The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Drawn-out impeachment process sparks concerns about disruptions to Democratic presidential primary

Republican Reps. Steve Scalise (La.), left, and Jim Jordan (Ohio) during a break on Oct. 29, 2019, in testimony being given by Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a witness in the impeachment inquiry into President Trump’s conduct. (Erin Scott/Reuters)

House Democrats increasingly expect their impeachment effort against President Trump to stretch well past Thanksgiving, possibly forcing a Senate trial into January or later — a timeline that could disrupt the final weeks of campaigning before their party starts to choose its nominee.

House leaders had initially hoped to hold a floor vote before the Nov. 28 holiday so the Senate could hold a trial before Christmas. But the surprising number of witnesses agreeing to testify behind closed doors in the Capitol over the past few weeks has extended the timeline and sparked a debate over whether prolonged impeachment proceedings are politically prudent.

Some Democratic strategists have raised concerns that an extended process that bridges the holiday season risks losing the nation’s attention or lending credence to Republican claims that Democrats have been distracted from bread-and-butter issues such as health care and job creation on which they focused in the 2018 election.

“The bandwidth and the attention span for it will be hard-pressed once the holiday season is engaged,” said Dan Sena, a former executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “I think this is not something people want on their dinner table.”

A January trial also would disrupt the final weeks of campaigning before the Iowa caucuses for candidates who are senators in Washington, while others, including former vice president Joe Biden and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, continued to rally voters on the campaign trail. The Iowa caucuses are Feb. 3.

House leaders plan for the first floor vote in the impeachment inquiry on Thursday in a move to authorize public hearings on the matter and ensure the release of deposition transcripts.

Under the constitutional process, the House can impeach with a simple majority vote. The Senate would then hold a trial, with conviction requiring the votes of two-thirds of the senators present.

House to take first vote on impeachment inquiry of Trump, forcing lawmakers on record

Other strategists have argued that Trump and the Republican Party have reacted so poorly to the impeachment investigation that a drawn-out process could be beneficial to Trump’s rivals.

“He has been exhibiting all the behaviors that polling shows makes the voters who decide elections very nervous about him,” said Dan Pfeiffer, who was a senior White House adviser to President Barack Obama and now co-hosts the “Pod Save America” podcast. “Short-circuiting the investigation to meet an arbitrary deadline is the greater political risk than having it bleed into 2020.”

On Capitol Hill, interviews with more than a dozen House Democrats revealed their hope to conduct a full investigation, with some expressing concern that the process could extend into January.

“The end of the year is the deadline still, and I certainly think it ought to happen before Iowa,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), a supporter of the presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). “When you run against an incumbent, you have to make the case of why to fire them. The House has done that. But you also have to make the case of how you’re going to improve people’s lives.”

Others are focusing more on following the facts.

“I think they should take as long as they need,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii). “They shouldn’t take any extra time. But I don’t think there’s any magic to Thanksgiving or Christmas. This is a weighty matter, and if it takes several months, so be it.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has publicly sided with the latter group, even as the team she has assembled to conduct the inquiry has been moving quickly, repeatedly seeking to avoid judicial involvement that might cause months of delay in an effort to obtain more documents and testimony.

“The timeline will depend on the truth line,” Pelosi said on Oct. 17.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) declined to speculate Tuesday about the possible impact of the impeachment process on the Iowa caucuses.

“We haven’t put a time frame on it. But we would like to do it as expeditiously as possible. And that will be informed by the facts, by our conclusions and where we think we need to go,” Hoyer told reporters.

Republicans have repeatedly tried to use time as a weapon to get the upper hand in proceedings. Trump and members of his staff have refused requests for documents and demanded that current and former officials decline House requests for documents.

Last week, House Republicans tried to disrupt the investigative work, with members storming into a hearing room and delaying a closed-door witness interview.

Trump told Republicans to fight. They took the brawl underground.

So far, the Democratic National Committee and the top presidential campaigns have not weighed in on the timing debate, both because they do not want to politicize the process and because it is difficult to game out just what an extended process would mean, officials said.

Several senators running for president, including Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), a former California state prosecutor, would be likely to try to use a trial of Trump as a showcase for their candidacies. But the trial could also remove them from the campaign trail in early-primary states such as Iowa and New Hampshire just weeks before those jurisdictions vote.

“We have been in uncharted territory for so long, who knows? It could distinguish people or it could complicate things,” said a top official with one of the Democratic campaigns, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss strategy.

Some in the Senate have weighed in on a separate debate over expanding the scope of the investigation, another decision that could extend the reach of the process.

“I think it’s important to get it done, get the information you need and move on,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), a former chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “They just got to stay focused on Ukraine, get the information, and then hopefully come to some sort of [decision on] whether they’re going to send it over here.”

He said time was a factor, though not a decisive one.

“I just think it’s important that they do their job in a very timely manner — whether it’s done by the end of the year or not, I can’t say,” Tester said. “I would prefer it, but I don’t know if that’s a killer or not.”

Other Democrats, including Sen. Christopher A. Coons (Del.), House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot L. Engel (N.Y.) and Rep. Debbie Dingell (Mich.), have echoed Pelosi in resisting an imposed timeline.

“I’ve heard we need to be done before Thanksgiving, that it needs to be done before Christmas, that it needs to be done before the first primary — it needs to be done when it’s done,” said House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.). “This has to be a dignified process and a process the American people respect.”

Hanging over the entire discussion is an awareness of the political nature of impeachment. Though the proceedings have so far been held mostly behind closed doors, leaders of both parties are closely tracking public opinion polls, which since September have shown a clear growth in support for an impeachment investigation and for Trump’s removal from office.

A Washington Post-Schar School poll in early October found that 58 percent of Americans supported opening the inquiry, and 49 percent supported recommending Trump’s removal from office. A CNN poll taken between Oct. 17 and 20 similarly found that 50 percent supported removing him from office.

The strong support for impeachment could put pressure on vulnerable Republican senators, including Cory Gardner (Colo.) and Martha McSally (Ariz.), who recently signed on to a bill that condemns the House impeachment process.

Some Democratic strategists hope a longer impeachment proceeding will help Democratic politicians to make the case that the GOP incumbents are more focused on defending Trump than on working for their states.

But other Democrats worry that the same arguments could be made against their own presidential candidates, who have built campaigns around providing new health insurance options and more support for middle-class families.

“This whole impeachment conversation — you look at cable news and whatever — is overshadowing the actual presidential race,” said Rep. Lois Frankel (D-Fla.). “So I think there are some people who say, ‘Look, you know, we have to have space for the presidential campaigns to play out.’ ”