Congress

House Democrats sharpen counterattacks to Republican impeachment process complaints

Democrats say this part of the inquiry needs to be conducted behind closed doors but public portions coming

From left, Reps. Andy Harris of Maryland, Andy Biggs of Arizona and Steve King of Iowa speak to reporters Wednesday after being denied access to transcripts because they aren't on the committees conducting the impeachment inquiry. Democrats have begun to change tack on their response to GOP messaging on the probe. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

House Democrats in recent days have sharpened their counterattacks to Republican assertions that they’re running an illegitimate and nontransparent impeachment process. 

The rebukes represent a shift in messaging strategy as Democrats had largely been trying to avoid engaging in a back-and-forth about process, arguing the GOP was manufacturing concerns to avoid having to defend President Donald Trump on the substance of the impeachment inquiry.

But now Democrats are also offering specific rebuttals to Republican complaints about depositions being conducted behind closed doors and the minority not being granted subpoena authority and other process rights.

The messaging change suggests a concern among Democrats that the GOP attacks were registering with the public. It comes off a two-week recess in which members on both sides of the aisle said their constituents had questions about the process that they couldn’t really answer. 

“I had been getting feedback from my community asking those questions, and so I wanted to make sure that I elevated those questions for my community to the caucus,” Rep. Chrissy Houlahan told CQ Roll Call. 

The Pennsylvania Democrat had asked Intelligence Chairman Adam B. Schiff during a closed-door caucus meeting Tuesday evening if the minority was able to be present for the depositions and ask questions. Houlahan said she was satisfied with Schiff’s answer that the process is fair. 

After the caucus meeting, Schiff provided a similar answer to reporters when asked during a news conference with Speaker Nancy Pelosi why the witnesses being deposed as part of the impeachment inquiry were being interviewed behind closed doors. 

Schiff said people need to understand that the impeachment investigation that the Intelligence, Oversight and Foreign Affairs panels are conducting into allegations Trump pressured a foreign government to investigate a political rival are different from the Russia investigation and probes into former Presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton.

“In each of those cases, there were either independent counsels or special prosecutors doing the investigation, doing the initial investigative work, and that was all done behind closed doors,” the California Democrat said, citing the investigative need to ensure witnesses cannot know what other witnesses are saying.

Congress has to perform the initial investigatory work that normally a special counsel would do because the Justice Department dismissed a referral made to it on the matter, Schiff said, in explaining what he called “good and sound reasons” that the depositions are occurring behind closed doors. 

“Now, I should tell you, notwithstanding those good and sound reasons, at each of these committee interviews and depositions and when we get to open hearings — and we will get to open hearings — the Republicans are completely represented,” he said. 

Schiff said all members of the Intelligence, Oversight and Foreign Affairs committees and their staffs are able to attend the depositions and ask questions, and the minority is provided equal time for questioning, alternating sides every 45 minutes to an hour. 

“They have been largely staff-conducted interviews. They have been very professionally done, although members, too, get to ask questions and we go until the questions are exhausted so they get to ask all the questions they want,” he said, emphasizing that there’s “full participation by the GOP.” 

Schiff noted that there will come a time in the investigation in which the committees will release the transcript of the depositions and call back a few witnesses to testify in open session, possibly also calling new witnesses as well. 

Schiff reiterated his defense of the process in a “Dear Colleague” letter Wednesday evening.

Republicans not buying it 

Oversight ranking member Jim Jordan, who has been a leading Republican voice against Democrats’ approach to the impeachment inquiry, chuckled when told that Schiff compared the current stage of the inquiry to the work the independent counsel did leading up to Clinton’s impeachment.

“Oh, so Adam Schiff is an independent counsel? Come on. That’s laughable,” the Ohio Republican said. 

