House Democrats are laying out an ambitious road map for impeaching President Trump, hoping to wrap up their investigation by the end of the year and already locking in high-profile hearings that experts say could make or break their chances.
It starts this week with depositions of Marie Yovanovitch, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, and Kurt Volker, who held the same position until his abrupt resignation last week following revelations that Trump tried to get the Ukrainian government to help his reelection bid.
Yovanovitch’s deposition will be taken Wednesday and Volker’s will follow Thursday. Both grillings will be conducted jointly by the House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight Committees.
The ex-diplomats are expected to be questioned on any attempts by Trump and his allies to pressure Ukrainian officials to launch investigations into Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, over unsubstantiated allegations of corruption involving a gas company in the eastern European country.
David Dorsen, a former federal prosecutor in New York who served as an assistant chief counsel on the Senate Watergate Committee, said depositions of rank-and-file officials like Volker and Yovanovitch could carry massive implications.
“We found that lower-level government employees tend to be very honest and very reliable,” Dorsen told the Daily News, referring to his time on the Watergate panel. “Career people in the State Department are very impressive. I think they feel that they owe it to the State Department to tell the story.”
Volker, who stepped down Friday, worked with personal Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani in trying to sway Ukrainian officials to do the U.S. president’s bidding, according to an explosive complaint from an anonymous whistle-blower released Thursday. Yovanovitch was pushed out in May after clashing with the White House over Giuliani’s Ukraine foray, the whistle-blower said.
One day before the whistle-blower complaint was released, the White House dropped a transcript confirming Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on a July phone call to do him “a favor” by probing his dubious Biden claims as well as other baseless allegations that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 election.
The transcript proved enough for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to finally abandon her wait-and-see approach and give her full blessing to a formal impeachment inquiry.
The House Judiciary Committee had up until that point shepherded an informal impeachment inquiry that primarily focused on Trump’s alleged obstruction of former special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation — a legally thorny issue that was considered complicated to grasp for a layman.
But the Ukraine revelations were explosive and palpable enough that not even Pelosi (D-Calif.) could hold back and she urged her committee chairs to move rapidly and has instructed them to wrap up their impeachment probe by year’s end.
Dorsen said the stiff timeline is plausible.
“The evidence is sort of out there already and I think there will be additional evidence, but nothing major,” he said. “The outlines are already there.”
The Intelligence, Oversight and Foreign Affairs committees are expected to play the most prominent roles in the inquiry, as it moves away from Mueller and zeroes in on the Ukraine saga.
After the Volker and Yovanovitch hearings, the trio of committees have scheduled depositions for three more State Department officials on Oct. 7, 8 and 10, including Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union.
The panels have also subpoenaed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and are trying to secure testimony from the whistle-blower who sounded the alarm on Trump’s call with Zelensky.
The judiciary committee, which is chaired by New York Rep. Jerry Nadler, will likely sooner or later have to step in, as that panel is responsible for drafting articles of impeachment that would be voted on by the full House. If articles are drafted, they are all but certain to pass the Democratically-controlled chamber and Trump would be impeached.
The Republican-controlled Senate would then conduct a trial on the articles.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said he will have no choice but to take up the articles in his chamber if the House passes them.
However, GOP support for Trump in the Senate remains strong despite the president’s attempts to solicit foreign election interference and other alleged misdeeds. Moreover, two-thirds of the chamber needs to vote to convict in order for Trump to be removed from office and charged with a federal crime.
Dorsen drew a parallel to Nixon and said Republican reluctance in the Senate may fade as the House impeachment inquiry picks up speed.
“The Senate will be forced to take this seriously,” he said. “Some of them will lose elections if they don’t.”
Contrary to past impeachment inquires, the Trump investigation focuses on accusations of wrongdoing relating to foreign affairs.
Bill Clinton was impeached and later acquitted by the Senate after he was accused of obstructing justice and lying under oath about an extramarital affair with a White House intern.
Nixon was never formally impeached, but resigned after the House had initiated the removal process on allegations that he had orchestrated a spying operation on Democrats.
The only other president to have been impeached was Andrew Johnson, a Democrat, in 1868.
Like Clinton, Johnson was impeached by the House but cleared by the Senate. He was accused of unlawfully firing his Cabinet members.