With the House set to begin public hearings Wednesday for the impeachment inquiry into President Trump, the man leading the Democrats' investigation says he already sees several potential impeachable offenses Trump has committed, including bribery.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., told Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep during an interview at the Capitol on Tuesday that he thinks there's a clear argument to be made that Trump committed "bribery" and "high crimes and misdemeanors" — both explicitly outlined in the Constitution as impeachable offenses — when pressuring the Ukrainian government to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden's son in exchange for long-promised military aid.
"Bribery, first of all, as the founders understood bribery, it was not as we understand it in law today. It was much broader," Schiff said. "It connoted the breach of the public trust in a way where you're offering official acts for some personal or political reason, not in the nation's interest."
To prove bribery, Schiff said, you have to show that the president was "soliciting something of value," which Schiff thinks multiple witnesses before his committee have testified to in private.
Now, some of those who have provided the most damning testimony to corroborate that will testify this week: acting Ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent on Wednesday, followed by ousted former Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch on Friday.
"The basic allegations against the president are that he sought foreign interference in a U.S. election, that he conditioned official acts on the performance of these political favors," Schiff said. "And those official acts include a White House meeting that the president of Ukraine desperately sought with President Trump, as well as hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer-funded military assistance for a country that is at war with Russia and a country that the United States has a deep national security interest in making sure it can defend itself."
Republicans have continued to defend Trump, who has denied any wrongdoing or any quid pro quo in dealing with Ukraine. Some GOP lawmakers have pushed back that since the aid to Ukraine was eventually delivered and the country never pursued an investigation into Hunter Biden and Burisma, the energy company on whose board he sat, there is no case. But Schiff argued that doesn't matter.
"I mean, when you consider the serious terms of whether the president has committed an impeachable offense, the fact that the scheme was discovered, the fact that the scheme was unsuccessful, doesn't make it any less odious or any less impeachable," he said. "If the president solicited for help in the U.S. election, if the president conditioned official acts on the performance of these political favors, whether Ukraine ever had to go through with it really doesn't matter. What matters is: Did the president attempt to commit acts that ought to result in his removal from office?"
While a Democratic-controlled House seems sure to impeach Trump if articles are brought forth, there is a much bigger hurdle in the Republican-controlled Senate, where 67 votes are needed for removal. But Schiff, who noted he was initially hesitant to pursue impeachment until the Ukraine bombshell, said moving forward is necessary to set a precedent for future presidents.
"I've always thought that the strongest argument for impeachment was also the strongest argument against it, which is: If you don't impeach a president who commits conduct of this kind, what does that say to the next president about what they can do and to the next Congress? At the same time, if you do impeach, but the president is acquitted, what does that say to the next president? The next Congress? There's no good or simple answer," said Schiff.
But he added that even if the Senate doesn't convict, that wouldn't necessarily mean the House was wrong in its actions.
"Impeachment is not only a remedy to remove a president. It's also the most powerful sanction the House has. And if that deters further presidential misconduct, then it may provide some remedy even in the absence of a conviction in the Senate," Schiff said.
"But again," he added, "I have to hope that my Senate colleagues on both sides of the aisle will keep an open mind, will do their constitutional duty, will set aside the party of the president. Because otherwise, why are they even there and what does their oath of office really mean?"
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The televised impeachment hearings that begin tomorrow will be gaveled in by Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff. As chair of the House Intelligence Committee, he's the one running the inquiry. Schiff has been thinking a lot about these hearings and a Senate trial that would follow if the House impeaches the president.
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ADAM SCHIFF: If it comes to impeachment, there are really two juries. There is the jury that is the Senate, and I would hope that those jurors would keep an open mind, although it's clear that several will not. But the other jury is the American people.
SHAPIRO: Schiff is a former prosecutor from California. He led the closed-door interview sessions that have produced thousands of pages of testimony, and he's been talking with Steve Inskeep of NPR's Morning Edition, who's here in the studio. Hi, Steve.
STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Hey there, Ari.
SHAPIRO: Set the scene for us. Where is Schiff going to be posing his questions?
INSKEEP: A huge committee room near the Capitol. I slipped in and had a look today. They're already setting it up, setting up the cables and the TV tripods and so forth. And it's through those cameras that Schiff, who will be at the center of activity, along with the witnesses, will be addressing both of those juries that he mentioned.
SHAPIRO: So what was he doing today, the day before this big hearing?
