On impeachment, Democrats opt for speed even if some questions remain

December 7, 2019 0 By JohnValbyNation

WASHINGTON  — 

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made the point clear at her news conference Thursday: The impeachment train is heading down the track, and there’s no plan to slow down.

“We feel comfortable with all of the time that has gone into this,” Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said when asked about comments from some Democratic lawmakers that their constituents haven’t yet absorbed what the case is about.

Newsletter

Get our twice-weekly Politics newsletter

“If some people have some unease, we’ll catch them up.”

There’s a tradeoff for speed, but the Democratic leadership believes it’s worthwhile. Let’s take a look.

SPEEDY VS. THOROUGH

The most fundamental tradeoff is speed versus thoroughness.

As Pelosi’s lieutenant on impeachment, Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), acknowledged this week, there are still “unanswered questions” about President Trump‘s conduct toward Ukraine.

Some of the questions involve small points of evidence.

Schiff’s investigation, for example, obtained telephone logs showing that Trump’s lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, made several calls to a government phone number that may be at the Office of Management and Budget during the period in which the administration was freezing U.S. security aid to Ukraine.

The phone number in question is associated with an OMB switchboard, and the logs don’t specify whom Giuliani called, let alone what they talked about.

Plenty of evidence establishes that the White House ordered that the security aid be held up — Trump has said that himself. And whether or not Giuliani was personally involved in that aspect of the case doesn’t change the overall picture much. But the calls are a loose end.

Other unanswered questions are more significant.

For example, Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, testified that he spoke to Trump by phone on Sept. 9. It was during that call, Sondland said, that Trump told him that he wanted “nothing” from Ukraine and that there was “no quid pro quo.”

Trump and his Republican allies have frequently cited that testimony as exculpatory. Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, one of Trump’s most pugnacious defenders, excoriated Sondland for not citing that call in his opening statement when he testified publicly to the committee last month.

But other evidence suggests the call never happened. Sondland, who repeatedly said he never took notes and doesn’t recall many details, may have misremembered the events.

Two other witnesses who do have extensive notes, William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, and Tim Morrison, a senior official at the National Security Council, both say that Sondland talked to Trump on Sept. 7, and their accounts of what Sondland related at the time aren’t exculpatory at all. Indeed, Morrison’s boss, John Bolton, the national security advisor, was so alarmed when he heard about the Sept. 7 call that he told Morrison to report it immediately to White House lawyers.

According to what Sondland told both Morrison and Taylor, Trump did say the words “no quid pro quo,” but also laid out an extremely specific quid pro quo: In order to get the aid restored, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had to personally announce, on television, that he was starting investigations that Trump had demanded. That included an investigation into Joe Biden‘s son.

Did Sondland have two calls with Trump or just one? And is the “no quid pro quo” line a piece of exculpatory evidence or just a throwaway?

Sondland testified that he can’t be sure whether he called Trump once or twice, and the White House has refused to release the call logs that could definitively answer the question.

SPEED VS. STONEWALL

That last point — the refusal of the White House to release the logs — is the one Democrats most often cite to explain why they’re barreling ahead despite the unresolved issues.

Trump has tried to obstruct the investigation and wants to try to run out the clock, Schiff has repeatedly said. The White House has refused to allow Bolton and other officials like him to testify and has withheld reams of records that the Intelligence Committee has demanded.

If that testimony or the records were likely to exonerate Trump, the White House would be happy to publicize it, Schiff has noted. Since they’re blocking the evidence, he says, Democrats are entitled to draw the inference that it would be incriminating.

Moreover, he and Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) both say, the withholding of evidence from a congressional inquiry is, by itself, an impeachable offense. The constitutional law scholars the Democrats invited to testify at the Judiciary Committee’s hearing Wednesday made that point as well.

That’s why Democrats have been unwilling to pause in their investigation to battle in court over the evidence they want.

In their eyes, the existing evidence already establishes the president’s serious misconduct, they’re justified in assuming that the evidence being withheld wouldn’t exonerate Trump and a lengthy court battle might not lead to anything of importance being added to the record.

“The question is, what more are we going to get?” Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose), a member of the Judiciary Committee, told Sarah Wire.

POLITICS OF IMPEACHMENT

Pelosi insists that politics “has nothing to do” with impeachment. But politics permeates everything that elected officials do, and in this case, the political imperatives for Democrats are all on the side of pushing ahead.

Democratic voters see impeachment as a top priority. In our new Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll of California voters, for example, Democratic voters, by 50% to 32%, said that Democrats in Congress should “focus more on impeachment” than on “other national issues.”

