This spring, as President Donald Trump defiantly rejected congressional attempts to investigate his conduct and policies, Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, asked his Democratic colleagues on his famously voluble panel a loaded question: When all is said and done, given the facts before us, are we heading toward impeaching this president?
The answer came back mixed, said people familiar with the private discussion in an office building opposite the Capitol, with many of the panel's progressive firebrands saying impeachment was inevitable, while some of its more senior members held back, wary of embracing a process likely to unleash forces well beyond their control.
Half a year later, after several twists and turns and the near death of the prospect of impeaching Trump in the House, the answer to Nadler's question has become clear, even as the divisions that were evident on that spring day remain.
After being unceremoniously sidelined for two months while the Intelligence Committee assembled a case that the president pressured Ukraine to help him in the 2020 election, the judiciary panel is poised to retake the national stage this week to swiftly draft and debate articles of impeachment and almost certainly vote to make Trump only the third president in history to be impeached.
"News of the Judiciary Committee's demise has been greatly exaggerated," said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, a top Democratic leader and member of the panel.
What comes next is likely to be a messy and raucous process. And there were already signs late Sunday that the panel, the arbiter of presidential impeachment proceedings past, was again at the center of the maelstrom its Democratic members have been expecting, one way or another, for months.
In a five-page letter packed with complaints about an "unfair process," Pat A. Cipollone, the White House counsel, turned down an offer from Nadler for Trump or his lawyers to participate Wednesday when the committee summons yet-unnamed legal experts to help inform its debate over whether Trump's conduct warrants impeachment.
But Cipollone said Trump's team reserved the right to change course once more information about the hearing became available, and might consider taking part in future Judiciary Committee proceedings, "if you afford the administration the ability to do so meaningfully."
Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic leaders have conspicuously avoided locking in a timeline for the inquiry, but privately they are said to be aiming for a full House vote on impeachment articles before the Christmas recess, barring unexpected developments. That would leave the Judiciary Committee with as little as two weeks to do its work.
"Even at this late date," Cipollone wrote, "it is not yet clear whether you will afford the president at least these basic, fundamental rights, or continue to deny them."
Nadler, in consultation with Pelosi and his members, will have to decide how to handle requests like Cipollone's, weighing a desire to demonstrate fairness to Trump against a determination to maintain forward momentum in the proceedings. It is one of the many delicate tasks, fraught with political risks and legal intricacies, that have fallen to the judiciary panel as the impeachment inquiry enters a critical phase.
The first milestone will come in the form of a written report from the Intelligence Committee, which is to be approved Tuesday. The handoff of the report, which will most likely form much of the basis for articles of impeachment against Trump, will be a stylistic and substantive turning point for the inquiry that will almost certainly inflame a debate that has already roiled Congress and divided the country.
Large, disorderly and stacked with some of Congress' most outspoken progressives and conservatives, the Judiciary Committee is the polar opposite of the small and staid intelligence panel, where rules drafted to facilitate the handling of government secrets allowed Democrats to tightly control every aspect of the impeachment inquiry.
The Judiciary rules, instead, are fundamentally democratic, intended to provide wide latitude for divisive debates over the nation's most pressing policy issues, many of them cultural hot-buttons that fuel each party's activist base. Barring some momentous new evidence, not a single lawmaker on either side is expected to budge.
And while the Intelligence Committee conducted much of its investigative work behind closed doors, the judiciary panel will work entirely in the public glare.
The stakes are high. For party leaders, who have warily eyed recent national polling that shows public opinion essentially unmoved by weeks of fact-finding laying out how Trump twisted the foreign policy process to meet his own domestic political interests, the debate offers perhaps a final chance to move independent voters behind them before putting Trump on trial in the Senate.
Democrats, led by Nadler, intend to try to rein in their more fiery progressives and infuse the proceedings with gravitas, mindful of their role in history. But the freewheeling nature of the panel, with its hyperpartisan members, does not easily lend itself to that task. And their handling of the report by Robert Mueller, the special counsel who investigated Russia's interference in the 2016 election and the Trump campaign, earned Nadler and his committee a reputation for being unable to fully control their own proceedings.
