Article II: Inside Impeachment
The Drafting Board
Jerry Nadler: Our President holds the ultimate public trust. When he betrays that trust and puts himself before country, (Music) he endangers the Constitution, he endangers our democracy, and he endangers our national security.
Steve Kornacki: From NBC News, this is another bonus episode from Article II: Inside Impeachment. I'm Steve Kornacki. Today is Tuesday, December 10th, and here's what's happening.
Nancy Pelosi: On this solemn day, I recall that the first order of business for members of Congress is the solemn act to take an oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.
Kornacki: Over the course of two and a half months in this impeachment inquiry, we've read the transcripts, we've watched the hearings, we've heard the arguments. And now...
Nadler: The House Committee on the Judiciary is introducing two articles of impeachment, charging the President of the United States, Donald J. Trump, with committing high crimes and misdemeanors.
Kornacki: The articles are out, two of them, as Chairman Jerry Nadler just said. Today on Article II, we are asking: What are they, and what is the strategy behind these two charges? Jon Allen is a political reporter for NBC News, and he joins us now. Jon, welcome to the show.
Jon Allen: My pleasure to be here.
Kornacki: Or I should say welcome back to the show. This is a repeat visit from you. And what a day to have you with us. In one sense, I guess, no surprise. We kind of knew it was coming to this. But here it is. Democrats release nine pages here outlining two articles of impeachment they are bringing against the President. Let's just go through these. There are two articles of impeachment. What are they? What are they charging here?
Allen: And just to reiterate your point there, what an amazing day. Only the fourth time in American history you've gotten at least this far in an impeachment process. The two articles of impeachment are abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. And the abuse of power article is basically the Ukraine scheme that Democrats have alleged.
They talk there about the President soliciting a foreign government to interfere in the 2020 U.S. election as one piece of that. And then the second piece of that involves the President abusing his power as part of that same scheme to gain personally at the expense of the United States, that it harmed the United States' interests.
Nadler: It is an impeachable offense for the President to exercise the powers of his public office to obtain an improper personal benefit while ignoring or injuring the national interest.
Allen: And then the obstruction of Congress stems from what they say is his pattern of misconduct in covering that up basically by refusing to comply with Congressional subpoenas for documents and for witness testimony from his aides at various agencies and from the White House.
Nadler: A president who declares himself above accountability, above the American people, and above Congress's power of impeachment is a president who sees himself as above the law. We must be clear: No one, not even the president, is above the law.
Kornacki: So I say there wasn't a lot of surprise. I mean, the suspense though was we didn't know what those articles would be specifically, how many there would be. There were a lot of other possibilities that were sort of batted about over the last few weeks that are not part of this. Let me go through some of those and ask you why they didn't make the cut with Democrats. A big one was bribery. And Democrats really seemed to embrace that term. There's no charge of bribery here. Why is that?
Allen: Well, I think what you'll hear still in some of their talking points when they're out at the microphones in front of the cameras, I think they'll talk about bribery. And in this article of impeachment on abuse of power, they are talking about an exchange that the President sought in terms of trying to get something of personal benefit for himself.
But I think the reason that bribery didn't make it in is that there were a number of Democrats in their caucus who didn't feel like that was the strongest case that they could make, that they could make a stronger case for abuse of power back home to their constituents and they didn't want to get far afield and get to a point where they were leaning out on a branch.
Kornacki: You know, we also heard some talk that they might go back to the Mueller report, to the possibility of bringing obstruction of justice impeachment charges based on that. Nadler was saying months ago that his committee was engaged in an impeachment inquiry. And so there was some talk growing out of that they would fold in charges related to Mueller. That was a nonstarter as well though in the end?
Allen: And, again, you've got a case here where the language of the articles sort of touch on that idea. They talk about the President having a pattern of behavior that is consistent in these articles with past behavior which suggests, in the case of foreign interference in elections, they are referring by implication to the 2016 election.
Nadler: That is exactly what President Trump did when he solicited and pressured Ukraine to interfere in our 2020 presidential election, thus damaging our national security, undermining the integrity of the next election, and violating his oath to the American people.
Allen: The same thing with the obstruction of Congress. They are referring to what they would have considered an obstruction of justice article with regard to the Mueller investigation and potentially obstruction of Congress with regard to the Russia investigation. So they're sort of touching on those by reference and by implication.
But, again, this was a place where the Democratic leadership based on I think what a lot of their moderate members in swing districts felt was the best case to make, the one that they could communicate best to the public. They felt like they should stick as tightly to the Ukraine narrative as possible.
Kornacki: Are they confident that both of these articles, that they will have the votes to pass both of these articles? Or is one maybe shakier than the other just in terms of where the votes are?
Allen: I think they're confident they can pass both of these articles. I don't think they would've run out there with articles of impeachment that they didn't think they had the votes for.
Kornacki: It's interesting to think back to the last time an impeachment reached this point, as you say. This was back with Bill Clinton 21 years ago, really almost to the day when you think about it. Back then, Republicans actually introduced four articles of impeachment against Bill Clinton. And one of the reasons they did that was they had some doubt about their moderate members being willing to vote to impeach Clinton. The public opinion was so strongly against it.
And two of the articles ended up failing on the House floor. One of them was lopsided. Back then, some of the strategic thinking of Republicans was, "Let's give the moderates something they can vote against, an article or two that they can vote against, they can tell their constituents, 'See, I wasn't gung ho on this, but I had to vote on the perjury charges,'" as it was back then. It looks like that kind of thinking, "Give the moderates something they can vote no on," was not part of this for Democrats.
