October 23, 2019 / 8:24 PM / 21 days ago

Democrats set December impeachment target, but obstacles abound

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democratic lawmakers hope to complete their impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump by year’s end and are coalescing around two articles of impeachment - abuse of power and obstruction, lawmakers and aides told Reuters.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump waves from Air Force One as he arrives at Pittsburgh International Airport in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S., October 23, 2019. REUTERS/Leah Millis

But some Democrats fear that a costly distraction may be the looming battle between the Republican Trump and Congress over funding the government when money runs out for many federal operations on Nov. 21, Democratic aides said.

Some Democratic lawmakers said they believed they already had gathered enough evidence from the testimony of current and former U.S. officials to impeach Trump for asking Ukraine to investigate a political rival, Joe Biden, a leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020.

Other Democrats were more cautious and said more information was needed to solidify the case for impeachment and make it an easier sell to a deeply polarized American public. Only two U.S. presidents have been formally impeached by the House of Representatives, and both were later acquitted by the Senate.

Val Demings, a Democratic lawmaker who sits on the House Intelligence and Judiciary committees, said congressional investigators should be able to wrap up their inquiry by December.

“We need to be thorough, we need to be methodical, but we need to be timely,” she told Reuters.

Three Democratic congressional sources said there had been talk among some Democrats about trying to wrap up hearings and hold an impeachment vote by the Nov. 28 Thanksgiving holiday, but this appeared highly unlikely as of Wednesday.

Congressional investigators still have many witnesses to interview, they said.

“I don’t think we should short-circuit this because of an artificial deadline,” said Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi, a Democrat on the Intelligence and Oversight committees. “That being said, we are working pretty quickly. It’s only the fourth week and look at all we have learned so far.”

Democrats, who control the House, are concerned not only with building the best possible case for the Republican-controlled Senate, which will hear the charges, but also for the American public, who face the possibility of an American president standing trial while running for re-election.

“There is time when enough will be enough, but I think the more we build the case, the more likely we will get bipartisan support,” said Representative Jackie Speier, a Democrat on the House Intelligence and Oversight committees. “Once it becomes overwhelming, how can you ignore it?”

NEW DAY, NEW EVIDENCE

The picture that has emerged from the testimony of U.S. officials, texts between U.S. diplomats, and other official documents is of a president who sought to pressure Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, to investigate Biden and his businessman son, Hunter Biden, who was a non-executive board member of a Ukrainian gas company.

The impeachment inquiry was sparked by a whistleblower complaint from an intelligence official who expressed concern about a July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelenskiy in which the U.S. president pushed his counterpart for an investigation. The White House later released a rough transcript of that call.

Text messages and testimony from current and former State Department officials and comments from the president’s chief of staff show that a meeting between Trump and Zelenskiy, along with military aid for Ukraine, were contingent on the Ukrainian president launching the investigation.

Trump has denied any wrongdoing, and in a stream of daily tweets and public statements has accused Democrats of seeking to unconstitutionally oust him from office as he seeks to run for a second term in the November 2020 election.

“My view is that we have more than sufficient evidence to move forward on impeachment,” said Representative David Cicilline, a Democrat on both the Foreign Affairs and Judiciary committees, but added: “Every day we learn new evidence and hear from new witnesses.”

A key constituency that Democrats need to win over are independent voters who appear to have limited patience for a protracted investigation.

While 45% of independents think Trump should be impeached, many of them do not appear to want another lengthy investigation that sucks up all of the energy out of Washington. According to an Oct. 18-22 Reuters/Ipsos poll, 54% of independents agreed that “Congress should focus on fixing important problems facing Americans, rather than focusing on investigating President Trump.”

`LASER FOCUSED’

Representative Eric Swalwell, a Democrat on the House Intelligence and Judiciary committees, said the impeachment inquiry was “laser focused” on Ukraine and was not looking at any other accusations against the president.

Some lawmakers interviewed said the evidence gathered so far supported charging Trump with abuse of power and also obstruction for seeking, mostly unsuccessfully, to block key officials from testifying and withholding documents.

“I think consensus is developing that the president abused the power of his office, has obstructed Congress,” Cicilline said.

As House Democrats debate if and when to impeach Trump, it is taking place against the backdrop of a possible showdown with the president in the coming weeks over funding the government.

Trump signed a stopgap measure in September to keep the government open through to Nov. 21. The president has been at loggerheads with Congress over a dozen bills to fund most government activities, a standoff fueled in part by Trump’s demand for $12 billion in fiscal 2020 to fulfill a key election promise - building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

The government was partially shut down for a record 35 days stretching from December 2018 through January in a dispute with Democrats over border wall funding.

“The concern is that if we vote on impeachment before December, Trump will refuse to sign the funding bills and shut down the government,” a Democratic congressional aide said.

Reporting by Jonathan Landay, Mark Hosenball and David Morgan, additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle and Richard Cowan, writing by Ross Colvin, editing by Howard Goller

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