INSKEEP: Pretty frantic day from what I could tell - he rushed to see us from a meeting, rushed away to another meeting after the interview. But in between, he did settle down into a dark armchair for a talk that began with the Constitution's language on impeachment.
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INSKEEP: The document says that an official can be impeached and removed for treason, bribery, high crimes and misdemeanors. Which are these, in your view?
SCHIFF: Well, I don't think any decision has been made on the ultimate question about whether articles of impeachment should be brought, but on the basis of what the witnesses have had to say so far, there are any number of potentially impeachable offenses, including bribery, including high crimes and misdemeanors.
The basic allegations against the president are that he sought foreign interference in a U.S. election, that he conditioned official acts on the performance of these political favors. And those official acts include a White House meeting that the president of Ukraine desperately sought with President Trump as well as hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer-funded military assistance for a country that is at war with Russia and a country that the United States has a deep national security interest in making sure it can defend itself.
INSKEEP: Can you explain for the layman how those acts - if everything happened as you suspect it did, how those acts would be bribery, the word you used?
SCHIFF: First of all, as the founders understood bribery, it was not as we understand it in law today. It was much broader. It connoted the breach of the public trust in a way where you're offering official acts for some personal or political reason not in the nation's interests. Here you have the president of the United States seeking help from Ukraine in his re-election campaign in the form of two investigations that he thought were politically advantageous, including one of his primary rival.
INSKEEP: That's a payoff, is what you're saying. That would be the payoff in this scenario.
SCHIFF: Well, bribery requires that you're soliciting something of value. It doesn't have to be cash. It can be something of value, and clearly, this was something of great value to the president. But more than that, high crimes and misdemeanors also include things that are violations of the public trust. The public trust the president to be acting in their interests, not in the interest of their political campaign, when it comes to conducting the nation's business.
INSKEEP: Having gathered thousands of pages of testimony, I did hear you say you haven't decided exactly what the articles of impeachment might be. But have you made up your mind that there is an impeachable offense?
SCHIFF: I want to reserve my judgment until we've had a chance not only to flesh out all the facts, but also to have the debate within our caucus and within our country about whether the facts, once established, require us to remove the president. Impeachment was a mechanism not to punish but to protect the country going forward. And one of things that I am deeply concerned about is the fact that the president engaged in some of this conduct on the very day after Bob Mueller presented his findings to Congress. The president gives every impression that he believes that he is above the law, that he can solicit foreign interference in our elections, he can do whatever he pleases, that anyone who calls out his corrupt behavior is a traitor or a spy. That's a very dangerous situation for the country.
INSKEEP: You know, Mr. Chairman, that Republicans connect the Muller report to this affair in a different way. They will say, Democrats tried with the Mueller report to get this guy out of office. It didn't work out, fizzled. And so now they're trying this instead. And they're convinced that you've always been looking for this opportunity. What do you say to them?
SCHIFF: Well, unfortunately, that's at odds with the facts because as my Republican colleagues know, I've resisted impeachment and did resist impeachment until this latest and most serious misconduct.
INSKEEP: You know that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi spoke dimly of impeachment for a while. She said it needed to be overwhelming and bipartisan. It sounds like you believe this is overwhelming. The feeling is not at all bipartisan. Haven't you fallen short of that standard here?
SCHIFF: We can't let one party that has allowed itself to become a cult of the president to dictate whether a constitutional remedy can be employed. I would hope, if not members of the House, then members of the Senate will put their party aside, will look to their constitutional duty and oath and ask themselves the question, if it does come to a trial in the Senate, are we prepared to accept that a president of the United States can withhold taxpayer funds, deprive an ally of the ability to defend itself, withhold official acts like a White House meeting with a foreign leader and do so in order to get help in a presidential election? These are the tough questions that members on both sides of the aisle are going to have to ask.
INSKEEP: Now, in our talk, Ari, the chairman said he's thinking about restraining the conduct of this president and also thinking about the warning that the House could issue to future presidents through impeachment. And we'll hear tomorrow on Morning Edition that he's thinking impeachment may send a useful signal even if the Senate never convicts this President.
SHAPIRO: That's our colleague Steve Inskeep with Congressman Adam Schiff of California.
INSKEEP: Glad to do it.
SHAPIRO: The public phase of the impeachment inquiry begins tomorrow, and you will be able to listen live on many NPR stations. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.