With Democrats in the House of Representatives formally moving to draft articles of impeachment against President Trump, the top Republican on the committee that will author those articles is saying the White House should participate in the impeachment inquiry. But participation should happen only, he says, "when there is an actual opportunity in which it is a situation in which they can present, do the presentation that they need to."
In a forceful critique of the impeachment inquiry, Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, accused Democrats of making White House participation all but impossible by not allowing for "a robust set of hearings."
"At the end of the day, if people don't believe what you're doing is fair, then it doesn't matter," Collins said in an interview Thursday with All Things Considered host Mary Louise Kelly.
Speaking from his office on Capitol Hill, Collins said Republicans on the Judiciary Committee are not being given the opportunity to question the fact witnesses who have testified before the House Intelligence Committee since the start of the impeachment inquiry in September. Republican members of the Intelligence Committee were present for those testimonies and were allowed to question the witnesses.
The White House has blocked key witnesses from testifying in the inquiry and declined to participate in this week's Judiciary Committee hearing but has left open the possibility of participating in future proceedings.
Collins argued that Democrats are presuming guilt and creating a scenario for the president where "you have to prove your innocence ... and that's just not the way our system works."
Collins' remarks followed the announcement by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., earlier Thursday that Democrats will begin the process of drafting articles of impeachment. Addressing reporters against a backdrop of American flags, Pelosi said the president had "abused his power for his own personal political benefit" by seeking to pressure a foreign nation into conducting politically motivated investigations to aid his reelection.
"His wrongdoing strikes at the very heart of our Constitution," Pelosi said. "Our democracy is what is at stake. The president leaves us no choice but to act because he is trying to corrupt, once again, the election for his own benefit."
Collins said the announcement was "only breaking news if you've been in hibernation for the last year," adding, "They've been wanting to do this."
The Democratic case against Trump was detailed in a scathing 300-page report released by the Intelligence Committee on Tuesday. In the report, Democrats allege that the president sought to coerce Ukraine into opening an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden by withholding $391 million in U.S. assistance for Ukraine, as well as a White House meeting long coveted by Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
The report's release was followed on Wednesday by the start of formal impeachment proceedings in the Judiciary Committee. Wednesday's hearing featured testimony from four constitutional scholars who were called to answer whether the president, in his dealings with Ukraine, engaged in "treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors," the threshold for impeachment as spelled out in the Constitution.
From his perch as the Judiciary Committee's top Republican, Collins has emerged as one of Trump's chief defenders in the battle for public opinion. In his interview with NPR, the former attorney and military chaplain said he did not believe the president has done anything wrong and said he had no issue with the way Trump has conducted himself in regards to Ukraine.
"He did nothing wrong. The call did not show anything wrong," he said, referring to the White House's account of the July 25 call between Trump and Zelenskiy that helped spark the inquiry.
"At the end of the day, it's not about holding anything accountable," Collins said of the impeachment inquiry. "It's about next year's election for them, to make sure that he is damaged going into an election cycle."
Collins also pushed back against the charge among Democrats — and a potential article of impeachment — that the White House has obstructed the work of Congress through its decision, detailed in an Oct. 8 letter by White House counsel Pat Cipollone, to not cooperate with the impeachment inquiry.
Democrats say that since that order, the administration has failed to produce a single document in response to 71 specific demands for information. They also say that at the president's direction, 12 current or former administration officials have refused to testify in the inquiry, including 10 officials who refused to in defiance of subpoenas.
Collins said the remedy is not to rush forward with impeachment but to allow the process to play out in the courts.
"There is a precedent for the president himself, not just for himself, but for the presidency, to make sure that there are certain constitutional bounds that they're claiming and privileges that they're claiming," said Collins.
Democrats, however, have said they are not willing to allow the White House to run out the clock on impeachment through a court fight, and they say the evidence they have already collected is enough to impeach the president.
The Judiciary Committee is scheduled to hold its second hearing in the impeachment inquiry on Monday, when counsel for Democrats and Republicans on the Intelligence Committee will discuss the evidence against the president. In a letter on Thursday to the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., Collins said Republicans on the committee should be allowed a hearing day before articles of impeachment can move forward. Meanwhile, the White House faces a Friday deadline to inform the committee on whether it will participate in future proceedings.
