Political junkies, take a breath: It’s Thanksgiving week, and the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump is, for a moment, quiet.
But when lawmakers return to Washington next week, the impeachment push will enter a month-long sprint, with Democrats aiming for a House vote by Christmas to formally charge the president, setting the stage for a trial in the Republican-led Senate.
The exact process and timing are uncertain — this has only happened twice in modern history, new developments could rock expectations, and the guidelines in the Constitution are vague.
Here’s what to expect after Thanksgiving:
After five days of nationally televised testimony, Democrats leading the inquiry argued they have laid out the facts and are ready to move to the next step.
The House Intelligence Committee is preparing a report on its findings about Trump’s effort to pressure Ukraine to investigate political rival Joe Biden and a discredited conspiracy theory that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election. The panel plans to hand that report to the House Judiciary Committee “soon after” Thanksgiving, according to Rep. Adam Schiff (D., Calif.), chairman of the intelligence panel.
There are other key witnesses who could speak directly to Trump’s actions and motivations, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, and former National Security Adviser John Bolton, Schiff wrote in an open letter this week, but all have resisted calls to testify or turn over documents, and Democrats aren’t inclined to wait the weeks or months for a court fight to force their cooperation.
Bolton, who fell out with Trump when he was fired, remains a wild card. Schiff said he’s not ruling out more hearings, but that moving quickly is essential to protect “the integrity of our elections.”
The Intelligence Committee gathered the evidence. The Judiciary Committee would bring any charges, or articles of impeachment.
Judiciary could also call more witnesses to add information or bring charges that go beyond the Ukraine pressure campaign.
On Tuesday, the Judiciary Committee announced its first hearings will take place next Wednesday, with a focus on legal scholars and the constitutional guidelines for impeachment. Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D., N.Y.) invited Trump’s attorneys to participate.
If further witnesses are called, the committee has set up rules that might also allow Trump’s team to conduct cross-examinations. But Democrats made that contingent on the White House’s complying with subpoenas it has so far disregarded.
A key question: Democrats have to decide whether to stick to the Ukraine affair or cast a wider net. Some point to the White House’s blanket refusal to comply with subpoenas, arguing that obstruction of Congress charges are also warranted (former Presidents Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon both faced obstruction charges).
Some Democrats also point to evidence Trump lied to special counsel Robert Mueller during the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, and argue that impeachment should include a wide range of actions to show what they see as a pattern of malignant behavior.
Others argue they are better off focusing solely on Ukraine, which they see as a more straightforward issue detailed in sworn, televised testimony.
An initial vote: After the committee draws up articles of impeachment, the panel of 24 Democrats and 17 Republicans would vote on them before sending the debate to the full House.
Two Democrats from the Philadelphia suburbs will have a role in what happens next. Reps. Mary Gay Scanlon of Delaware County and Madeleine Dean of Montgomery County sit on the Judiciary Committee, as does Rep. Guy Reschenthaler, a Republican from Southwestern Pennsylvania.
All three will get a chance to question any witnesses and participate in debates on articles of impeachment.
“What I’m looking for is the evidence, so that we on the Judiciary Committee can connect it to the law,” Dean said, noting that the initial report will detail not just the public hearings but also information from private depositions.
If the Judiciary Committee acts, the full House could vote on articles of impeachment for just the third time in history.
Democrats are hoping to wrap up their vote by Christmas. They have reason to move quickly: They don’t want time to dilute the impact of their witnesses, and they have to be wary of impeachment bleeding into their presidential primary, which hits full swing early next year with Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses Feb. 3.
Most House members in the Philadelphia area represent Democratic districts.
But New Jersey Democratic Reps. Andy Kim of Burlington County and Jeff Van Drew of Cape May County, as well as Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. Susan Wild of Lehigh County, all hold competitive seats and could face more challenging political calculations.
Kim and Wild voted to formalize the inquiry, but formally charging Trump and attempting to remove him from office is another matter. Public polling shows more support for the inquiry than for actually ousting Trump.
Van Drew was one of just two Democrats to oppose the inquiry. His vote has helped Republicans argue that opposition to impeachment is bipartisan. No Republicans have supported it.
Republican Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Bucks County also represents a competitive swing district. He has said he doesn’t see Trump’s actions as worthy of removal from office. If he doesn’t support impeachment, odds are no Republicans will.
If impeachment in the Democratic-led House seems all but certain, an acquittal in the Republican-controlled Senate looks just as likely. The Senate would host a trial with senators sitting as jurors, possibly working six days a week.
Here, Trump and the GOP majority would have much more say in the president’s defense.
They have already signaled they intend to conduct investigations into topics the GOP minority in the House could not formally investigate. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has sought State Department documents about Biden and Ukraine. He also plans a hearing on a forthcoming report from the inspector general for the Justice Department scrutinizing the FBI’s conduct in the early stages of the Russia investigation.
Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts would preside over a Senate trial, with top House Democrats serving as “impeachment managers” — effectively prosecutors making the case against Trump. The president’s lawyers would present a defense. Clinton was represented by both White House counsel and personal lawyers.
Witnesses might be called (Republicans have suggested deposing Schiff and Biden, among others), though not necessarily. In the Clinton impeachment, several witnesses testified privately, but only video clips were used in the public trial.
While Roberts would be in charge, the GOP majority would have significant say over the trial’s procedures. The Senate can vote to overturn Roberts’ procedural rulings with a simple majority. In Clinton’s case, the chief justice played “a pretty minimal role,” said Ross Garber, an attorney who has represented four governors facing impeachment, and who teaches at Tulane University.
It would take a supermajority of 67 out of 100 senators to remove Trump.
Barring a drastic shift in public opinion, that seems highly unlikely. Republicans hold 53 Senate seats, and few GOP senators have offered any criticism of Trump’s behavior.
Public opinion is also hardly moving. About 45% of American voters think Trump should be impeached and removed from office, and 48% disagree, according to a new poll from Quinnipiac University, only a slight change from a month earlier.
Notably, 86% said their mind is made up.