMB classified the temporary pause in providing the aid to Ukraine as a “programmatic delay” that was necessary and proper under the law to “ensure that funds were not obligated prematurely in a manner that could conflict with the President’s foreign policy.”
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., accused OMB of an “after-the-fact coverup” by writing its justification — prompting Collins to respond, stunned, by noting that a Senate Democrat had requested the letter.
“It is amazing that this is an after-the fact coverup since it was asked by a Democratic senator,” Collins said. “So, that’s an after-the-fact coverup? … This is exactly what I thought would happen when we came back from lunch.”
Collins went on to point out that Zelensky repeatedly has said that he did not feel that Trump pressured him in any way, and that Democrats have taken to “belittling” Zelensky by calling him an “actor” and “weak” only because he undermined their case.
Jayapal also lamented that Trump hadn’t followed official “talking points” provided by career bureaucrats while on his July phone call with Zelensky, prompting Republicans to respond that the president, as an elected official, is ultimately in charge of foreign policy.
When Democrats repeatedly argued that Trump’s suspension of foreign aid had cost Ukrainian lives, Collins angrily responded that, even according to the same media reports cited by Democrats, no link had been shown between any Ukrainian casualties and the temporary aid hold up.
Hardline Democrats in safe districts haven’t budged on impeachment. California Rep. Karen Bass, for example, said earlier this week she’s open to impeaching Trump again even if he were to win the 2020 election.
The House is comprised of 431 members, meaning Democrats would need 217 yeas to impeach Trump. There currently have been 233 Democrats, so they could lose only 16 of their own and still impeach the president. Among the House Democrats, 31 have represented more moderate districts that Trump carried in 2016.
“This is the other side of it being political — you’ve got about 30 House Democrats who are in districts won by Donald Trump and they realize that they are going to pay a political price if they go along with impeachment,” Fox News contributor Charles Hurt, the opinion editor of The Washington Times, told “Fox & Friends” Wednesday.
Freshman Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich. — who flipped a GOP district in 2018 that Trump won by 7 points in 2016 — told Fox News last month that she was tentatively weighing all the evidence. On Wednesday, she confirmed she’s still undecided.
“The phones are ringing off the hook,” she told CNN. “We literally can’t pick up the phones fast enough — and it’s people on both sides of it.”
In the meantime, Gaetz offered some advice to swing-district Democrats who vote to impeach the president: “For the upcoming year, rent, don’t buy, here in Washington, D.C.”
Fox News’ Chad Pergram, Ronn Blitzer, Julia Musto, Marisa Schultz and Andrew O’Reilly contributed to this report.