Transcript: With the Gavel Comes the Power

The full episode transcript for Article II: Inside Impeachment, With the Gavel Comes the Power.
Image: U.S. House Speaker Pelosi speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington
U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington on Oct. 17, 2019.Erin Scott / Reuters

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Article II: Inside Impeachment

With the Gavel Comes the Power

(MUSIC)

Steve Kornacki: From NBC News this is Article II: Inside Impeachment. I'm Steve Kornacki. Today is Wednesday, October 30th and here's what's happening.

(MUSIC)

Archival Recording: The Rules Committee will come to order. This is a sad day. When our founders drafted the Constitution more than 230 years ago, they included a process that could lead to removing a president from office if he or she abused their power.

Kornacki: The House is gearing up for its first vote on the impeachment inquiry. The Rules Committee met this afternoon to debate and to mark up the eight page resolution that lays out next steps in the process.

Archival Recording: As we enter the public facing phase of the inquiry, I introduced a resolution yesterday to ensure a clear path forward.

Kornacki: The full House will vote on the resolution tomorrow. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi insists this is not a vote to authorize the inquiry.

Archival Recording: Madam Speaker, could we have you talk about the impeachment resolution?

Nancy Pelosi: It's not an impeachment resolution.

Kornacki: Pelosi says the impeachment proceeding is already valid, but the resolution does address some of the Republican criticism of the inquiry.

Archival Recording: This process determining whether he should be impeached will be open to the public view, just as it should be.

Kornacki: But problems still aren't satisfied with this plan. Here's House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy on Tuesday.

Kevin Mccarthy: So I, I applaud the Speaker for finally admitting it is a whole, entire sham. But you can't put the genie back in the bottle. A due process starts at the beginning. It doesn't affirm a missed sham investigation all the way through. If you were in a legal term, it'd be the fruit from the poisonous tree. It'd be a mistrial.

Kornacki: No question this resolution will shape what the coming weeks and months look like in the important inquiry. So what's in this resolution? What are the political calculations behind it? And what is this vote gonna look like on Thursday? Kelly O'Donnell is a White House correspondent for NBC News, the perfect person to be (LAUGH) talking to on a day like this. Kelly, thank you for joining us.

Kelly O'Donnell: Great to be with you, Steve.

Kornacki: So let me start with a really basic question here before we kinda dive into what's in this resolution and, and what we can expect when it comes to a vote. My first question though really is, is the question of, of why. Why this is being offered now, because for, for weeks, I've been hearing Nancy Pelosi and, and top Democrats say, "Hey, we don't need to have any kind of authorization vote.

"We have all the power we need to do this. We have all the tools we need to do this. We're just going to do this." I, I, I remember even being on the air on MSNBC a couple weeks ago. House Democrats were having a big meeting behind closed doors. There was a lotta speculation they were gonna announce they were voting on an impeachment inquiry. They came out and they said, "No, we don't need to do that." Now they are voting on a pretty significant package here. Why?

O'Donnell: There are different stages of need. There is no imperative in the Constitution that requires the House to do this, to take a vote to move it to the next level. But there can be shifting political needs. And I think that is where Speaker Pelosi and Democrats are right now.

This is an opportunity for them to say, "We've made progress. We've moved from some of the investigative phases." They believe they have honed their arguments in terms of what should constitute the issues involved in this impeachment inquiry. And to a great extent, they have heard perhaps Republicans best argument, and that is due process.

Is there a fairness aspect of this for the president? And so looking at formalizing the impeachment inquiry affords the president some rights and some opportunities to participate that we haven't seen up until now. And so I think for Democrats, it has always been about trying to find the right moment to take certain actions.

They have been doing the hard work largely behind closed doors. And they feel that, given the calendar, we're nearing the end of not only the year and the decade, but their legislative time, that they have found a point where they can say, "We're moving to a different level. And it merits having a vote."

Kornacki: So th, let, let's get into them, this idea of moving to a different level, sort of a new phase here. What is specifically in this resolution and, and what it outlines for what that's gonna look like? So a couple different pieces maybe to go through here. One you just mentioned at the end here, the idea that, that everything basically has been behind closed doors so far.

