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Six reporters take on the week in impeachment

It was another revelatory week in impeachment where it was almost impossible to pin down what left us most shook.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced Democrats would proceed with articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump. Trump in turn urged Democrats to impeach him as soon as possible. Constitutional scholars testified that Trump’s actions related to Ukraine were the worst misconduct in presidential history. And Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani showed up in Kyiv again.

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(The Rudy revelation wins the shook factor, clearly.)

However, what actually changed in the impeachment dynamic this week? Will the Judiciary hearings have a lasting impact? Will Trump ever participate under oath? And just what is Giuliani thinking?

Allow our team of unshakable reporters covering impeachment and the Trump White House to fill you in.

Did the first House Judiciary Committee impeachment hearing change anything?

Anita Kumar, White House correspondent: Not really. The Democratic witnesses said Trump should be impeached. The Republican witness said Trump shouldn’t be impeached. It was largely predictable and likely didn’t change anyone’s mind. House members are still expected to vote largely — if not completely — along party lines in favor of impeaching Trump, sending the process to the Senate for a trial. The Republican witness, law professor Jonathan Turley, did do one thing that could be a bit of risk down the road for Trump. He said Trump shouldn’t be impeached in part because Democrats were moving too fast and didn’t have all the evidence they needed. What if the Democrats get that evidence? Will Turley change his mind?

Andrew Desiderio, Congress reporter: The short answer is no. But the hearing gave us plenty of indications that House Democrats are at the very least considering including evidence from special counsel Robert Mueller’s report in the soon-to-be-drafted impeachment articles. While the inquiry itself has focused on Ukraine, Democrats are still eager to charge the president with obstruction of justice based on Volume II of the Mueller report. In recent days, though, we’ve seen a hesitance among some moderate and swing-district Democrats to embrace a so-called “kitchen sink” approach in which party leaders green-light articles of impeachment that encompass every facet of Trump’s alleged misconduct. At Wednesday’s hearing, Judiciary Committee Democrats asked the constitutional scholars about the Mueller report several times — and they even included “obstruction of justice” alongside “abuse of power” and “obstruction of Congress” on an on-screen graphic inside the hearing room. Democrats have emphasized that no final decisions have been made — but the hearing gave us every reason to believe that we’ll see some non-Ukraine themes scattered throughout the impeachment articles.

Natasha Bertrand, national security correspondent: Politically, no — though it put into the record the constitutional argument for Trump’s conduct vis-a-vis Ukraine being an impeachable offense, rather than just unsavory behavior that could be adequately addressed with an election. The hearing seemed to be more a formality than anything else, allowing the impeachment process to move out of the investigative phase and into the drafting of articles of impeachment that House Judiciary Democrats will likely anchor in a constitutional argument about Trump’s conduct meeting the threshold of abuse of power and obstruction.

Darren Samuelsohn, senior White House reporter: It made four constitutional law professors 15-minute famous. It helped in sales of pocket constitutions and the Federalist Papers. It spotlights how transactional political parties can be from year to year in their views on the interpretation of high crimes and misdemeanors and whether an actual federal crime must be committed to warrant impeachment. Beyond that, nah.

Kyle Cheney, Congress reporter: I’m not as convinced as my colleagues that the hearing had no impact. For one thing, it’s the soundbites — and there were plenty — that will be what most voters see, not the six-hour constitutional lecture. Secondly, it absolutely gave Pelosi and her allies the confidence to finalize their plans. Though the speaker was surely planning her embrace of impeachment well in advance, she relied on the constitutional argument to argue that the conduct unearthed by the House Intelligence Committee warrants — perhaps even requires — impeachment. So even if the impact is minimal for the public, inside the House it matters a great deal.

What should we make of Rudy Giuliani traveling to Ukraine this week?

Anita: It’s a play right out of Trump’s playbook. Both men are in-your-face New Yorkers. Both don’t back down. Both engage in behavior that they know other people will criticize them for. It’s why people close to the president tell me Trump likes Giuliani so much. There have been many times over the last few months that prominent Republicans begged Trump to sideline Giuliani but he simply won’t do it. His behavior — including traveling to Ukraine in the middle of this swirling controversy — is one of the reasons why. And, remarkably, it doesn’t seem to matter to the president that Giuliani has now found himself in legal jeopardy over the attempts to get the Ukrainian president to open an investigation into the Bidens.

Natasha: It seems like it could be part of a defense Giuliani is building for himself, not just for Trump anymore. Giuliani is reportedly under criminal investigation in the Southern District of New York and has reportedly been under scrutiny by FBI counterintelligence officials for months stemming from his Ukraine work. Giuliani said this week that he is still working to exonerate Trump and that the evidence he’s collected on the Bidens will be released “very soon.” But he must realize by now that it is no longer in Trump’s interest, at least politically, for him to continue pursuing the very scheme that is now at the center of an impeachment inquiry. So it makes more sense that Giuliani is now acting in his own interests — collecting “evidence” and statements from the former Ukrainian officials who have accused the Bidens of wrongdoing — in an attempt to validate the foreign work he’s now reportedly under investigation for.

