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Date TimeOctober 25, 2019
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Why Is Democrats Impeachment Inquiry Out of Public View?
WASHINGTON -- House Republicans' move to occupy the secure chambers of the House Intelligence Committee on Wednesday may not have succeeded in shutting down Democrats' impeachment inquiry. But for a day at least, it shifted debate in the Capitol away from damaging testimony against President Donald Trump to questions about how the inquiry itself is being conducted.Their goal was to portray the proceedings, conducted by three House committees behind closed doors, as unfair to Trump, to voters and to them. Republicans charged that Democrats had abandoned the precedents of past presidential impeachments by limiting who could take part in the proceedings, and that they were trampling on due process.Senate Republicans joined in Thursday, when Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, introduced a nonbinding resolution condemning the inquiry and calling on Democrats to open up the process.But the secrecy is not uncommon for sensitive congressional investigations, and Democrats say the break with precedent has been driven by the nature of the allegations in the impeachment inquiry.Here's what you need to know about the closed-door process and the dispute it has prompted.-- Why are Democrats being so secretive?Because the Ukraine matter has not been investigated by federal authorities or Congress already, Democrats are trying to nail down the facts before they can determine whether to bring articles of impeachment against Trump, and what such articles should say. Think of it like a grand jury, they have said.Holding witness interviews in private minimizes political grandstanding by lawmakers and witnesses. It allows professionally trained staff members to ask questions in extended blocks of time, rather than five-minute chunks required in public hearings. And perhaps most important to the investigation, if the testimony remains mostly private, it prevents witnesses from lining up their stories in advance.The private nature of the proceedings may well also have helped Democrats secure the cooperation of media-shy career government officials who have offered damaging accounts of Trump's government."We do not want to turn it into a circus," Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 House Democrat, said recently in a feisty exchange with his Republican counterpart.Republicans may be wary of another benefit to this kind of private digging: It allows Democrats to more carefully control the case they are building, avoiding potentially embarrassing public testimony from witnesses that may undercut or deflate elements of the story they hope to tell.-- Is there precedent for a closed-door impeachment inquiry?Keeping the first phase behind closed doors is not just investigative best practice, Democrats assert, but the way federal investigations, whether in Congress or the executive branch, typically take place.Republicans have frequently noted that the impeachment proceedings against Presidents Richard M. Nixon and Bill Clinton were open to the public, but in those cases, there had already been extensive federal investigations that provided the backbone for the House's work. (In the Nixon case, House investigators also did significant investigative work in private before making their public case.)Confidential interviews have also driven many other high-profile investigations, such as the one opened by Republicans during the Obama administration into the attack on American diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012. The Republican leading that inquiry mounted a vigorous defense of his private hearings at the time."I can get more information in a five-hour deposition than I can in five minutes of listening to a colleague ask questions in committee hearings," former Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., who led the inquiry, told ABC in 2014. "If it's about getting the information, then you want to use the investigatory tool that is most calculated and gets you the most amount of information and that's not five minutes in a committee hearing."Republicans retort that though the Benghazi investigation was serious and implicated Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of State and Democratic presidential nominee, it was not as weighty as an impeachment inquiry.-- Will Democrats ever take their inquiry public?Democrats insist they will eventually share what they find and convene public hearings to present witness testimony. The question is when.Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., chairman of the Intelligence Committee, has left himself ample wiggle room on timing."As the investigation proceeds, and at a time that it will not jeopardize investigative equities, we will make the interview transcripts public, subject to any necessary redactions for classified or sensitive information," Schiff wrote in a letter to colleagues last week. "We also anticipate that at an appropriate point in the investigation, we will be taking witness testimony in public, so that the full Congress and the American people can hear their testimony firsthand."Based on a list of witnesses already invited to testify, private interviews are likely to continue into at least early November, but could last longer. It remains unclear how such hearings would be conducted, or whether Democrats intend to compile their case in a written report. But Democrats are well aware that if they are to have a shot at successfully making their case to the public on impeaching Trump, they will have to put up a compelling display of evidence for the American people."Investigations are not public," said Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif. "When the investigation is done, there will be public hearings -- that's how it's always been done."Republicans have indicated they are preparing to possibly release a written report of their own laying out a case against impeachment.-- Who is allowed to participate and who is not?Republicans who occupied the Intelligence Committee rooms Thursday argued that all members of the House should be allowed to participate in the investigation."If behind those doors, they intend to overturn the result of an American presidential election, we want to know what's going on," said Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla.But House rules allow only lawmakers and designated staff members of the committees involved in the investigation -- in this case, the Intelligence, Foreign Affairs, and Oversight and Reform panels -- to attend sessions with witnesses.That amounts to more than 100 House lawmakers, and includes roughly a quarter of House Republicans.Among those on the entry list are some of Trump's most loyal allies, including Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio and Mark Meadows of North Carolina. Rep. Greg Pence, the brother of Vice President Mike Pence, who sits on the Foreign Affairs Committee, can attend. And so can Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the House Republican leader.Generally speaking, the questioning is conducted by Republican and Democratic staff members for the committees, but lawmakers may occasionally ask questions, as well.-- What about Republican complaints about due process?Republicans contend that Democrats have abandoned traditional procedures that grant the minority party a say and the president due process rights."The House Democrats' impeachment inquiry is breaking critical precedents, denying the administration important rights that were afforded other presidents, and violating basic rules of due process," McConnell said Thursday.He had a point. The Democrats' impeachment inquiry has not adhered to procedures adopted in earlier presidential impeachments. But Republicans are also misrepresenting some elements of what has been done in the past.For instance, they have complained that they have not been given the ability to issue their own subpoenas and call their own witnesses for questioning. But even during the Nixon and Clinton inquiries, the minority could not take such actions unilaterally. They were subject to a vote of the full committee, meaning the majority had veto power over subpoenas and witnesses.Republicans also say that a lawyer for Trump should be allowed to take part in the investigation, cross-examining witnesses and even suggesting witnesses the committee should call, as was the case in the Clinton and Nixon inquiries.Democrats have not ruled out allowing that in the future, either when the inquiry moves into a public phase or when the House begins to formally draft and debate articles of impeachment. But they have not done so thus far, and have been vague on whether they are planing to.-- Do Republicans have recourse to make the inquiry public?Republicans could try to take matters into their own hands by entering the transcripts of witness interviews into the chamber's official record on the House floor, effectively releasing the contents publicly.There are a few potential problems with this approach, though. For one thing, some Republicans who have reviewed the transcripts say that they could actually hurt Trump's cause. And the volume of testimony day after day has made the process of producing the verbatim records painfully slow.Democrats, perhaps anticipating such a move, have also instituted new procedures locking down the transcripts, according to Republicans. The minority party no longer has its own copies of the transcripts, and to review them, Republicans must be accompanied by a member of the Democratic staff.This article originally appeared in The New York Times.(C) 2019 The New York Times Company

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