WASHINGTON — There is no Archibald Cox or Ken Starr to be found in President Donald Trump’s impeachment. So it’s up to Adam Schiff to build the case.
While those independent prosecutors launched the investigations of Presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, there is no comparative figure in the House impeachment inquiry. Former special counsel Robert Muller led the Russia probe, but no new prosecutor has been tapped by Attorney General William Barr for the Ukraine matter. That leaves House Democrats with only a whistleblower’s complaint rather than boxes of investigators’ evidence to guide them.
“Congress has to do that,” Schiff said, because the Justice Department believes “there’s nothing to see here.”
Schiff, the chairman of the House intelligence committee, is leading the probe at the direction of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and proceeding like the prosecutor he once was, staging a grand jury-like process that has been pilloried by Republicans. As Schiff behind closed doors to build the case, Republicans accuse Democrats of waging an unfair — and according to the White House, illegitimate — investigation. But Schiff says the House has few other choices than to build the case on its own.
Working from the outside in to collect evidence, Schiff is probing Trump’s attempt to pressure Ukraine into investigating Democrats in the 2016 election and the family of his 2020 rival, Joe Biden. That means private hearings, keeping the witnesses separated, and the depositions closed, to prevent people from coordinating their testimony or concealing the truth.
“The special counsels in the Nixon and Clinton impeachments conducted their investigations in private and we must initially do the same,” Schiff wrote in a letter to colleagues this week.
Republicans complain the investigation denies due process to the president and subpoena power for the minority party to call its own witnesses.
“Adam Schiff is not a prosecutor in this case,” said Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise, but he’s “acting like one and doing it in secret without fair rules.”
While the push-and-pull over process is typical for Congress, the stakes are anything but ordinary, part of a broader struggle over impeachment heading into the 2020 elections. The debate could help determine whether Democrats succeed in convincing voters that Trump’s conduct was a gross abuse of power, worthy of removal from office, or Republicans help him beat the charges, both in a Senate trial and the jury box of public opinion.
Richard Ben-Veniste, a former Watergate prosecutor and former U.S. attorney, said it’s a “target rich environment for the investigation of misdeeds by the president.” He expects the probe being conducted by the House committees will eventually result in articles of impeachment against Trump.
Schiff says the transcripts will eventually be made public. For now, much of the action of impeachment remains behind closed doors.
Democrats have interviewed a series of witnesses from the State Department, and are now pivoting to the Pentagon and the White House budget office as they investigate why the Trump administration withheld military assistance from Ukraine over the summer.
Republicans say that if Democrats want to compare their inquiry to the legal process, the president should have counsel in the interviews and be able to cross examine witnesses. They say they should be able to call witnesses, as has happened in previous impeachment proceedings. They say the transcripts should be released so the public — and lawmakers not on the three committees leading the inquiry — can see what witnesses said before the House moves to an impeachment vote. And they argue that the full House should vote to formalize the inquiry, a move Pelosi has so far rejected.
The GOP leader, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, said Republicans will force a vote Monday on a resolution to censure Schiff.