A vote by the full House on whichever impeachment articles are adopted by the Judiciary Committee could come by the end of the month. The process would then move to the Senate, where 20 Republicans would need to break ranks and join Democrats to reach the 67 votes, or two-thirds majority, required to convict and remove the president from office.
Given those numbers, Collins said there is nothing to indicate impeachment can pass the Senate. "Many of us believe it's already been decided," he said. "Why waste our time?"
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Seventy-two days after announcing the launch of a formal impeachment inquiry, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stepped back behind a microphone today.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
NANCY PELOSI: With confidence and humility, with allegiance to our founders and a heart full of love for America, today I'm asking our chairman to proceed with articles of impeachment.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
The chairman in this case is the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Democrat Jerry Nadler. Nadler will lead the drafting of the specific articles of impeachment. Working alongside will be Nadler's counterpart, the top Republican on the committee, who greeted Pelosi's announcement with a yawn.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
DOUG COLLINS: This is what we've been expecting for a while. I mean, with this - somebody I heard say this was breaking news. It's only breaking news if you've been in hibernation for the last year.
KELLY: That is Georgia Congressman Doug Collins. His committee has held a single day of hearings so far. Four expert witnesses testified yesterday. Three were selected by Democrats. One, George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley, was invited by the Republicans. Now, the committee has not interviewed anyone who directly or indirectly played a role in the Ukraine saga, which Doug Collins is not happy about - a point I pushed him on when we sat down in his office on Capitol Hill earlier today.
Isn't the fact that fact witnesses aren't appearing before your committee and others a direct consequence of White House interference? They're blocking witnesses from testifying.
COLLINS: No. It's a direct consequence of this House being so bent on calendar and clock to get an impeachment done that they're not willing to go through their own, you know, their own - as Jonathan Turley actually said yesterday, the abuse of power is coming in a Congress that's not willing to work through the process. And I think that's the part of the issue that we're dealing with. Remember...
KELLY: The intelligence committee, in their report, has documented 12 witnesses that were called - I'll give you the exact number here - 12 current and former officials with direct knowledge. The White House is preventing them from testifying. Ten of them have been subpoenaed.
The intelligence committee impeachment report also documents not a single document has been produced by the White House, the office of the vice president, the Office of Management and Budget, the Department of State, the Department of Defense or the Department of Energy despite 71 specific demands for documents.
COLLINS: Oh, they have. And especially - again, though, but none of the report also lists any of the reasons why - especially on the witness side, why they've chose not to participate and the privilege that may be invoked here. But also, let's not also think that the president and the White House did not - they released the transcript of the call. They released a second transcript of the call.
They've - if you go back to Mueller, you go about this - unprecedented, even by - what they talked about yesterday - of the access that was given through the Mueller report. I think at a certain point in time, you just get...
KELLY: But just blocking 12 witnesses who have direct knowledge of these events...
COLLINS: As I said yesterday, it would be my - and it was answered by Mr. Turley - it's also - there is a precedent for the president himself, not just for himself but for the presidency, to make sure that there are certain constitutional bounds that they're claiming and privileges that they're claiming. Now, the remedy for that, as was discussed in the meeting yesterday, is the court system.
KELLY: The president has decided not to participate in any of this, in any of this process.
COLLINS: Up until now.
KELLY: He's declared it a hoax. White House counsel has said it's unconstitutional, illegitimate. And they're not going to participate.
COLLINS: Up until now.
KELLY: Have you gotten a signal that they are planning to reverse course?
COLLINS: Read the letter from Pat Cipollone this past week where he said he was not going participate but would reserve the right to participate and looks forward to participating in what we do.
KELLY: Should they participate?
COLLINS: Yes, when there is an actual opportunity in which it is a situation in which they can present, do the presentation that they need to. And I think that's what we're working on right now.
KELLY: But the situation being what it is, why not come make their case? - if it was a perfect call, if the president did nothing wrong.
COLLINS: OK. Well, let me just say - and it's sort of a - if you want to do a hypothetical, I'll do a hypothetical. I saw you shoplifting yesterday. Come please tell me that you didn't shoplift. And be careful because if you're saying he has to come prove his innocence, you need now to come prove your innocence for shoplifting.