Allen: Yeah, I think they feel like they're in much better shape if they can vote together on one simple narrative. I think they didn't want to be hanging out there with articles that went down. And arguably, as history looks back on it, you'd have to say that with the Clinton impeachment the Republicans back then brought articles of impeachment against President Clinton that in one case went down, you know, with 285 of the 435 House members voting against it in flaming fashion, you know, which suggests that not only was it not supported by the majority of the House but probably shouldn't have been brought in the first place.
You know, I grew up in a district in Montgomery County, Maryland represented by Connie Morella, who was one of the moderate Republicans who split her votes, that is, voted for some of the articles of impeachment against President Clinton and against him. And so she's one of those moderates you were talking about that was able to go home and talk about how she voted for some and not for others.
And I think it was very politically helpful for her do to that at the time. I'm not sure our politics play quite that way anymore. We have a very divided electorate and a very partisan, polarized electorate these days in a way that I think that you could be seen as trying to have your cake and eat it too as a member of Congress. (Music)
Kornacki: Okay. We'll be back with more in just a moment.
Kornacki: Let's talk about what Democrats said this morning as they unveiled these articles of impeachment, how Speaker Nancy Pelosi was there. Jerry Nadler, the Judiciary Committee chairman. Adam Schiff, the Intelligence Committee chairman. Schiff himself actually addressed one of the criticisms that has been out there, that is out there right now, about the Democrats' approach.
Adam Schiff: Now, some would argue, "Why don't you just wait? Why don't you just wait until you get these witnesses the White House refuses to produce? Why don't you just wait until you get the documents the White House refuses to turn over?" And people should understand what that argument really means.
Kornacki: Talk about that decision by Democrats, if you would, to go forward now and not wait for courts to resolve some of these outstanding issues.
Allen: This is one of the few areas, Steve, where I think there is a good faith disagreement between the two sides about where the line might exist as a general sort of principle matter. In a normal circumstance, you might let the court fight play out to try to get to the Supreme Court and see what the ruling would be between the two branches.
But what the Democrats are saying is, "The President has engaged in a blanket refusal to comply," number one. So that's very different than what you've seen in past investigations where the President might refuse to have one or two witnesses show up, might refuse to provide some documents. This President has provided zero documents, has refused to allow any of the witnesses to appear with the exception of those who have chosen on their own to defy the President and appear. So, number one, that's a difference.
And, number two, what the Democrats are saying, and there is some credence to this, is that the President's strategy here is to further obstruct the investigation by forcing a court jam-up so to speak. That he could basically ride out impeachment for any number of years.
Schiff: The argument, "Why don't you just wait?" amounts to this: "Why don't you just let him cheat in one more election? Why not let him cheat just one more time? Why not let him have foreign help just one more time?" That is what that argument amounts to.
Allen: So rather than go through that process or even really start to go through much of that process, they've decided that it was better to move now and not take this deep into the next election, or even into possibly a second term, or into the term of the next Democratic president. Didn't make sense, that this was something that needed to be done and resolved quickly.
Kornacki: So Democrats laid out the articles of impeachment they're bringing against the President. What are we hearing from the President and from Republicans in response?
Allen: The White House response coming from Stephanie Grisham, the White House spokeswoman, was long and somewhat angry, and not at all surprising, kind of repetitive of what we've heard before. Said that it's a predetermined sham impeachment. Basically said that they're trying to overthrow the Trump administration. And we've heard that before as well.
On the other hand, on Capitol Hill, there's a lot more complaining about process. They argue the President has done nothing wrong. And they also argue that everything that he did was fine and not impeachable. They've held up a pretty strong wall. And in some cases, they have argued that the investigations he was seeking in Ukraine were not politically aimed. So, I mean, it's, you know, sort of a smorgasbord or a spaghetti defense, if you will, from Republicans on the Hill. But that's to be expected. Congressional allies of a president often are there to be the dinner throwers.
Kornacki: And thinking back to that initial vote to authorize the impeachment inquiry, this has been a two-and-a-half-month process at this point that looks like it is coming to a head in the House within the next week. Looking back at these last two and a half months, I'm just curious. You've been following this so closely. Is there a moment, is there an incident, is there an instance that really stands out to you and says something about this process?
Allen: It's one that we're waiting for, which is gonna be that actual vote on the House floor. It's such a solemn moment when they actually call for that first vote on impeaching the President. You know, it starts out that these fights are so partisan and sometimes seemingly childish and there's clownish behavior in the committee rooms at times.
But around the Capitol, in times like these when there's a big vote coming, then there's a lot riding on something, you start to feel the weight of the country and the seriousness around members. And I think back to the financial bailout, the economy riding on that, or the ACA vote. So I actually think that will be the moment. When they come to actually come together on the House floor to cast those votes will probably be the moment to remember.
Two and a half months, it's almost like a schoolyard fight that you've been waiting for. And I don't mean to diminish it in those terms, but the tension building, and building, and building. And then, you know, finally the event happens, and you kinda (Music) have to look at where you are afterward.
Kornacki: You're not the first to liken American politics to a schoolyard or a school lunchroom, so don't worry there. Jon Allen, political reporter for NBC News. Always great to talk to you. Thanks for joining us.
Allen: You too, Steve.
Kornacki: This all appears headed to a full vote in front of the House sometime next week. But before that, the first step: The House Judiciary Committee will vote on both of these articles of impeachment. That is expected to take place on Thursday.
Article II: Inside Impeachment is produced by Isabel Angel, Max Jacobs, Claire Tighe, Aaron Dalton, Preeti Varathan, Allison Bailey, Adam Noboa, and Barbara Raab. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is the executive producer of audio. I'm Steve Kornacki. We'll be back tomorrow.