The House Judiciary Committee is set to take up the impeachment inquiry on Wednesday. And Democrats are bracing themselves for a “circus atmosphere,” in the words of one committee member.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said she wants Wednesday’s hearing to feel like “an academic discussion,” according to a source with direct knowledge of her comments. Some committee Democrats are warning that it could be anything but. And Democratic congressional staff have telegraphed fears that the committee’s chairman, Jerry Nadler, could struggle to control the proceedings.
The 41-member committee features some of President Donald Trump’s staunchest Congressional allies. Republicans on the committee, helmed by Rep. Doug Collins, have successfully used some rather colorful moves to stall previous proceedings, like pulling parliamentary levers to force confusing votes.
In meetings over the last two months hosted by Pelosi—and described to The Daily Beast by four attendees—Democrats have ruminated on how to talk to the public about a process that could be messy. Pelosi has indicated she wants Wednesday’s hearing to be somber and solemn. She may not get what she wants.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), a senior member of the Judiciary Committee, has pointed out several times in meetings that committee Republicans engage in “antics,” specifically naming Reps. Jim Jordan (R-OH) and Matt Gaetz (R-FL). Republicans on the famously combative panel are known for “shouting and screaming,” Lofgren said in one closed-door meeting, and Judiciary hearings risk devolving into a “circus atmosphere.”
Congressional oversight efforts to date indicate that more bedlam may be coming. When Trump’s ex-campaign manager Corey Lewandowski appeared in September for testimony, there was no shortage of shouting, gavel-banging, and groaning: Nadler and Democrats struggled to rein in an obstinate Lewandowski, who flouted questions, and Republicans, who chewed up the clock—and, likely, viewer patience—with procedural stalling.
The public hearings helmed by Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA) last month were lighter on the parliamentary jousting matches, and the chairman won plaudits for keeping the proceedings under control. But GOP members of the panel showed a willingness to push buttons: Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY), for example, once forced Schiff to gavel her protests down after she asked questions out of order—even though her time block would eventually come later. Stefanik also used some of her time to read articles into the congressional record showing Schiff backtracking on a promise that lawmakers would hear testimony from the whistleblower whose complaint launched the inquiry.
And it was a Judiciary member, Gaetz, who launched the inquiry’s biggest disruption thus far when he charged with dozens of his GOP colleagues into the secure hearing room below the Capitol on Oct. 23, derailing a witness deposition. The reason for his protest: that he could not partake in the closed-door depositions.
Nadler now re-enters the ring after months of arm-wrestling with the Trump administration. Under his leadership, the committee has spearheaded two of Congressional Democrats’ most important court fights against the administration: for access to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s grand jury material, and to compel former White House Counsel Don McGahn to testify. They’ve notched some victories in both cases, which are ongoing.
A federal judge gave them another win on Dec. 2, turning down the Trump administration’s request that she temporarily hold up an order for McGahn to testify. And the committee has moved legislation to the floor on a host of core Democratic priorities, including bills tightening gun laws and strengthening the Voting Rights Act.
But there’s been some drama along the way. One particularly shouty moment came in May, when Nadler moved to allow staff attorneys to question Attorney General Bill Barr in a then-upcoming hearing. Republicans opposed the move, and used a host of parliamentary steps to try to block it, culminating in a vote where Democrats appeared to accidentally table the entire process. The proceedings spun out of Nadler’s control, and devolved into a chorus of interrupting, yelling, and gavel-pounding. The clerk, tasked with recording everything that was going on, looked perplexed. And Republicans broke out in cries of “Motion to adjourn!” and “Point of order!”
“We cannot have people shouting over each other!” Nadler said at one point, banging his gavel.
For Republicans, it was a moment of schadenfreude—and gloating over what they said was a weakness on parliamentary procedure. “If Nadler had had a better command of the rules, we would not have been able to fuck with him that way,” said a Republican committee source.
One senior Democratic aide, meanwhile, said Nadler gives latitude to Republicans out of a deep sense of fairness.
“Jerry Nadler is deeply committed to being fair to every member of his committee,” the aide said. “That sometimes includes letting the opposition say their piece, where other chairmen might gavel them down on other committees. That sense of fairness is particularly suited both to Judiciary and to the role that Judiciary has to play now.”
Nadler’s motion to let staff counsel question Barr eventually passed. But the attorney general refused to appear for the hearing, saying he wouldn’t take questions from staff. So committee members gathered around an empty chair with a “William P. Barr” nameplate in front of it. Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) brought in a bucket of KFC and said Barr was being a chicken, mugging for the cameras as he chowed down on greasy fried chicken from the committee’s polished-wood dais.
A senior aide to a Judiciary Republican said the episode showed that Democrats were the ones turning committee hearings into circuses.
“Antics?” the aide said. “We’re not the ones that brought a tub of fried chicken to a hearing that was supposed to be with the Attorney General of the United States.”
And Gaetz told The Daily Beast that Democrats “spend extra time preparing for us because we are effective.”
Democratic members and staff also cringe at the memory of the Sept. 17 hearing with Lewandowski, Trump’s bombastic ex-campaign manager. Lewandowski and Republican members quickly stymied Democrats’ efforts to grill the operative, and the event—billed as a significant hearing from a fact witness in the Mueller probe—devolved into a mess of yelling and gavel-banging. One Democratic leadership aide called it “a total disaster.” Another leadership aide said the mess reflected poorly on Lewandowski and GOP members, not Democrats. And sources on both sides of the aisle praised Nadler’s committee counsel, the prominent New York defense attorney Barry Berke, for salvaging the hearing and asking Lewandowski effective questions.
While the House Judiciary Committee historically holds outsized sway in the impeachment process, Nadler’s group will re-enter the fray this month with much of the investigative work completed by three other committees, led by the intelligence panel. On Tuesday, Schiff’s committee will send a report detailing its inquiry’s findings to Judiciary.
That report will set up Judiciary’s sole major responsibility: drawing up articles of impeachment for votes in the committee and then on the floor of the House, which could come as soon as mid-December. Nadler’s biggest test will be a hearing to formally consider those articles, during which Republicans will likely deliver their fiercest attacks yet on the impeachment process. That mark-up is yet to be scheduled, but Wednesday’s “academic discussion” will likely presage the tactics both sides will use in the inquiry’s final phase.
“I have complete confidence in the chairman,” said Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), a member of the committee. “It’s a very grave moment for the country.”