We've done a bunch of these podcasts where we've got maybe an opening statement from a witness. And then we've got a lotta reporting of what apparently was said behind closed doors or what, you know, reportedly was said behind closed doors. Is this resolution, if passed, going to do away with closed door hearings? Are there going to now be public hearings? How will that look under this resolution?

O'Donnell: Well, this resolution is really about steps to give everyone a roadmap for what comes next. Not all of this will become public, but we do expect there will be a phase that will include public hearings, which look much more like what we see typically when a high profile witness comes into a hearing room and the cameras are on and they testify under oath.

It will always have a certain political realm. That's what impeachment is about. It is a political solution to a problem. And it will give the public a chance to weigh the credibility of these witnesses and to measure that against what they perceive to be the statements of the president, the point of view and strategy of the White House.

So they're leading toward that. And before they get to that point they really have to have a carefully planned arc of what's going to happen. And that's, that's really the hallmark of what we've seen with Speaker Pelosi, is a real methodical approach for how this will roll out because it is an unwieldy sort of political energy, this call for impeachment on the part of Democrats.

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Facts have intervened and there's all kinds of new information. And it can pick up steam in a way that could get away from Democrats. And Speaker Pelosi, maybe more than anyone, understands the peril for the party that brings an impeachment inquiry. Will they overreach? Will they be viewed as conducting it fairly? So this is a step in that process to say they're doing it thoughtfully, in a sober state of mind in terms of the solemnity of what impeachment should be the for the country.

Kornacki: So there's two aspects in terms of how these hearings will look, how they will sort of be conducted going forward in this resolution. I, I wanna get into them kinda individually with you 'cause there are some issues that, that are sort of raised with both of them. The first is the role for legal representatives, for legal counsel representing the president.

As I understand it, and, and, and help us understand this a little more clearly, what this resolution is saying is that at these hearings, there will be an opportunity for the president, for the White House, to have legal representation to be participating in the process. But it's contingent on the White House respecting subpoenas? H, how exactly is that working?

O'Donnell: Well, certainly, what the Democrats want to see is a process where if the White House is expecting to participate, then they have to also respect the rules of it. And thus far, the big rub between the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue has been a White House unwilling to provide witnesses and unwilling to be supportive.

In fact, we've seen how the president has been openly hostile toward the impeachment inquiry, as have many of his allies. This would say that they have to agree to cooperate. And then they would receive things like copies of statements that have been related to testimony where we've seen the witness of the day hustling into the secure area on Capitol Hill.

What are the transcripts of this information, documents that have been provided? We've seen in, in this impeachment inquiry sort of the tale of the text messages or the emails. That kind of documentary evidence that would've happened in real-time when events were taking place, that would be something they would have access to.

And it would allow the White House to do something we haven't seen thus far, and that is to be able to face these witnesses, as questions, provide counter perhaps documentation or other witnesses to give a different part of the story. Thus far, what the White House has been stymied by, and in part it's, it's their own doing by not cooperating, is a limitation on what is the public learning.

We're learning about a statement that is given and released usually from witnesses who want the public to know what they're saying. And beyond that, it's been looking for those who've been in the room to share with reporters bits and pieces of what was said. Well, that's an incomplete picture. And one can argue that that makes things less clear, less transparent. And maybe not always fair. That's, that's what the White House and Republicans contend.

Kornacki: So if Democrats see maybe an opportunity here to compel, in a way, cooperation from the White House by saying, "Hey, you can have a role in this process but you gotta drop the objections, you gotta drop the stonewalling." If that's the position Democrats are taking, is that an offer the White House is likely to be receptive to? Or will they just say, "Eh, no thanks"?

O'Donnell: The strategy of the White House all along has been to extend this as much as possible. And there are, they think, strategic reasons for that. The closer it gets into the actual election year of 2020, the better able they would be able to make the argument that this is purely political and does not have an underlying Constitutional push. That would be one argument.

At a certain point, there is an inevitability to the power that the House has to conduct this impeachment inquiry. And if it gets to the phase where it's actual impeachment proceedings, the White House can choose to go along or to continue to fight it. And historically, we've seen different examples of how that's played out.