Melanie Zanona, Congress reporter: Both Giuliani and Trump have tried to defend their actions by attempting to normalize their behavior — like Trump calling on China to investigate the Bidens after the Ukraine scandal broke. But even Trump allies have grown exasperated with the president’s personal lawyer: Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) told CNN that it’s “weird” Giuliani is in Ukraine and said he wasn’t even going to try to defend him. While the president might not be willing to throw Giuliani under the bus, you get that sense that Republicans sure want him to.

Darren: Barring his own indictment, Rudy’s travels this week tell me he’s not about to exit the political scene anytime soon. And even if he is indicted he’d likely keep on talking unless and until a federal judge gags him with a threat of jail. Certain segments of the Republican Party might welcome that gag order, too.

Kyle: Rudy’s trip to Ukraine is about as clear a signal as any that the impeachment inquiry isn’t a particularly useful deterrent, if Democrats thought it would moderate either the president or his associates’ behavior. Trump could call him off but hasn’t, and Giuliani is pushing the exact same lines that got the impeachment inquiry launched in the first place. The toughest questions Democrats might face is what to do if he — with Trump’s explicit or implicit blessing — continues to encourage the Ukrainian government to investigate Trump’s political rivals.

Why is Trump not participating in the House hearings?

Natasha: The White House doesn’t want to be seen as validating a “sham” process, but at the same time has not closed the door entirely on participating in any future hearings the House may hold (which is far from a sure thing itself). The irony is that Trump has complained about not being afforded due process and being treated unfairly, but at the time declined to send someone to represent him during the hearings. That is likely to change, though, once the impeachment trial begins in the Senate.

Melanie: The White House has raised a valid point: how they can properly prepare for the hearings when they don’t know what they’re preparing for? Trump and the GOP have been kept in the dark on key details about the impeachment hearings until the last minute, which makes it harder for them strategize. That being said … I’m not entirely sure Trump would participate even if he was given ample notice about things like the format of the hearing or the charges being brought against him.

Andrew: At this point, the official White House line is straight from Trump’s Twitter feed: Just get on with it. That was the message from White House Counsel Pat Cipollone on Friday when he indicated that Trump would not participate in any of the impeachment hearings. The one-page letter was very Trumpian on its own, but Cipollone even quoted one of the president’s tweets from earlier this week: “If you are going to impeach me, do it now, fast, so we can have a fair trial in the Senate, and so that our country can get back to business.” This is the clearest sign yet that both Trump and his senior advisers have resigned themselves to the fact that Trump will, in fact, become the third president in U.S. history to be impeached — regardless of whether they participate in the House’s proceedings.

Anita: Let’s be clear: Trump has been tempted to tell his side of the story at the hearing. “He wants to fight,” one former Trump aide told me. But legal and political advisers suggested he shouldn’t. After all, they know how the vote will end up — and nothing the White House says at the hearing is likely to change that. But it goes beyond that. Trump had been frustrated for weeks that fellow Republicans across the country weren’t defending him aggressively enough. It’s only been recently that he has felt House Republicans had stepped up their actions, leaving him satisfied that he could rely on them during these hearings.

Darren: Their play is in the Senate. That’s where they have a more favorable environment and where they’re likely to succeed in getting the impeachment charges tossed at trial.

Kyle: Mel is right — it’s a little unreasonable to ask the White House to announce its participation in a hearing for which it knows nothing about the format, witnesses or scope. But there was little expectation that even if all that information were available, the president would want to lend any validity to the hearings. But attempting to participate would also provide Democrats an avenue to confront the same White House lawyers who are blocking a dozen crucial witnesses from testifying — and that could get awkward for the president.

Do you really think the Democrats will be done before the end of the year?

Andrew: All signs point to yes. With the White House not participating in the proceedings, the House Judiciary Committee could begin considering articles of impeachment as soon as next week, immediately after Monday’s hearing on the presentation of evidence. That theoretically gives them enough time to finish up before December 20, when lawmakers are scheduled to close up shop and head home for the holidays. Moreover, Democratic leaders have no interest in waiting for the courts to resolve the various subpoena disputes with current and former administration officials — many of whom could provide revealing testimony. But as my colleagues Sarah and Heather noted on Friday, the House’s to-do list for the next two weeks is quite insane. They’re not only hoping to finish the impeachment process; they want to approve USMCA, pass a prescription drugs package, and keep the government’s lights on past the December 20 funding deadline. It won’t be easy — and I even think one of the latter three items could drop off. But as of this moment, the House is on track to impeach Trump by Christmas; hell, Trump even wants them to just do it already.

Darren: I bet one of our editors a Chicago hotdog that the House debate does get punted into 2020. I’m just going off my gut that Congress really truly never does anything without a deadline — and it better be a big fiscal cliff deadline at that. Here, I haven’t even heard Speaker Pelosi say once in public that the end of the year is the deadline. Of course, I can’t promise that hotdog won’t be awfully soggy by the time I get it back to D.C.

Kyle: Democrats see no downside to getting this over with — perhaps even more confidently now that the president has asked them to get on with it. Doing it now prevents the argument that they dragged the process into an election year, and Democrats have arrived at the belief that no Republicans will be moved no matter how high the pile of evidence in favor of their impeachment case climbs. If the vote count will be the same today as it will be a month from now, the thinking goes, why wait?


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