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Democrats count on Schiff to deliver focused impeachment inquiry of Trump

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) is interviewed at the Capitol on Thursday. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

It was a low point for House Democrats hoping to build a case to remove President Trump from office — a committee hearing in which former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski made his questioners look hapless with a flurry of deflections and delays.

“I heard it did not go well,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told one of her fellow leaders, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), hours after he had participated in the Sept. 17 hearing — an observation she and other leaders would hear from several Democrats, according to officials familiar with the discussions who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations. Another top Democrat, Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth (Ky.), had a more blunt assessment: “A fiasco.”

The confrontation served as a reminder of how the Democrats, through years of speeches, lawsuits and subpoenas — even after taking the House majority this year — have thus far failed to figure out how to hold a norm-busting president and his lieutenants in check.

It also laid the groundwork for a critical shift in the Democrats’ strategy that has emerged in recent days in the wake of the revelation about Trump’s interactions with Ukraine’s president and Trump’s alleged abuse of power in asking a foreign government to provide dirt on a political rival.

The confluence of two otherwise coincidental events — the embarrassing Lewandowski hearing followed in quick succession by the explosion of the Ukraine story — handed Pelosi an opening to sideline Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) in favor of the more widely trusted head of the Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.), as Democrats launch the formal impeachment inquiry. And Pelosi has made clear that the investigation will focus narrowly on the Ukraine matter, a scandal she says can be easily understood by the public.

Schiff, in concert with other chairmen, moved swiftly Friday to issue subpoenas for documents from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and set up depositions next week with State Department officials who would have knowledge of Trump’s engagements with Ukraine. One official, Kurt Volker, suddenly resigned Friday as Trump’s special envoy on Ukraine, the first casualty of the burgeoning scandal.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) on Sept. 26 told reporters the whistleblower claims have given lawmakers “a roadmap” for the impeachment inquiry of Trump. (Video: The Washington Post)

The panel also scheduled a closed briefing for Friday with the intelligence community’s inspector general, whose preliminary investigation of a whistleblower’s complaint about Trump’s call found it a matter of “urgent concern.”

“We have to flesh out all of the facts for the American people,” Schiff said in a letter to colleagues last week. “The seriousness of the matter and the danger to our country demands nothing less.”

Pelosi repeatedly has expressed sadness about embarking on the consequential step of impeaching a president, a politically divisive move that could boost Trump’s reelection bid and imperil her majority. Even if the House votes to impeach Trump, ousting the president is a long shot in the Republican-controlled Senate. Democrats owe House control to dozens of moderates who won in Republican districts last fall and, like Pelosi, dropped their resistance to an impeachment inquiry in the days after the Ukraine revelation. Of the 235 Democrats in the House, 224 back an impeachment inquiry — 86 rushing to support it over a five-day period, according to a Washington Post analysis.

Where House Democrats stand on impeaching Trump

“We must be somber, we must be prayerful, and we must pursue the facts further to make a decision as to, did this violate the Constitution of the United States, which I believe it did,” Pelosi said Saturday at the Texas Tribune Festival in Austin.

Facing a skeptical public, House Democrats are overwhelmingly backing Schiff — none more so than endangered incumbents who privately pushed Pelosi to at least temporarily muzzle the House Judiciary Committee, which traditionally takes the lead in impeachment. Those lawmakers, mostly moderates in GOP-leaning districts, argued that the panel, which is packed with some of the caucus’s most liberal members, had bungled its investigations and appeared too partisan and eager to oust Trump to carry their message to the broader public.

“I have an issue with people bringing a bucket of chicken into a hearing room,” said centrist Rep. Max Rose (D-N.Y.), who has not backed impeachment and has been frustrated with the Judiciary theatrics. He was referring to Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), who used fried chicken to mock Attorney General William P. Barr for his refusal to testify at a hearing in May.

In a private meeting Thursday night, several moderates told Pelosi that Schiff needed to be the face of their impeachment inquiry and said they didn’t want other, more liberal voices to continue making the case on television.

Rep. Darren Soto (D-Fla.), who represents an Orlando-area district, had pressed House leaders to appoint a special committee to probe the Ukraine allegations. Soto called the Judiciary hearing with Lewandowski “rudderless.”

After watching Schiff and colleagues question acting director of national intelligence Joseph Maguire on Thursday, Soto said he was satisfied with the selection of the Intelligence panel.

“This investigation has found the proper home to be conducted seriously,” he said.

