Impeachment and politics live chat: Ask Amber (Dec. 10)

Dec 10, 2019

Happy Tuesday. I write about politics for The Fix, and I'm chatting here every Tuesday at noon Eastern about the day's biggest political news. What are you curious about?

Thanks for joining me! We have articles of impeachment against the president: abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.

I explain them and break down their historical context here.

We also have a report from the watchdog at the Justice Department about how the FBI started investigating the Trump campaign's connections to Russia, which says there was basis for the investigation but that some agents were sloppy at best, factually wrong at worst, in their application process to get a wiretap on former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.

Oh yeah and I guess there's a presidential election going on?

What do you want to know? I may be a few minutes late today as I cover the latest impeachment news, but I'll stay late to answer your questions. I also tried to answer a few questions ahead of time, thanks to those of you who got them in early!

The IG report highlighted 17 “inaccuracies and omissions” that were not brought to the attention of the Office of Intelligence prior to the fourth and last FISA application being filed in June 2017. When all 17 mistakes lean one way (against the Trump election committee), they are not mistakes - that's a pattern showing deliberate bias.

So the report doesn't make clear that all these "inaccuracies and mistakes" intentionally leaned against Trump, though that was the practical effect since they were investigating Trump's campaign. 

I'll point you to another takeaway The Fix's Aaron Blake found from the report: That there were Trump supporters working on the case, too, and a Trump supporter feeding the FBI information. 

Has anyone in the GOP answered what Rudy Guiliani is doing in Ukraine, if Trump is not using his office to dig up dirt on a political rival?

No. Not that I've heard. The closest defense they've given is that it's not all that unusual to have special advisers to presidents who are outside the government, but it is unusual to have Giuliani wearing so many hats. So they dropped that quickly.

For more on Giuliani, read this piece: What's up with Rudy Giuliani? 

After hearing that President Trump didn't necessarily want Ukraine to investigate the Bidens but instead merely to make the announcement of one, I wonder if you have any intel as to whether Rudy Giuliani's latest trip to Ukraine to investigate the Bidens was similar such window dressing. I'm suspicious that Giuliani won't find anything legitimate.

He says he's writing a letter about what he found to Attorney General Bill Barr and will advise Republican members of Congress, so I imagine we'll find out soon what he "found." Worth pointing out there is no evidence for the dirt he supposedly dug up on the Bidens and Democrats the last time around in Ukraine.

Okay I'm back! 

I know everyone is saying they will do another CR if needed, but with an impeachment vote scheduled for next week and presumptively the ramp-up on the trial in the Senate.... are they going to be able to get it done?

Good question. Nancy Pelosi was asked about this recently, and she basically put it on Trump by saying something to the effect of "Oh, he wouldn't want a shut down because  of what happened last year, so he'll sign the CR." (Which, I imagine Congress will have to kick the can down the road with a continuing resolution and push the budget negotiations to next year.) And experts I talk to say it is up to Trump, because he's been the one who has vetoed bipartisan spending bills in the past. Biggest sticking point right now (to the extent there is one; I don't think it's that big): The wall. 

You mention the Senate trial in January. It's possible they have to keep kicking the can down the road well into next spring, and we don't have spending levels set for the government months after the fiscal year technically expired this Oct. 1. 

That's not a committee it's a pubic meeting and far too many members to do any sort of effectibe legislative or scrutiny work. And the behaviour of some GOP members hardly put them in a good light.

Judiciary is known as one of the most political committees in Congress, so I agree it can get pretty partisan -- and thus, stale. And looooooong. 

Our congressional colleagues reported something I did not know prior to these hearings: That Judiciary is partisan because it's a place where lawmakers who want to grandstand and get extra camera time can. Often really partisan stuff that garners national attention, like abortion or immigration, comes before Judiciary. So not the best place for an impeachment that's supposed to be "somber," as Nancy Pelosi calls it. 

Hi Amber -- thanks as always for taking questions. What do you think the FBI director's future is as of this moment? Will he a) be fired, b) resign, or c) stick around and be a thorn?

Hi there,

Thanks for asking them! Good question. You're referring to the latest time for FBI Director Chris Wray to refute a Trump conspiracy theory that the FBI is a deep state organization out to get Trump. "We have no information that indicates that Ukraine interfered with the 2016 presidential election," he told ABC yesterday.

