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House Judiciary Committee hosts combative hearing with counsels ahead of impeachment

In a House Judiciary Committee hearing, Democrats summed up their case for impeachment of President Trump, saying his handling of Ukraine policy represented a “clear and present danger” to American elections. Republicans pushed back on the integrity of the investigation, calling it a rush to judgment. Nick Schifrin reports and Yamiche Alcindor and Lisa Desjardins join Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Our other big story tonight, impeachment.

    The Judiciary Committee in the House of Representatives met all today, hearing the evidence and the arguments for and against putting President Trump on trial.

    Nick Schifrin begins our coverage.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Today, Democrats summed up their case for impeachment and sharpened their attacks on President Trump.

  • Daniel Goldman:

    President Trump's persistent and continuing effort to coerce a foreign country to help him cheat to win an election is a clear a clear and present danger to our free and fair elections and to our national security.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Republicans called the hearing a sham:

  • Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis.:

    The lawyer is badgering the witness. We have to have some decorum in here.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And called the Democrats' case an unfair rush to judgment based on secondhand information.

  • Steve Castor:

    The impeachment inquiry record is riddled with hearsay, presumptions and speculation. To paraphrase Professor Turley from last week, the impeachment record is heavy on presumptions and empty on proof.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    This was Democrats' main attempt to narrate their story before submitting articles of impeachment.

    Democrats argue President Trump withheld military aid and a White House meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, so Zelensky would announce investigations into Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and the 2016 election.

    The first article of impeachment is expected to accuse President Trump of abuse of power, as argued by Judiciary Committee Democratic counsel Barry Berke.

  • Barry Berke:

    He put his political reelection interest over the nation's national security and the integrity of its elections. He did it intentionally. He did it corruptly. He abused his powers in the ways that the founders feared the most.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Democrats are also expected to accuse President Trump of obstruction, as described by Intelligence Committee Democratic counsel Daniel Goldman.

  • Daniel Goldman:

    President Trump launched an unprecedented campaign of obstruction of Congress, ordering executive branch agencies and government officials to defy subpoenas for documents and testimony.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Republicans argued the Democrats had failed to prove their case. Republican counsel Stephen Castor:

  • Steve Castor:

    The inquiry has returned no direct evidence that President Trump withheld a meeting or security assistance in order to pressure President Zelensky to investigate former V.P. Biden.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Republicans also pointed out that, despite the delay, Ukraine did receive the military aid it wanted, and Zelensky repeatedly said he didn't feel pressure, including on his July 25 phone call with President Trump.

  • President Volodymyr Zelensky (through translator):

    I have never felt any influence on me. And there are a lot of people in Russia, in the West and in Ukraine who would like to influence me.

  • Steve Castor:

    President Zelensky never vocalized any discomfort or pressure on the call. Contrary to Democrat allegations, President Trump wasn't asking for a favor that would help his reelection. He was asking for assistance in helping our country move forward from the divisiveness of the Russia collusion investigation.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The Judiciary Committee is full of some of the most vocal and partisan-leaning members of the House.

  • Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla.:

    For the next four hours, you are going to try to overturn the result of an election with unelected people giving testimony?

  • Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y.:

    The gentleman will suspend.

    If the president puts himself before the country, he violates a president's most basic responsibility. He breaks his oath to American people.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And both sides took aim at each other's counsels.

    Republican Jim Jordan criticized the House Intelligence Democrats' final report for including phone call records.

  • Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio:

    Mr. Goldman, the Democrats — did the Democrats publish phone records of the president's attorney?

  • Daniel Goldman:

    Mr. Giuliani, yes.

  • Rep. Jim Jordan:

    Did the Democrats publish the phone records of a member of the press?

  • Daniel Goldman:

    Yes, who was also involved in this.

  • Rep. Jim Jordan:

    Did the Democrats publish phone records of a member of Congress? They published the phone records of the president's personal lawyer, the phone records of a member of the press, and the phone records of the chairman of the Intelligence Committee's political opponent, Representative Nunes. That's what these guys did.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And after Berry Berke testified, he became the Democratic questioner.

  • Barry Berke:

    And you made a big point, sir, in your presentation that on that call President Trump didn't go further and tell President Zelensky that he wanted the investigation announced to help his 2020 election.

  • Steve Castor:

    Yes, he definitely didn't talk about 2020.

  • Barry Berke:

    And, Mr. Goldman, would you agree that if President Trump was acting corruptly, wrongfully, abusing his power, that it was unlikely he was going to confess to Zelensky that he was asking for the investigation explicitly to help his 2020 election prospects?

  • Daniel Goldman:

    You almost never have a defendant or someone who's engaging in misconduct who would ever explicitly say, in this case, President Zelensky, I'm going to bribe you now, or I'm going to ask for a bribe, or I am now going to extort you.

