Each morning Republicans, Democrats and staff gather in a secure conference room in the basement of the Capitol, huddling behind closed doors for depositions from witnesses in the fact-finding phase of the House’s impeachment inquiry of President Trump.
“It starts one hour, one hour,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), explaining how the questioning moves beyond one-hour blocks for each side. “Then it goes 45, 45, 45, 45, with breaks, occasionally, and breaks for lunch.”
Meadows, one of Trump’s staunchest allies, said each side has been allowed an unlimited amount of questions they can ask of witnesses.
“Oh yeah. Of the witnesses? We have, yeah. You just keep going until you wear out,” Meadows, who has attended all but one session, said during a break Tuesday evening.
More than three weeks since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) launched the impeachment inquiry, Trump and his Republican allies in Congress have spent most of their political capital attacking the credibility of the process Democrats are using — at the same time GOP lawmakers are fully participating in the probe.
Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) even plans to force a procedural vote on whether to censure Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, for his conducting a “Soviet-style” investigation.
Democrats will table that resolution later this week and try to turn the focus back to the substance of what these interviews have revealed, particularly those over the past two weeks with current and former Trump administration officials.
Those officials, according to those who have heard the testimony and spoke on the condition of anonymity to frankly describe the sessions, paint a portrait of a once-hallowed State Department and National Security Council where career experts on Ukraine got pushed aside in favor of Trump’s friends and allies who helped pursue the president’s goal of investigating his domestic political rivals.
Trump regularly lambastes “shifty Schiff,” and many other Republicans join in the attacks on the process unfolding on Capitol Hill without dealing with the substance of the testimony.
It’s a playbook as old as Congress itself. When having trouble arguing the facts, you go straight into a full-frontal attack on the process. And, at times, Democrats have played into Trump’s hands, beginning with Schiff using an open hearing to re-create a dramatized version of Trump’s July 25 call to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
But Democrats have also struggled to explain just how normal their process has been, how it is following precedents and will almost certainly lead to the type of open hearings that Republicans are demanding.
Those participating in the closed-door depositions generally say that these interviews are very professional and that both sides have operated under rules that were approved in January.
Democrats believe that this stage is doing the type of work that special counsels appointed by the Justice Departments did in 1974 and 1998, eventually sending reports to Congress for impeachment proceedings of Richard M. Nixon and Bill Clinton.
“There were special counsels who operated outside the public venues for months developing the facts,” Rep. Sean Maloney (D-N.Y.) said.
A special counsel’s investigation into Trump’s 2016 campaign ended with a more than 400-page redacted report that Pelosi has, so far, deemed too complicated for the public to understand, resisting impeachment on those grounds.
Once the Ukraine pressure campaign emerged last month, Congress is the only entity investigating Trump’s actions, although federal prosecutors in New York are examining the president’s personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, as part of a broader investigation of a scheme to funnel foreign money to U.S. politicians .
“There is no special counsel here, so someone has to do the basic fact finding in an expeditious way,” Maloney said.
The gatherings do not take place in the secure hearing room that is normally used to hear classified briefings. Rather, they gather in a conference room with a large table that looks like any random corporate setting. A couple microphones are on the table, and if the committee leaders give opening statements, they tend to be brief and perfunctory.
Then the depositions begin, some going a few hours and others reaching beyond 10 hours. There is no five-minute rule, the way each member is restricted to just five minutes at a public hearing, so the topic areas get much deeper coverage and the political hyperbole is minimal.
“The format is very professional,” Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) said. “There aren’t histrionics involved. And so I think it’s easier to get into the pace of the questioning, and it’s generally professionals who are questioning.”
Witnesses are only allowed to bring personal attorneys, prohibited by rules from having government lawyers accompany them. And lawmakers not on the committees conducting the deposition are expressly forbidden from attending the meetings — so several Republicans who tried to enter depositions this week were just pulling stunts or were woefully ignorant of the long-standing rules.
Meadows said his biggest procedural complaint is that he would like to call four witnesses who “could provide a lot more illumination on a couple of key facts.”
“It’s met with deaf ears,” Meadows said.
He declined to name those potential witnesses.
However, rebuttal witnesses in the Clinton impeachment came near the end of the process, after several weeks of hearings in the House Judiciary Committee. Back then, Clinton’s lawyer delivered a 184-page report meant to dispute the facts and presented nine witnesses over an 11-hour hearing.
Three days later, the committee began approving articles of impeachment against Clinton.
This current process is essentially in the investigative side, which Schiff says will likely lead to detailed transcripts being released and public hearings. Those hearings might come before the Judiciary Committee, where impeachment articles are traditionally considered.
At that point, the proceedings would turn into a much more traditional public setting.
Republicans have one major complaint that they are powerless to block.
“Probably the biggest complaint I have is selective leaks by our Democratic colleagues,” Meadows said.
Of course, leaking favorable versions of private meetings is also as old as the republic, and for now the depositions will continue in their current manner.
“I think it’s the desire to conduct this professionally and in a very somber manner, as opposed to a public circus,” Connolly said.