It's unclear right now, Steve, what the White House position would be in part because they are still gathering their own sense of how is it playing in their states and among their voters? And do they even have the full team assembled at the White House and in the president's personal legal sort of team that has been a part of his life over these last few years, especially with the Russia investigation? Are they ready to make a decision on that? We have not seen that answer yet.

Kornacki: The, the other sort of key issue in here in terms of the, the procedure, the roadmap the Democrats are outlying, outlining in this resolution, it, it comes to the witnesses that are called for these hearings. And, and I want you to take us through this too because what's being outlined in this resolution is that the Democrats, look, they're the majority party, they control the process.

But what they're saying here in terms of Republicans, the minority party, the Republicans on this committee, they would have the right to call witnesses but they would need that to be approved by Schiff or by a majority vote of the committee. Is that right?

O'Donnell: Yes. And that's pretty standard for Capitol Hill. With the gavel comes all the power. And minority rights for the party that is not in power are almost always subject to the control of the chair of a committee or the speaker and so forth. And that's where negotiation comes in. And that's where it gets I think very difficult for Republicans.

On the flip side, when and if there is a Senate trial, we'll see Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell being able to use the rules with his discretion as the majority party in that chamber. So that's one of the things that will be very interesting to watch. It is a big part of the narrative of what the impeachment inquiry is. Not just the facts, not just the subject matter, but how they work the rules.

Kornacki: Let's set the scene a little bit for this, this vote that's gonna come in the House tomorrow on everything we've been talking about here, this, this package that Democrats have put together. Again, Nancy Pelosi is insisting that is not an authorization vote. It's the closest thing to one (LAUGH) we're gonna get, I guess.

And I, I was looking back just as a reference point to the last time there was an authorization vote in the House on impeachment of a president. That was Bill Clinton back in 1998. Republicans controlled the House, Democrats were the minority party.

Archival Recording: There are few debates more important and more serious than that which we are now wrapping up.

Archival Recording: To fulfill our Constitutional duty, we must determine if the evidence presented to date strongly suggests wrongdoing by the president. And if the alleged wrongdoing likely rises to the level of an impeachable offense. That is, a high crime or misdemeanor.

Kornacki: Every Republican supported it. And most Democrats opposed it. But there were back then 31 Democrats who voted with the Republicans in, in terms of authorizing the impeachment inquiry. The vast majority of those Democrats didn't end up voting to impeach Clinton. But they did vote to open the process.

I, I'm curious. It's a long way of setting up. I, I, I, I'm curious what the expectations are. I do see Jeff Van Drew, he's a Democrat from a Trump district in Southern New Jersey, he is out there saying he's gonna vote against this. He said, "I would imagine that I'm not voting for it." I think that's what he told us yesterday. What's the general expectation on the Democratic side in terms of how their votes will break on this tomorrow?

O'Donnell: Your research from 1998 is really illustrative. And it's so helpful to have that as a guidepost, although the times, they feel quite, quite different. And the underlying issues are quite different. When you look at how people vote in the House, always look first to party and secondarily, to their district. What is the story of their district?

And there are a number of what we've common referred to as Trump district Democrats who were able to either win for the first time in 2018 when President Trump was not on the ballot and were, were a part of that big wave. But they are mindful that back home, the president may be viewed with more popularity than many of their colleagues who represent Democratic districts, where it's a much easier vote for them.

Certainly, Democrats want as much unity for this vote as possible. But there is also the reality that each individual member is on the ballot every two years. And there is often some leeway given to those who are in those vulnerable districts. And we have not yet heard the guidance from what's known as the Whip Team on the side of the Democrats and if they will give permission, which is something that happens.

That sounds a little heavy-handed, but sometimes it's a case of the leadership will know, "This is a tough vote for a member from this type of district. And we're not gonna hold it against that person if they don't vote with us because our numbers are so solid." That feels like a reality for Democrats right now. The numbers are very, very strong for them. And if they have to let a few people go, they can do that without it cratering the message of this vote.

