At 9:30 a.m. on the day that the House Judiciary Committee marked up its two articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump, Rep.
Jim Jordan offered the GOP’s first amendment for consideration: to eliminate the first impeachment article—the one charging the president with abuse of power—entirely. Jordan’s amendment would kill the fruit that Democrats’ months of investigation produced. It stood little chance of passing.
And indeed, after a modest 2½ hours of debate featuring speeches from nearly every member of the 41-person committee, the amendment was shot down along party lines.
As of this writing, the markup—the committee process in which bills are debated, amended, and voted on before heading to the full House—had gone on 12 hours to shoot down six amendments, with more to go. The length shouldn’t be confused for rigor. The only change that the Democratic majority had wanted to make, and thus the only change that would be made, was to change “Donald J. Trump” to “Donald John Trump.” But it was the final committee hearing on impeachment after a few brisk weeks, and the last chance that lawmakers had to spout off in a broadly televised setting. The inevitable outcome, of a partisan vote, has been predetermined since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the impeachment inquiry on Sept. 24.
During a markup, each member can pipe up by saying “strike the last word” and get five minutes to speak on any amendment, or any amendment to an amendment. Few members refused their opportunities on Thursday, and the several five-minute speeches each had prepared were only occasionally germane to the amendment at hand.
The most contentious—and comical—moment of the hearing came when Trump loyalist Rep. Matt Gaetz submitted an amendment to insert into the articles that included a reference to “a well-known corrupt company, Burisma, and its corrupt hiring of Hunter Biden.” Gaetz introduced his amendment by reading, at length, some of the juicier vignettes about Hunter Biden’s drug addiction from a recent New Yorker profile. Gaetz tried to reassure that he did this in good faith. “I don’t want to make light of anybody’s substance abuse issues,” he said, suppressing his perma-grin for a few seconds. “I know the president’s working real hard to solve those throughout the country.”
As Gaetz was making this presentation, a Democratic staffer whispered something in Democratic Georgia Rep. Hank Johnson’s ear. Johnson struck the last word following Gaetz.
“I would say that the pot calling the kettle black is not something that we should do,” Johnson said, as some laughs broke out. “I don’t know what members if any have had any problems with substance abuse, been busted in a DUI—I don’t know. But if I did, I wouldn’t raise it against anyone on this committee. I don’t think it’s proper.” The member against whom Johnson was very deliberately not bringing this up, because that would be improper, was Gaetz, who was arrested for a DUI in 2008.
Beyond the normal Republican defenses—Trump did nothing wrong and was just trying to see if Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was the “real deal,” and the economy’s good so lay off—they hammered Democrats with revelations from a new Time magazine interview with Ukrainian adviser Andriy Yermak, a top Zelensky aide who denied any “quid pro quo” or feeling any pressure from the Americans to investigate the Bidens. These statements were similar to the denials that Zelensky himself has made. Were the Democrats, several Republicans asked, calling the Ukrainians liars?
Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen made the point that of course the Ukrainians say all that because they can’t afford to put themselves on Trump’s bad side. But Cohen, who has a history of inelegant argumentation, phrased it this way: “President Zelensky has no choice. He needs America to protect himself from the big bear, Russia. They say he hasn’t said that he felt pressured? Well a) he’s an actor, and b) he’s a politician. And he depends on us. He has no choice.”
Republicans, especially GOP ranking member Rep. Doug Collins, wouldn’t let Cohen and the rest of the Democrats down for that for the rest of the day, saying that they were trying to make Zelensky look “weak” to his people to cover up the weakness of their own arguments.
“It’s amazing to me how we on this committee are denigrating Mr. Zelensky in the eyes of his country, in the world, because we can’t make a case against this president,” Collins said. Later in the hearing, he would say that Democrats “would rather asperse Mr. Zelensky and take him down because they can’t make their case. … Who are they hurting now? They’re trying to take down the American president, and they’re trying to take down the Ukrainian president.”
Republicans took issue with the very nature of the Democrats’ article on “abuse of power,” a term they deemed too vague to have any meaning, and not resembling any statutory offense. (Never mind that “abuse of power” was an impeachment article against President Richard Nixon and that a president need not commit a statutory offense to be impeached.) One Democrat, at least, took the bait. California Rep. Eric Swalwell decided to list a couple of statutory crimes that “overlap” with the president’s actions, namely criminal bribery and honest services fraud. That, though, led to hours of Republicans responding that if they had the hard evidence for such crimes, they would have had impeachment articles citing them.
Round and round it went.
What Republicans seemed to enjoy the most was ribbing Democrats for their perceived political predicament. Gaetz, shortly after being burned by Hank Johnson, offered Democrats a lengthy diagnosis of the quagmire they’d found themselves in.
“You’ve had the hearings, you’ve called the witnesses, and you know what? You’re losing ground. You’re losing ground with the media, you’re losing ground with the voters, and you’re even losing ground among your own Democrat colleagues,” Gaetz said. “I believe the public reporting I’ve seen that some of your moderate members in districts that President Trump won are begging you to pursue something other than impeachment. This bloodlust for impeachment is not going to be visited on us, or President Trump; it’s going to be visited on your own members, and they’re asking you not to do this.”
Typical rhetorical exaggeration aside, Gaetz was touching some real nerves within the Democratic caucus. Support for impeachment is a liability for some vulnerable members, some of whom would prefer to censure the president rather than impeach him. Democrats lost two members in the initial vote establishing the rules for the impeachment inquiry, and they will lose at least a few more in the final, full House vote on impeachment next week. One Democratic member told me Thursday that there were about four to six Democrats having real problems supporting impeachment. Republicans, meanwhile, shouldn’t lose a single vote.
Pelosi, who says Democratic leadership won’t whip the caucus in favor of impeachment, spent the first 10 minutes of her press conference on Thursday talking about anything else. Democratic moderates are in the same place. Georgia Rep. Lucy McBath—a Judiciary Committee member whose look of sheer terror on the day Pelosi announced the impeachment inquiry I will never forget—didn’t speak much during the markup, but when she did, it was to talk about all the important legislative work that was getting done even while impeachment was proceeding. The Democratic caucus, after dozens of hours of hearings, hasn’t moved the needle on impeachment support overall, and for some vulnerable members, the needle might be inching back.
Some time Thursday night, markup will end. Then, at last, it will be onward to the floor.