Events in the early part of last week, perhaps not fully appreciated in the run-up to the long holiday weekend, may turn out to be determinative in the impeachment story playing out before our eyes.
First, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Schiff, D-California, announced he would not wait for the determination of court fights over witnesses nor discovery of new lines of evidence before drafting the committee’s report and forwarding it to the Judiciary Committee. The report was to be reviewed by committee members on Monday and then put up for a vote Tuesday.
The big challenge for Schiff: Can he avoid the pitfalls of the Mueller report? The report has to be readable and digestible by the average American, painting a compelling picture of a president abusing his office for private, partisan advantage. Schiff must explain why President Trump’s conduct is so egregious while batting down the notion that we lack definitive evidence Trump directed the extortion scheme against an ally. (Trump’s own words in the July 25 call and the sequence by which aid was blocked and released, not to mention acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney’s public confession, would get any decent prosecutor a conviction in a criminal courtroom.)
Second, a federal court on Monday held Trump’s claim of absolute immunity used to block the testimony of Donald McGahn was, to borrow a word, malarkey. Will the appeals court and the Supreme Court affirm that ruling in a timely fashion, compelling potentially devastating witnesses to come forward? At issue would be not only McGahn’s testimony, but also that of Mulvaney, of former national security adviser John Bolton and of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. If that happens, the floodgates may open and the last scraps of deniability for Trump may vanish.
Third, The Washington Post reported last week that one of Rudy Giuliani’s henchmen, Lev Parnas, allegedly was helping “the top Republican on the House Intelligence committee, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-California, … search for wrongdoing by former vice president Joe Biden in Ukraine, too.” Parnas is facing charges of his own so, The Post writes, he “certainly has reason to try to offer information to Congress that might help alleviate his legal trouble. But his claim would be a big deal if true, putting a member of Congress who plays a major role in the investigation into Trump as a part of the episode Trump is being impeached over.” Nunes has yet to deny the claims directly. Will Nunes, the chief Republican conspiratorialist, himself be toppled, thereby revealing House Republicans’ bad faith in concocting blatantly ridiculous defenses for Trump?
Fourth, Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, who already had a major revision of his testimony and implausibly testified he did not recognize that “Burisma investigation” meant investigation into the Bidens, is in hot water again. Sondland testified to an alleged Sept. 9 call with Trump in which Trump blurted out “no quid pro quo,” an odd formulation since Sondland had not raised the issue first. However, the lack of a record of the alleged call, the time of the alleged call (in the wee hours of the morning in Washington, D.C.) and other witness testimony suggest there was no such call. Instead, other evidence substantiates a Sept. 7 call “in which the president made clear that he wanted his Ukrainian counterpart to personally announce investigations into Trump’s political opponents.” That leads to the dual questions: Does Sondland have some liability for false testimony under oath, and does the evisceration of this witness remove one of the few remaining lines of defense for Trump?
Fifth, Schiff’s report will be tightly focused on the Ukraine scandal and on Trump’s obstruction of Congress, including possible witness intimidation. However, it is an open question as to whether Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-New York, adds to the material for additional articles of impeachment including, for example, the instances of obstruction detailed in the Mueller report. Will the impeachment go narrow or broad, and if the latter, is this going to drag well into 2020?
Ultimately, impeachment is a political process. While Democrats remain united, and the public narrowly favors impeachment, Republicans are dug in, seemingly willing to stake their political survival and personal credibility on a president who betrayed our own national security to obtain foreign help (again) in his election.
Jennifer Rubin writes reported opinion for The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter @JRubinBlogger.