    That's not the way these things work.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Not present today ,President Trump's lawyers. On Friday, White House counsel Pat Cipollone released a letter refusing to appear that warned: "Adopting articles of impeachment would be a reckless abuse of power by House Democrats, and would constitute the most unjust, highly partisan, and unconstitutional attempt at impeachment in our nation's history."

    The Republicans call Democrats obsessed. The Democrats call the evidence overwhelming. And split along party lines, the committee is on the verge of passing articles of impeachment for the fourth time in history.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Our team is reporting from both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

    Lisa Desjardins joins us from Capitol Hill, where she spent most of today inside the hearing room. And Yamiche Alcindor is at the White House.

    Hello to both of you.

    Lisa, to you first.

    What was it that, would you say, each side was trying to do today? And as you talked to members, did they tell you they think they're changing minds?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Well, Democrats, I think, as Nick reported well, were trying to lay out a substantive case that the president abused his power and was corrupt.

    Republicans did two things. They actually did answer that substance to some degree, more than we have seen in hearings before. But, Judy, they also were trying to point at what they saw was other wrongdoing, other subjects, not just the president, but the call log, for example, or Hunter Biden.

    And they repeatedly raised points of order, sort of tried to shake up the hearing, make the hearing itself look like it wasn't on stable ground.

    As for whether they changed minds, Judy, I will tell you this. This was the smallest crowd of any impeachment hearing I have seen so far. I asked one Democratic member what they thought of that. They said: We just don't know. We're hoping that we reach voters, but, obviously, there weren't as many voters in the room today.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And to you, Lisa.

    We — as we just heard Nick report, the White House decided not to put its side of the story forward. They didn't provide a lawyer, anybody to make a defense for the president.

    How are they reacting to today, and how do they think the Republican — how do the Republicans feel they made their case?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, the president at the White House spoke about the impeachment hearing. He said he watched a bit of this, but he said it was basically a disgrace and a hoax.

    That said, Republicans really outlined a new defense of the president today. They went after Ambassador Gordon Sondland, the E.U. ambassador, the European Union ambassador. They said that he was seen as an intelligence risk, that he was seen as problematic, and that people were wondering why he was still involved in Ukraine.

    Now, Democrats and critics of the president will say that Ambassador Gordon Sondland was acting at that the direction of President Trump.

    I spoke to the an attorney for Gordon Sondland, who said he didn't want to comment about Republicans going after Gordon Sondland specifically, but he said his testimony speaks for himself. And in his testimony, Gordon Sondland said that he thought the president was asking him to go forward with a quid pro quo and to pressure Ukraine to get an investigation into Joe Biden in exchange for that military aid.

    Also, Republicans are going after Rudy Giuliani and trying to scapegoat him in some ways. They were saying that there was evidence that the president's personal attorney was acting not in line with what the president wanted him to do.

    But over the weekend, President Trump said that he was aware of Rudy Giuliani being in Ukraine and that he was collecting information that might help him. The president also said that Rudy Giuliani might be coming out with some sort of report that might be filed to Congress or the attorney general.

    So, even as Republicans are trying to, in some ways, throw people under the bus or scapegoat them, as Democrats would say, both — the Republicans are really coming up short on that end.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Lisa, back to you.

    Where do things go from here after today's long hearing?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Buckle up, Judy. It's going to move very quickly.

    Chairman Nadler said over the weekend that he does think they should — they could have articles of impeachment ready for the committee to discuss this week. So, that means probably in the next three days, maybe four days.

    They have not decided, our reporting is, exactly what those articles will be yet. We know that they will likely include abuse of power and some form of obstruction.

    Now, what's interesting here, Judy, just in the past few minutes, Republicans put out — I'm sorry — Democrats, Jerry Nadler, put out a letter rejecting witness requests from Republicans.

    Now, this means it's not clear if there will be any more hearings or any more witnesses in the House process. The next hour may be the final substantive hearing that we have before Democrats move to marking up articles of impeachment.

    We don't know yet. But we're going to pay very close attention, because I do think it will move fast.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And finally, back to you, Yamiche.

    How — we know the White House wasn't participating in what's going on in the House. Assuming the House passes impeachment, it goes to the Senate for a trial, the White House is going to have to participate in that. How are they preparing?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    The White House is taking a very different stance as it relates to the Senate than they did with the House of Representatives.

    The White House is gearing up to have representatives come to the Senate and defend the president. I talked to a White House aide today who said he was 100 percent certain that there would be White House lawyers at that Senate trial. So, the White House has been really beefing up its staff.

    The other thing to note is that, tomorrow, there's going to be some news here at the White House. The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, is going to be meeting with President Trump.

    And that's notable, because the last time the Russian foreign minister was here was in 2017. And President Trump was accused of disclosing classified information relating to an ISIS informant to Russia.

    So people are going to be watching really closely how President Trump interacts with this Russian official yesterday (sic), because Democrats have been making the case that, really, all roads lead back to Russia, including with this Ukraine investigation.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yamiche Alcindor, Lisa Desjardins, both of you all day long on this story, thank you very much.

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