I don't know his future. The last time Trump fired an FBI director (James Comey), it turned up the heat on him from Congress. Even Republicans were upset. Is that what he wants to do right before his likely impeachment?

Is it possible that the House will hold a secret ballot on impeachment? It would help their reps in states where Trump has won in the past. But it would provide cover for Republican reps.

No. That's not in the rulebook.

I get asked this question all the time about a Senate trial, too. Constitutional law expert Josh Chafetz told me that the rules say you have to have a public vote (even though senators can debate things behind closed doors). 

What the rules also say is that you have to have 2/3 of a majority of senators PRESENT. So I guess some Republican senators could just decide not to vote, lowering the bar for conviction. But Chafetz and I agree that we have a hard time seeing any senator saying they aren't going to vote on one of the most consequential moments of their jobs. 

I know Mitch said it would be six days a week. Will it be done before Christmas? For extra points...what what are the chances Mitch does this process ethically? I give it 20 percent.

Here's what we know about the trial: Senators are still figuring out how to put it together, and it will be sometime in January. Senators have floated the idea of having it be a quick two weeks, or six weeks and through the all-important Iowa caucus, or somewhere in between.

They still need to figure out what evidence can be presented, who can testify, will they do it in real person or in a private taped feed, and all the other myriad of details.

There are rules about how a trial should work, but they are vague. Senators have the possibility of shaping it in a partisan way -- calling Hunter Biden to the stand, for example, to muddle whose really on trial -- but they don't have to. It would take a majority vote to overrule Chief Justice John Roberts on some procedural disagreements.

Given that there is no way he gets removed by the Senate...

I agree that it's difficult to see how 20 Republican senators defect from Trump and convict him.

I don't agree it's a surefire thing that impeachment is a benefit to Trump the way it was politically for Clinton. 50% of the country, more or less, is on board with his impeachment. That's  not a majority, but it's significantly higher than the 30% or so of people who supported Clinton or Nixon's impeachment. 

I'm not saying he'll lose reelection because he's impeached. But i'm also not saying it's certain that Democrats overstepped, Trump is the victim, and he'll be reelected. We've never had a modern-day impeachment abutting a presidential election year, so this is gunna be a first for all of us!

In your discussions, etc, do you think that Republicans really don't think Trump did anything wrong?

So I haven't talked with Republican lawmakers about to vote on impeachment, but I have talked to people who regularly talk to these lawmakers. And no, I don't think most of them are convinced of Trump's innocence. But in part because Trump commands loyalty among his base, and in part because of their own partisanship and unwillingness to turn against a president their party duly elected, they have decided to defend him.

What's remarkable to me is how few Republicans allow some nuance for Trump's' actions. Maybe it's wrong, but it's not impeachable. That's a totally reasonable argument, since impeachment is subjective and its bar vague. Instead at least in the House, they argue that Trump did nothing wrong, and rely on misleading facts to do it. 

Your colleague Max Boot wrote an interesting article today about whether there will be a price to pay for the Senators and House members who are denying reality and supporting the odd theories being put forth about the impeachment hearings. I'm not sure he actually reached a conclusion though. Do you have any thoughts about how things might be different for those people going forward?

Good question. I don't have any thoughts about how the Trump era manifests itself down the road. That's because Trump may very well be a reflection of where the Republican Party is -- he's just pushing it to its extremes. So when Trump leaves, whenever that is, will the Republican Party go back to "normal" as Joe Biden has suggested? Or is this the normal?

I'm old enough to recall the McCarthy Era, and believe me, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner got it all wrong in his comments yesterday (not least of which because by the time he hit his teens, McCarthy had already been disgraced) But my real point is that the most analogous thing to McCarthy's waving around of random sheets of paper while falsely claiming they contained names of Communists in the State Department is the discredited conspiracy theory that there's a Deep State and a swamp in the Federal government.

I was struck by that moment in yesterday's hearing, too. (He said it in reference to Democrats subpoenaing Rudy Giuliani's phone records and naming the names of people they figured out he was calling, including a Republican member of Congress.)

I think it underscores a point I just made earlier: There is no room for nuance among Republicans defending Trump. They have adopted his hyperbolic rhetoric. 