Republicans instead want to mire Democrats in a sloppy fight, making the hearings into such a confusing mishmash of competing information that even Republicans troubled by Trump's actions see no upside in breaking with him. They plan to take advantage of early impeachment advocacy by Nadler and Democrats on the panel to portray the Ukraine matter as simply another attempt by Trump's critics to take him down.
"Any article to come out of this? There is no world in which a Republican, especially on the Judiciary Committee, will accept this," Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the panel's top Republican, said in an interview. "We have seen this sideshow up close all year."
Joining Collins on Republicans' side of the dais are some of the most ardent culture warriors and defenders of Trump: Louie Gohmert of Texas, Matt Gaetz of Florida, Andy Biggs of Arizona and Jim Jordan of Ohio, who led the president's defense in the Intelligence Committee. They have already shown a flair for the dramatic, organizing conservative lawmakers to storm the Intelligence Committee's secure chambers in a stunt to stall the proceedings, which they called a "kangaroo court."
Collins, a Georgia lawyer with an auctioneer's cadence and a lawyer's knack for tripping up committee business with time-consuming parliamentary tactics, is ready to make the proceedings as painful as possible for Democrats. He warned that if Nadler intended to jam articles of impeachment through the committee, he would go down in history as "a giant rubber stamp" for Pelosi and Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the Intelligence Committee chairman.
It will be up to Nadler, a loquacious progressive from Manhattan's Upper West Side who is now one of the House's leaders, to maintain order and inject gravity and fairness into the proceedings. Democrats have spent weeks speculating that his relationship with Pelosi had been badly strained by his earlier push for impeachment, which she publicly opposed, believing the process was too divisive and unlikely, in any event, to result in the president's removal. Both sides deny it, but privately lawmakers around him conceded they were wary of comparisons to Schiff, who oversaw hearings in the Intelligence Committee with an iron fist and tight lips.
Republicans have been quick to weaponize Nadler's patience against him in the past, taking advantage of his reticence to simply gavel them into silence.
"We will bend over backward to be fair," said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash. "Let's see if he stands straight instead of standing corrupt. Let's put the onus on the president to for once perhaps behave."
The clash will begin during Wednesday's hearing. But the panel is expected to convene another session in the coming days for Schiff or his staff members to formally present the Intelligence Committee's findings for consideration, a spectacle akin to the presentation of evidence by Ken Starr, the independent counsel, during President Bill Clinton's impeachment.
Articles of impeachment themselves will be drafted in private, but debated, edited and amended out in the open - a process that could take two to three days of public work.
Privately, Democrats believe they could end up with three to four articles of impeachment: one or two focused on the president's alleged abuse of power related to Ukraine, another chronicling his obstruction of congressional requests for witnesses and documents, and potentially an article focused on findings by Mueller charging Trump with obstructing justice when he tried to thwart the Russia investigation.
That last potential charge is the subject of a lively private debate among Democrats about how broad of a case to make against the president. At least one senior member of the committee, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., said in an interview that she remained unconvinced that Mueller's case united House Democrats in the same way the Ukraine affair has.
"As you will recall, I did not step forward urging movement for impeachment based on the Mueller report," said Lofgren, who worked for the committee during impeachment proceedings against President Richard Nixon and served on it during Clinton's. "What we have got before us, which has been explored factually by the Intelligence Committee, is clear and serious."
Nadler and other members of the Judiciary Committee spent months this summer aggressively pushing within their caucus for impeachment based on Mueller's findings, making only limited headway amid historic White House stonewalling and drawing public criticism for seeming to fumble a case many Democrats once thought would be an ironclad shot at impeaching Trump. That was the state of play in September when they were thrust to the side by Pelosi after an anonymous whistleblower complaint related to Trump's dealings with Ukraine found its way to the Intelligence Committee.
Democrats on the judiciary panel have spent the interim preparing out of public view to close whatever case the caucus can agree on. A small army of staff lawyers has spent weeks exhaustively researching House rules and precedents from the Clinton and Nixon impeachments to help Nadler navigate the coming hearings. And like millions of other Americans, they have had their televisions tuned to the intelligence hearings and the evidence that will soon be in their hands.
"The judiciary committee has been very closely watching the testimony," said Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
© 2019 The New York Times Company