California is more Democratic than most states, of course, but Democrats elsewhere share the view that impeachment is a top priority, UCLA political scientists Lynn Vavreck and Chris Tausanovitch have found with their own analysis of polling data.

Doing what your constituents consider a top priority pretty much defines the job of a representative in Congress. Making the decision easier, there’s very little evidence of a political downside.

Ever since the debate began, Republicans have told themselves — and some outside analysts have agreed — that impeachment would hurt the Democrats and cost them seats in the House. After all, the impeachment of President Clinton in 1998, when the roles were flipped, contributed to the Republican loss of the House majority in that year’s elections.

No such backlash has occurred so far this time.

Last month, Democrats won two elections for governor in Republican states, Kentucky and Louisiana, where Trump campaigned heavily for his party’s candidates. And this week, Trump’s campaign manager, Brad Parscale, was so desperate for evidence of a political problem for Democrats that he tweeted out results of a survey done by Trump’s pollster showing that Rep. Kendra Horn — a Democrat elected last year in a huge upset in a heavily Republican district in Oklahoma — faced a tough reelection.

The poll, as several nonpartisan experts noted, actually showed Horn doing better against a Republican challenger than most analysts would have guessed.

WHAT COMES NEXT

On Monday, the Intelligence Committee’s Democratic and Republican lawyers are scheduled to lay out the two sides’ respective cases to the Judiciary Committee.

Then, midweek, expect to see the Judiciary Committee meet to hash out the specifics of an impeachment resolution. Officials are already warning reporters that the markup of the resolution could turn into a 24-hour marathon session if Republicans exercise their procedural rights to slow things down. Here’s Wire’s look at the California members of the Judiciary panel as that chore begins.

From there, the impeachment resolution would go to the House Rules Committee to set the parameters for a floor debate. The battle on the House floor would take place during the week of Dec. 16 with a vote likely around Dec. 20.

Also that week, the House and Senate need to agree on a crucial government spending bill or bring on a shutdown of federal agencies.

At the center of the spending debate, once again, is Trump’s demand for billions of dollars to fund his border wall. A year ago, Democrats’ refusal to agree to that demand led to the longest government shutdown in U.S. history — 35 days.

Merry Christmas.

STATE OF THE RACE IN CALIFORNIA

The Democratic primary remains fluid in California, our new Berkeley Institute for Governmental Studies statewide poll finds. But as Janet Hook wrote, it may not be fluid enough to provide a realistic opening for Michael Bloomberg, despite all his money.

The poll finds Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont slightly edging out Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts for the top spot while Biden and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg vie for third.

Bloomberg, meanwhile starts off with just 2% of the likely primary voters listing him as their first choice, only 8% saying they’re even considering him and a deeply negative image. Can tons of television advertising change that picture enough to jump-start his campaign? History suggests not, but maybe he can defy the odds.

Sen. Kamala Harris had fallen to 7% in the poll, which was finished just a few days before she dropped out of the race. As Melanie Mason and Michael Finnegan note in their analysis of what went wrong with Harris’ bid, her withdrawal probably helps Biden and Warren, since those two were the second choices of most of her supporters. Any boost is probably marginal, but her rivals quickly swooped in to try to capitalize on Harris’ departure.

The poll also found that a sizable majority of California Democrats wanted Harris to drop out.

Finally, the poll asked voters for their priorities on issues. Climate change topped the list.

TRUMP RIDICULED OVERSEAS

Trump may have hoped that a trip overseas to a NATO meeting would provide flattering headlines to distract from impeachment — “I’m working at the public’s business while the other side is playing politics” was Clinton’s main strategy in 1998, and it worked.

The problem is that Trump lacks the discipline to pull off that strategy and has spent much of the last three years alienating the NATO allies. As a result, the headlines he got, as Noah Bierman wrote, were mostly about the other leaders ridiculing him.

SEEKING TO BLOCK DISCLOSURE

Finally, the Supreme Court has managed so far to largely stay out of the Trump impeachment drama, but that’s likely to end soon. As David Savage wrote, several cases involving subpoenas for Trump’s taxes and other financial records are heading to the high court. The justices could decide as soon as next week to take up at least one of the disputes.

LOGISTICS

That wraps up this week. Until next time, keep track of all the developments in national politics and the Trump administration on our Politics page and on Twitter @latimespolitics.

Send your comments, suggestions and news tips to politics@latimes.com.

If you like this newsletter, tell your friends to sign up.

david.lauter@latimes.com