Behind the Scenes of Impeachment: Crammed Offices, Late Nights, Cold Pizza

  • In Politics
  • 2019-12-08 17:25:01Z
  • By The New York Times
Behind the Scenes of Impeachment: Crammed Offices, Late Nights, Cold Pizza
Behind the Scenes of Impeachment: Crammed Offices, Late Nights, Cold Pizza  

WASHINGTON - Far from any television camera and a half world away from Ukraine, a few dozen Democratic staff aides, lawyers and House members are grinding away this weekend in a loose clump of Capitol Hill offices, the beating heart of the impeachment operation against President Donald Trump.

In cramped spaces in the Rayburn and Longworth House Office Buildings, as well as the speaker's suite, the final articles of impeachment are being incubated in the shadow of the Capitol dome. It is a frantic backstage tableau of Washington anthropology, populated by Judiciary and Intelligence Committee aides, lawmakers and counsels hunched over computer screens and yellow legal pads.

History can get cluttered sometimes. The rooms are littered with empty soda cans, pie leftover from Thanksgiving and boxes pulled from shelves containing files from past impeachments. There are recurrent calls for tech support, caffeine and blankets, because the rooms can get cold, like the pizza. With so much grand talk about "constitutional duties" and "respecting the founders" and "honoring oaths," there is also the mundane and the workaday.

Norman L. Eisen, one of the Democrats' special oversight counsels on the Judiciary Committee, is consulting through the weekend with a procession of staff and lawmakers, while Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., Judiciary chairman, has been shuttling in recent days between the workspaces of his committee and the Capitol offices of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the final decision maker on the wording of an expected two to four articles on presidential abuse of power, obstruction of justice and obstruction of Congress, and an accompanying impeachment report that could stretch to hundreds of pages.

"I have 50 emails telling me, 'Here's what needs to be in the articles,'" said Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., a member of the Judiciary Committee. "Go broader! Go narrow! Everybody wants to have their say."

This weekend, as in previous weeks, Democrats are also holding practice hearings inside the grand Ways and Means committee room, which also serves as the backup House chamber and is kept at a perpetual frosty chill.

"We're trying to avoid open-mic night," said Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., who is a member of both the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees.

Saturday, they also released a 52-page report, "Constitutional Grounds for Presidential Impeachment," based on weeks of staff research in dusty files to inform the coming debate.

The latest rehearsals are to prepare for a marathon hearing in the same room beginning Monday morning. Democratic lawyers for the Judiciary and Intelligence Committees will formally present the case for impeachment to lawmakers, while Republicans will be allowed equal time to rebut them. By the end of the week, the Judiciary Committee is likely to vote on the articles of impeachment, with a final vote on the floor of the House expected shortly before Christmas.

In a previous practice session before a hearing Wednesday that featured a witness panel of constitutional scholars, Nadler, wielding his wooden gavel, spent extra time rehearsing again and again how to swiftly dispatch with parliamentary disruptions from Republicans. Joshua Matz, a lawyer brought in by the Democrats to help with impeachment, and Barry H. Berke, a veteran white-collar defense lawyer in New York who also serves as special oversight counsel for the Judiciary Committee, took seats at the witness table to sit in for the academics who would appear there the next day.

Democratic lawmakers took turns walking through scripts of questions and responses they had drafted with committee aides. Nadler's chief of staff and others offered feedback: That line did not land. This question needs reworking. The general rule was never ask a question whose answer could not be readily anticipated.

Lawmakers have been encouraged to try to make Latin phrases like "quid pro quo" and concepts like the geopolitics of the former Soviet bloc seem more urgent and accessible to a fatigued public. Explain it in terms of a mayor, they are coached. Explain it in terms of your own experience.

One Democratic lawmaker described the practice sessions as a great deal of tedium punctuated by five minutes of fire. Another planned to bring a seat cushion and blanket.

If Pelosi has resisted one thing above all else, it is fostering the impression that Democrats relish impeachment as a strategic imperative allowing them a chance to flex their constitutional muscle against a rampaging president. Republicans say Pelosi is running a grandstanding spectacle but she continues to describe it as a solemn duty, performed, she has said, in sadness.

"I commend our committee chairs and our members for their somber approach to actions, which I wish the president had not made necessary," the speaker, flanked by American flags, said Thursday morning in a widely televised address.

But all that solemnity can be exhausting, and Democrats on the Judiciary Committee have turned to a text chain for moments of levity, exchanging GIFs, atta-boys and morale check-ins by phone.

The Judiciary Committee is not the only center of action. The Intelligence Committee housed the investigation for its first two months, its members and staff sleeping little as they worked mostly in windowless chambers three stories below the Capitol.

As with the Judiciary Committee hearings, as little as possible was left to chance before the cameras came on for five days of often-dramatic testimony. Rep. Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, remains closely involved as aides from his committee and the judiciary panel work with Pelosi on drafting the articles of impeachment.

On Tuesday, after the Intelligence Committee released a 300-page report accusing Trump of abusing his office for personal political gain, several Judiciary Committee staff members worked through the night to digest the findings. The goal was to produce fresh and timely questions for the next morning's hearing with the constitutional scholars.

Separately, Laurence H. Tribe, the constitutional law professor at Harvard, planned to travel to Washington on Saturday to discuss impeachment with Democratic members, kept in town over the weekend for two lengthy prep sessions.

Republicans, members of the minority party in a chamber where the majority calls all the shots, count fewer members on the key committees, smaller staff and second-tier office suites. But in many ways they have set up an impeachment juggernaut of their own that is the shadow of Democrats', with their members and aides running similar moot hearings. In one last month, before a high-stakes Intelligence Committee hearing, Rep. Lee Zeldin of New York, an outspoken Trump supporter, switched hats to play Schiff.

Inside the Judiciary Committee offices, the all-nighter faces of the back-room ensemble belie the notion that they are engaged in a glamorous pursuit, however historic. The prep work unfolds in rooms that are accessible by haphazardly functioning key cards and are punctuated by late-night vacuum screams. And personal space is in short supply: The Democrats have packed their offices with extra desks and new shelving to hold all the paperwork they need at the ready.

But food has been arriving like a perpetual potluck: Brownies, cookies, Indian curries, pies, endless coffee. A leftover Thanksgiving turkey sits in a Judiciary Committee fridge, a relic of a holiday spent typing. Like so much impeachment planning, you take what comes, expect the unexpected and, in many cases, the very much expected.

"It tends to be pizza," Swalwell said of the go-to sustenance in the run-up to the hearing. But you never know, hope springs eternal for a bit of variety, maybe something different before Monday.

"I'm just looking for a break," Swalwell said, "from pizza."

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

© 2019 The New York Times Company


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