By Lisa Mascaro and Mary Clare Jalonick
WASHINGTON (AP) — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had a simple question for fellow Democrats behind closed doors Wednesday, addressing them as the Judiciary Committee considered articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump in an initial hearing that erupted in sharply partisan exchanges.
“Are you ready?” she asked rank-and-file lawmakers.
The answer was a resounding yes.
The Democrats also gave a standing ovation to Rep. Adam Schiff, whose Intelligence Committee report cataloged potential grounds for impeachment, overwhelmingly indicating they want to continue to press the inquiry rather than slow its advance or call a halt for fear of political costs in next year’s congressional elections.
)The meeting was described by people familiar with it, who were unauthorized to discuss it by name and were granted anonymity.
Pelosi, once reluctant to engage in a strictly party-line impeachment proceeding, is now leading colleagues to a likelypartisan vote after a House investigation found that Trump seriously misused the power of his office to seek foreign interference in the U.S. election and then obstructed Congress in its efforts to investigate.
Support for the impeachment effort was vigorous in the Democrats’ private meeting, though voting to remove Trump could come hard for some lawmakers in regions where the president has substantial backing.
Meanwhile, Tr ump’s team fanned out across the Capitol with Vice President Mike Pence meeting with House Republicans and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell gathering GOP lawmakers from his chamber with White House officials to prepare for what could be the first presidential impeachment trial in a generation.
Some of those from the White House still believe the unpopularity of impeachment in areas where Trump is popular will prevent a vote in the House. That seems unlikely.
Elsewhere at the Capitol, Republicans at the Judiciary Committee hearing protested the proceedings as unfair, the dredging up of unfounded allegations as part of an effort to undo the 2016 election and remove Trump from office.
“You just don’t like the guy,” said Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the top Republican on the panel. He called the proceedings a “disgrace” and a “sham.”
Trump, attending a NATO meeting in London called the hearing a “joke” and doubted many people would watch “because it’s going to be boring.”
Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., had a different view as he gaveled open the session.
The matter is serious and “the facts before us are undisputed,” he declared.
Pelosi has said no decision has been made on whether there will be a House vote on impeaching Trump. But a vote by Christmas appears increasingly likely with the release of the 300-page report by Democrats on the Intelligence Committee that found “serious misconduct” by the president.
At the heart of the inquiry is Trump’s July 25 phone call asking Ukraine for a “favor,” to investigate rival Democrats including Joe Biden. Trump at the time was withholding $400 million in military aid from the ally, which faced an aggressive Russia on its border.
Nadler said the phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy wasn’t the first time Trump sought a foreign power to influence American elections, noting Russian interference in 2016.
“We cannot wait for the election to address the present crisis,” Nadler said. “The president has shown us his pattern of conduct. If we do not act to hold him in check, now, President Trump will almost certainly try again to solicit interference in the election for his personal political gain.”
White House Counsel Pat Cipollone, who has declined for now to participate in the House proceedings, relayed that Trump sees no need for a Senate trial but is eager to have his say.
Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said, “He feels like he has had no opportunity to tell his side of the story.”
Trump lambastes the impeachment probe daily and proclaims his innocence of any wrongdoing at length, but he has declined to testify before House hearings.
At Wednesday’s session, three legal experts called by Democrats said impeachment was merited.
Noah Feldman, a Harvard Law School professor, said he considered it clear that the president’s conduct met the definition of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Pamela Karlan, a Stanford Law School professor and former Obama administration Justice Department official, said the president’s action constituted an especially serious abuse of power “because it undermines democracy itself.”
“If what we’re talking about is not impeachable,” said Michael Gerhardt, a University of North Carolina law professor, “then nothing is impeachable.”
The only Republican witness, Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University, dissented. He said the Democrats were bringing a “slipshod impeachment” case against the president, but he didn’t excuse Trump’s behavior.
“It is not wrong because President Trump is right,” Turley said. “A case for impeachment could be made, but it cannot be made on this record.”
New telephone records released with the House committee report deepened Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani’s known involvement in what House investigators call the “scheme,”
Asked about that, Trump told reporters he doesn’t know why Giuliani was calling the White House Office of Management and Budget, which was withholding $400 million in military aid to Ukraine.
“‘You have to ask him,” Trump said. “Sounds like something that’s not so complicated. … No big deal.”
Based on two months of investigation sparked by a still-anonymous government whistleblower’s complaint, the Intelligence Committee’s Trump-Ukraine Impeachment Inquiry Report relies heavily on testimony from current and former U.S. officials who defied White House orders and appeared.
Trump “sought to undermine the integrity of the U.S. presidential election process, and endangered U.S. national security,” the committee report says. When Congress began investigating, it adds, Trump obstructed the investigation like no other president in history.
Republicans defended the president in a 123-page rebuttal claiming Trump never intended to pressure Ukraine when he asked for a “favor” — investigations of Democrats and Biden and his son. They say the military aid the White House was withholding was not being used as leverage, as Democrats claim — and besides, the money was ultimately released, although only after a congressional outcry.
Democrats once hoped to sway Republicans to consider Trump’s removal, but they are now facing an ever-hardening partisan split over the swift-moving proceedings that are dividing Congress and the country.
While liberal Democrats are pushing the party to go further and incorporate the findings from former special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election and other actions by Trump, more centrist and moderate Democrats prefer to stick with the Ukraine matter as a simpler narrative that Americans understand.
Democrats could begin drafting articles of impeachment in a matter of days, with a Judiciary Committee vote next week. The full House could vote by Christmas. Then the matter would move to the Senate for a trial in 2020.