WASHINGTON — The House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday will hold its first impeachment hearing, signifying a new — and unpredictable — step in the Democrats' inquiry into President Donald Trump.
The Judiciary Committee took control of the inquiry Tuesday evening after the House Intelligence Committee voted to approve a report outlining the Democrats' case that the president withheld military aid and a White House meeting from Ukraine while demanding that the country's government announce an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son.
If the Intelligence Committee, led by Chairman Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., was staid and serious during weeks of closed-door depositions and nine long days of public hearings, the Judiciary Committee is expected to be more rambunctious.
Its membership is far larger than the Intelligence Committee and includes some of the most partisan Republicans and Democrats in Congress.
Several of Trump's strongest allies sit on the Republican side, including Reps. Matt Gaetz of Florida, John Ratcliffe of Texas and Jim Jordan of Ohio, who was briefly moved to the Intelligence Committee to provide support to the White House position during last month's public hearings. At the helm for the GOP is another Trump ally: Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, who speaks as quickly and forcefully as an auctioneer hawking a hot product.
The Democrats are just as partisan: Nearly the entire Judiciary Committee supported an impeachment inquiry during former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III's investigation into Russian interference and long before the president spoke with the new president of Ukraine.
That combination could give the Judiciary Committee hearings a level of bombast the public hasn't seen so far. That poses some risks for Democrats because the proceedings could give Republicans a lot of television time to muddy the Democrats' presentation, pointing out flaws in a process that they view as unfair and poking holes in the Democrats' case.
Republicans are expected to be more aggressive than they were in the Intelligence Committee hearings, hoping to knock Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., off his game in a way they weren't able to with Schiff. They are likely to force votes on procedural hurdles and hammer their defense of the president, outlined in a report released by Republican members of the Intelligence Committee on Monday.
"It's a bunch of brawlers sometimes on the Judiciary Committee, so it should get pretty, pretty hot under the collar as we go along," Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., another Trump ally on the committee, said on "Fox News Sunday." He argued that Democrats had not adhered to precedent on impeachment, a view that "causes some rancor. And it should be much more feisty, I would say, than the Intel Committee was."
Nadler's allies insist that he'll be able to manage the process.
"I think that you'll see Chairman Nadler is just not going to put up with nonsense," said Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., who also sits on the committee. "My Republican colleagues compete to be included in the Fox evening news clips. They are performing for an audience of one," she added, referring to the president.
The Judiciary Committee, having been sidelined briefly by the Intelligence Committee, is expected to hold at least two, but more likely three, hearings in the coming weeks, capped with a vote on whether to send impeachment articles to the House floor.
The spotlight in Wednesday's hearing is expected to be more focused on the lawmakers than the witnesses. The panel will hear from a series of professors who will explain why the founders put impeachment into the Constitution and what warrants removal from the White House. While constitutional scholars rarely make for headline-grabbing daytime television, Democrats feel they need to make the case that Trump's offenses warrant impeachment.
They will have some work to do: public polls show that a sizable majority of Americans believe the president's actions on Ukraine were wrong, but only about half of the country believes his conduct warrants impeachment.
Democrats huddled behind closed doors on Tuesday morning to strategize about Wednesday's hearing. Like the Intelligence Committee hearings last month, the Judiciary Committee plans to have staff attorneys help conduct the first 45 minutes of questioning, followed by time for rank-and-file members. They are expected to have tightly prepared questions, similar to the way Democrats had prepared written questions when Mueller testified before the panel in July.
The committee hearings will certainly get more heated in the coming weeks.
Nadler recently invited Trump and his lawyers to participate in the process, an invitation they rebuffed, arguing that the process so far has been a sham and that the hearing was "purposely" scheduled while Trump was in London for a NATO leaders meeting. But they left open the possibility that they could enter the process in the coming weeks.
"It is too late to cure the profound procedural deficiencies that have tainted this entire inquiry," Pat Cipollone, the president's lawyer, wrote in a letter to Nadler. "Nevertheless, if you are serious about conducting a fair process going forward, and in order to protect the rights and privileges of the president, we may consider participating in future Judiciary Committee proceedings if you afford the administration the ability to do so meaningfully."
The president panned the impeachment hearings at a news conference in London on Tuesday.
"I think it's very unpatriotic of the Democrats to put on a performance," Trump said. "I think it's a bad thing for our country."
Republicans have demanded that Schiff testify before the Judiciary Committee, arguing that if he is the face of the investigation, he should defend the case and take questions. With no special prosecutor having investigated the accusations against the president, Schiff has all but taken on the role of Kenneth Starr during the impeachment inquiry against President Bill Clinton or Leon Jaworski during Watergate.
Schiff ruled out the idea, arguing that committee chairmen did not do so during either impeachment inquiry and calling the GOP request not serious.
"Their only purpose is to mollify the president and that's not a good reason," he said of testifying.
The House Intelligence Committee's majority counsel, Daniel Goldman, and minority counsel, Steve Castor, are expected to present their respective parties' case to the Judiciary Committee in a hearing this month.