Most Democrats, including many Judiciary members, see the Intelligence panel as the more appropriate venue for investigating Trump’s July 25 call to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in which he asked the foreign leader to help dig up dirt on former vice president Joe Biden, a leading 2020 Democratic presidential contender, and his son Hunter.

“We need to be aware of the gravity of this moment,” said Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), a centrist who worked in the Clinton White House during the last impeachment proceedings and saw firsthand the political blowback against the GOP.

Nadler has accepted the change in leadership, according to lawmakers and aides. In a show of unity, the two men appeared side by side at a Congressional Progressive Caucus meeting Thursday, promising a swift and thorough investigation. Through a spokesman, Nadler declined to comment.

With a seemingly endless string of TV appearances, Schiff earned his Democratic colleagues’ trust as a public messenger early in the Trump administration, leading the party’s response to allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible obstruction of justice by the president.

Schiff, 59, was a prosecutor in the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles from 1987 to 1993, served in the California Senate and defeated a Republican who had pushed for President Bill Clinton’s impeachment to secure a House seat in 2000.

As former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into Russian election interference unfolded, Republicans leveled withering attacks on Schiff for pushing a collusion narrative that Mueller’s report, they said, ultimately did not support. But inside the secretive confines of the Intelligence Committee, he has won universal praise from Democrats for his tone and professionalism.

“There’s no better guy on the face of the planet to undertake this in an adultlike, intelligent, integrity-filled manner than Adam B. Schiff. Period, full stop,” said Rep. Denny Heck (D-Wash.), a committee member.

But perils abound, as Schiff learned Thursday during the Maguire hearing. While many Democrats praised the solemn nature of the proceedings, his decision to dramatize and embellish the transcript of Trump’s call with Ukraine’s president drew criticism from potentially persuadable Republicans on his panel, not to mention Trump loyalists.

Schiff defended his words as a “parody,” but Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Trump-friendly House Freedom Caucus, introduced a motion to condemn and censure him Friday, shortly after Trump tweeted that Schiff “totally made up my conversation” and demanded his resignation.

Acting intelligence chief Maguire defends his handling of whistleblower complaint in testimony before Congress

The greater concern, however, was rebukes from Intelligence Committee Reps. Michael R. Turner (Ohio) and Elise Stefanik (N.Y.) — moderate Republicans who some Democrats say could eventually endorse investigative findings condemning Trump. “We should focus on the facts,” Stefanik said, calling Schiff’s words “disturbing and outrageous.”

So far, the GOP has remained unified behind Trump, but that support has shown some cracks. In the Senate last week, Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) said it was inappropriate for Trump to ask Ukraine to investigate a political adversary. And moderate Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) declined to comment on the controversy because she might someday be a juror in a trial to remove Trump from office.

In Texas on Saturday, Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), chairwoman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, was asked whether impeachment would galvanize Republican voters. She held up copies of the whistleblower complaint and the memo of the president’s call with Ukraine’s president.

“These are his words, for God’s sake, and you’ve got Republicans who are silent,” Bustos said at the Texas Tribune Festival.

Schiff’s preeminent role means Nadler and the Judiciary Committee have been at least temporarily relegated to the wings, with their investigative work largely put on hold as Nadler awaits direction on how to write articles of impeachment.

For months, Nadler was the face of the left’s push to impeach Trump — much to the chagrin of Pelosi and moderate Democrats who thought he was too aggressive. The Judiciary panel hoped to investigate a list of Trump controversies, from hush payments made to women alleging sexual encounters with Trump to obstructions laid out in Mueller’s report — charges that many moderate Democrats worried wouldn’t resonate with the public.

At the same time, the tensions between Pelosi and Nadler were starting to spill out into the open. The two had never seen eye-to-eye on the pace or the substance of an impeachment inquiry, with Nadler pushing a reluctant Pelosi privately to embrace Trump’s ousting, while the speaker maintained that the panel didn’t yet have the goods to sway the public.

Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (D-Pa.), the Judiciary vice chair, credited Nadler for making the best of a difficult situation “given the unprecedented executive branch noncompliance with the Constitution.”

And, Judiciary members were quick to point out, they will get to add the final flourish of impeachment. Lawmakers and aides said there is a growing desire, for instance, to include an article condemning Trump’s obstruction of Congress to the bill of offenses to be prepared by the panel.

“When it’s time to score the touchdown,” said Rep. Cedric L. Richmond (D-La.), a Judiciary panel member, “they’ll give us the ball.”

Karoun Demirjian and Paul Kane in Washington and Dave Weigel in Austin contributed to this report.

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