Kornacki: I, yeah, I guess that's when, when you have a 40 seat gain in a midterm election, it does generally give you a little bit of leeway.

O'Donnell: It's a cushion.

Kornacki: So that's the Democratic side. But th, in terms of the Republican side, there are, there are a few left. I know we were talking last year, going into the midterms last year there were 25 Republican members of the House who represented districts that had voted against Trump. (LAUGH) I think it's down to three after the 2018 midterms. Is there any sense that there are any Republicans who might vote for this? I, I know there was, who was it, Rooney who was critical of Trump announced last week he's retiring. I guess there's some speculation about him.

O'Donnell: I think that in this instance, look at a couple of key things. The president has been emphasizing in recent days and he's been bolstered by Kevin McCarthy, the leader of Republicans in the House, emphasizing unity. That is no accident. That is a walk up to this vote to try to send a message that they want Republicans to be together on this as a buffer for the president. So that's piece one.

The president is going to use the power that he wields, whether it be Twitter or resources for reelection campaigns or any of the other things where he can show influence to try to compel Republicans to be united in their support. Then the key group is to look at Republican House members who are not seeking reelection.

They're either going to retire or they've got a career change. They have the greatest liberty, if you will, to do what their conscience tells them, what they think is the right side of history eventually, or to reflect what is happening in their home districts. They are the wild card group.

That doesn't mean they're all going to splinter. Many of them have been loyal Republicans for a long time and may be most inclined to side with the party. But they've got some freedom because the president can't wield any specific electoral weight against them. So they are the ones to watch.

But this will largely, it is our expectation, be very party line. Democrats will largely be for it, Republicans will oppose it. And in some cases, I think that it is a real marker in time because we may find a year from now, six months from now, three months from now, that events have changed. That the ground has shifted. And it's a tough vote for some people when they don't know where it's headed and are they on the right side of this for their party and for history.

Kornacki: Just one more quick question. I'm curious, w, w, y, you've been around there for a number of key votes. What do you think the temperature in that House chamber is gonna be tomorrow? I know it got pretty heated in, in '98 when they had the impeachment authorization vote.

Archival Recording: This is a charade of justice. The American people, through this truncated debate, are being railroaded. Today's proceedings are a hit and run.

Kornacki: What do you think it's gonna be like on the floor tomorrow?

O'Donnell: I think it will be very stressful in part because, for all of the collective experience members have voting on bills and resolutions, this is different. This is a rare use of their power. The flying without a net is a reality for them. This is perhaps once in a career. You have some who were there in '98 for the Clinton impeachment who have a personal experience.

But for most people, this is uncharted territory. And they have to weigh all of these emotions and facts and what they believe is right for the country on either side. It is definitely a high watermark in someone's life in a Congress to be asked to consider these issues. It's a big test for them.

Kornacki: Kelly O'Donnell, White House correspondent for NBC News. I am sure we will be seeing and hearing a lot of you tomorrow. But thank you for givin' us a great breakdown, a great preview today. Appreciate it.

O'Donnell: Fun discussion. Good to be with you.

Kornacki: Depositions continued on Capitol Hill behind closed doors today. Lawmakers heard from two State Department officials who are experts on Ukraine, Catherine Croft and Christopher Anderson. Both officials appeared before the House under subpoena. That means they defied State Department orders not to participate in the inquiry.

Tomorrow, lawmakers are scheduled to hear from Tim Morrison. He is the top Russia expert on the National Security Council. (Music) Also, a shout out to Michael, a listener in Chester Springs, Pennsylvania who shared the same question I had about why the House is even holding this vote in the first place, the question of whether it's even necessary.

And Kelly said, "No, it's not required by the Constitution. It's being done more for political purposes." So Michael, thank you for submitting that question to us. And it's questions like this that are driving these episodes. So please, I beg you, keep them coming. You can write to us at, get your pen and paper out here, write to us at articletwopodcast@gmail.com.

That is article, the word two, T, W, O. Articletwopodcast@gmail.com. Keep asking, we'll keep answering. Article II: Inside Impeachment is produced by Isabel Angel, Max Jacobs, Claire Tighe, 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 on Friday.