That sounds to me like they will be able to call either/both Bidens. In a normal trial, the judge would rule on admissibility of evidence...and it's doubtful either Biden's testimony would be admissibley...and could only be overruled on appeal. But if it would just take a majority of the, the sounds like this won't be a trial of Trump's actions.

So I talked to Sarah Burns, a constitutional expert at Rochester Institute of Technology, about this. She said the important thing to remember is that a Senate trial is not analogous to a criminal trial. Senators are both the jury and the judge. Chief Justice John Roberts' job could be just to sign off on parliamentarian decisions. (He could take a more forceful role, forcing senators to overrule him with a vote on stuff, but people I talked to clued into Roberts as a judge don't think he will.)

Another thing to keep in mind: Republicans have the majority, but just three defections (if Democrats stay unified) could spoil any vote they have. So that slim majority may keep them in check from doing something egregiously political. Plus I'm not sure McConnell wants to be that political. A Senate impeachment trial is a once-in-a-generation thing he'll be presiding over.

can you tell I've thought about this a lot? I'll be writing soon about how a Senate trial might work, both for The Fix and The 5-Minute Fix newsletter. 

Why should anyone trust anything he says or does is fair, honest, or in the interest of justice at this point? Any chance he gets investigated by Congress?

Well, his supporters argue he has an expansive view of presidential power from before his days of Trump that he is putting to practice, and it's not about Trump.

That being said, he has certainly sided with Trump in some eyebrow-raising ways, like suggesting FBI agents were "spying" on the Trump campaign, a loaded word.

Congress already held him in contempt alongside Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross over not providing data on their 2020 Census citizenship question. I don't see how they do much more. 

What color is the sky in your world?

Gray right now.

I don't think he wants to be that political in an impeachment trial. He hasn't commented on this to my knowledge, but some Republican senators are already pushing back on Trump's suggestion they call the whistleblower or Adam Schiff to testify. 

So if the two sides can't agree on rules can Sen McConnell schedule the trial to start in Mid-January and run for 6 weeks? that keeps Warren, Sanders & Booker off of the campaign trail until the trial finishes - leaving the filed open to Mayor Pete and the billionaires. Surely the Democrats would find a way to avoid this situation?

Yup. The senators you mentioned -- plus Klobuchar and Bennet -- will almost certainly will be off the trial in January leading up to the Iowa caucus, with worst-case scenario for them being missing the caucus itself for the end of the trial.

There's nothing they can do; the constitution says a trial needs to happen swiftly after an impeachment vote. And Republicans control the Senate and thus the trial. My colleague Sean Sullivan has reported on how the Democratic senators are dealing with this. 

Amber, couldn't Wray resign in protest against Barr's unethical defense of Trump? Does he think he's acting as a check against Trump as FBI director?

Sure, I guess he could. But the fact that he hasn't suggests that either he doesn't think Barr/Trump are dangerous enough to resign for, or that he thinks he can do better work within the administration. 

Misleading as in taken out of context? Misleading as in wrong and been clearly and publicly refuted? Misleading in what way? Or just lies?

All of the above, depending on the situation. 

Does Sen Warren on a pair slacks that arent black in color? Does a pix exist of her as Senator wearing a dress?

I'll just leave this right here: The 2020 primary is being shaped by gender bias.

Ask me what Joe Biden wears!

Who will have more power in determining the conduct of the impeachment trial--Chief Justice Roberts or McConnell?

Good question. The senators need to figure this out, and Roberts needs to figure out how active of a participant he wants to be in such a political moment. But overall I'd say the scale leans toward McConnell because a majority of senators can overrule Roberts. (Though when I wrote as much, his office reached out to stress he is just 1 of 100 senators, which kinda ignores the fact he's the majority leader?)

Can each side call witnesses during the Senate trial? What if those witnesses refused to testify in front of the House (Bolton, etc.) or were blocked from being called (Rep. Schiff)?

They're still figuring out the rules -- or need to figure them out shortly. We don't know how it will work! Whatever institutional rules there are don't share how to set up the really important stuff, like witnesses and evidence.

Thanks for all your great questions! See you next week, when we could be talking about a historic vote to impeach the president. 

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Amber Phillips
Amber Phillips writes about politics for The Fix. She was previously the one-woman D.C. bureau for the Las Vegas Sun and has reported from Boston and Taiwan.
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