“We’re talking about impeaching the president of the United States in secret, based on an anonymous whistleblower with no first-hand knowledge, [who] has a bias against the president, has been reported that he worked with Joe Biden, who when he hears about the call, the next day writes a memo using all kinds of descriptors like crazy, scary, but then waits 18 days before he files a complaint,” Jordan added. “And who does he run up to see in that interim? Adam Schiff’s staff. And now that guy says, ‘Now I’m going to be the special counsel and the independent counsel.’ That is laughable.”

Republicans, as a whole, are putting much of the blame on Schiff for what they say is a secretive, politically motivated probe into the president.

“He’s taken this to a Soviet-style inquiry. That is to say, everything’s behind closed doors. There’s absolutely no transparency,” Arizona Rep. Andy Biggs said.

Biggs, the House Freedom Caucus chairman, has taken the lead on an effort to censure Schiff based on allegations that he repeatedly misled the public and concealed information on the impeachment inquiry from the public and other members of Congress.

Republican members who requested to read the transcripts of testimony in the impeachment inquiry were denied access because they were not on the committees of jurisdiction, according to Biggs and House Republican Conference Chairwoman Liz Cheney.

Kansas Republican Roger Marshall said the closed-door sessions are creating an imbalance of information among the public.

“The public opinion is already shaping,” Marshall said. “They’re trying this in a court of public opinion and Americans deserve to hear both sides of the story in real time.”

Republicans said they’ve fielded complaints about the process from constituents. 

“I represent 750,000 people. I held three town halls in the last three days. People want to know what’s going on,” Maryland Rep. Andy Harris said. “They want to know [why] I can’t go to Washington and get information.”

Democrats go on offense

With Republicans not relenting on their process attacks, some Democratic leaders have decided to go on offense and tout the deliberative process the majority is employing, without being asked.

For example, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, during opening remarks at his weekly pen-and-pad briefing with reporters Wednesday, said Democrats are conducting the impeachment inquiry “in a fair way.”

“We are going to continue to proceed on this path in fact-finding mode with both sides involved, both sides being able to ask questions,” the Maryland Democrat said. 

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries came to his weekly news conference prepared to respond to a question about why Democrats were not giving the minority subpoena power as Republicans have argued their party provided the Democratic minority during the impeachment inquiry into Clinton. 

The New York Democrat cited the exact resolution, HR 581, that the Republican majority passed on Oct. 8, 1998, authorizing subpoena power in the Clinton impeachment investigation. The resolution said that the chairman and ranking member of the committee could act jointly to issue a subpoena, or in the event that either declines the other’s request, it could be brought before the committee for a vote. 

“The ranking member didn’t have an automatic right to issue a subpoena. … They had to take a vote before the committee of jurisdiction,” said Jeffries, a Judiciary member. He noted that is not any different than the current Intelligence Committee rules for subpoenas. 

Other Democrats echoed Schiff’s arguments that the House was basically now in the phase that was conducted by an independent counsel before the chamber formally launched impeachment inquiries into Clinton and Nixon. 

Judiciary member Sheila Jackson Lee, who was in Congress during the Clinton impeachment, said most Americans don’t remember the behind-the-scenes independent counsel work that was conducted before the public impeachment proceedings. 

“I think we’re going to be getting more out in saying that we are in essence doing the investigation that an independent statutory counsel is doing, that the American public will not be kept from the exposure of what we’re doing for long,” the Texas Democrat said. “There will be hearings, but we’re doing the groundwork. We’re doing the police work, if you will, to get the facts and then be able to share the narrative, the story, the truth to the American people.” 

Rep. David Cicilline, who chairs the House Democrats’ messaging arm and sits on both the Foreign Affairs and Judiciary panels, compared the proceedings to a grand jury investigation. In such proceedings, witness testimony is confidential so others can’t tailor their testimony and “due process doesn’t exist,” he said, dismissing Republican arguments.  

“The full panoply of due process in terms of cross-examination, producing your own witnesses, all of that, will happen at the time the president is tried, if there’s a trial in the Senate,” the Rhode Island Democrat said.

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