KELLY: I'm going to turn the line that I know you're about to give me back on you, which is I'm not going to indulge you in a hypothetical here. But what we have is a concrete situation where the Constitution has empowered the House to conduct this. A majority of the House has voted to look into impeachment. Why not come make the case and let Americans make up our own minds?
COLLINS: Well, no. 1, I would not recommend anybody go into the Schiff star chamber over the past few months. It's just the way it was run was not affordable to anybody from a third-party perspective. When you look at it from that perspective, that's one of the things to think about.
But don't think my hypothetical too out of context because if you're forcing - this is something that's been very troublesome to me all along in these processes that we've seen is that you assume guilt and you have to prove your innocence. We've seen this in many things over this past year, and that's just not the way our system works. If it is, then we need to go back and re-examine our system.
KELLY: Do you have no concern that the White House blockading a congressional investigation sets a precedent that weakens the branch of government in which you serve?
COLLINS: I don't see it as a giant precedence - this - a new precedent. I think what we're seeing here is something that's went on before. And I don't see it, you know, defining. I think you have to take everything in the contextual terms in which it is. This is not something new. This is a president who has had to deal with this since literally hours after - and you can't overstate it. You can look past it. You can be frustrated by it.
But it would be just like me if I was accusing you of something every day, most of which has never been proven true, there becomes a part of you that just simply says, I'm tired of this. I'm tired of the things that have not been true - proven true and been false. So there is that part of that that you can't make a president, who is a singular body in and of himself - that runs the executive - to a congressional body which has many, many members.
KELLY: Do you believe the president did anything wrong?
COLLINS: No, I do not.
KELLY: You have no issue with the way he's conducted himself in regards to Ukraine?
COLLINS: No, I do not.
KELLY: Why is it OK to ask a foreign government to investigate your domestic political rival if you're the president of the United States?
COLLINS: Well, No. 1, I take exception to that as being the reason for it. He said that you - would you help us in an investigation? But I do have a question back.
KELLY: It's in this White House readout of the call. He asked for an investigation of the Bidens. Can you look into it?
COLLINS: So if you want to run for president, you're exempt from being investigated? I mean, just an honest question. If he - if legitimately overseas there was some problems that goes back to - remember, to the 2016 election, not the 2020 - is that a legitimate ask - a legitimate question that if you run for president, you're exempt from being asked those questions?
KELLY: Of course not.
COLLINS: OK. Then we're done.
KELLY: Are we?
KELLY: Say it's not Joe Biden. The president asked for an investigation of an American, of a U.S. citizen.
COLLINS: Now you're changing the question.
KELLY: Hang on. I'm not.
COLLINS: Yes, you are.
KELLY: If the president of the United States is concerned about a U.S. citizen being corrupt or committing a crime, why not ask the Justice Department? Why call the president of Ukraine?
COLLINS: Well, remember, he also said in that same thing is to deal with Bill Barr and others that were investigating. OK. That's our investigators. That's our attorney general.
KELLY: He's on the phone with the president of Ukraine, saying, can you look into this?
COLLINS: Right. But he also said to work with those folks as well. Look. I enjoy conversations like this. I think it's the real reason why we should have more robust debate in the judiciary committee. And I think what happened yesterday was...
KELLY: But you're focused on process, and I get that because there are questions to be raised...
COLLINS: I'll never not argue - let's get this out of the way. He did nothing wrong. The call did not show anything wrong. The facts have done that. The only fact witnesses named in Adam Schiff's...
KELLY: Even your own witness, the witness that Republicans called yesterday, Jonathan Turley, said it was not a perfect call. It was far from a perfect call.
COLLINS: OK. Are we defining call as far as perfect tone, style, substance? No.
KELLY: The president says it was perfect. Do you think it was perfect?
COLLINS: I mean, I don't call - the president describes a lot of things a lot of different ways. But also, Jonathan Turley said there's nothing impeachable in the call. There's nothing wrong with the call. So which one do you want to stop at? It was not - you want to...
KELLY: He says there was plenty wrong with the call but the case needs to be built.
COLLINS: But it was not built, and I think that's your issue here. So I think as we look forward in this, my question would be, is - are we going to at least have this, you know, very robust discussion for the American people or has it already been decided? Many of us believe it's already been decided. Why waste our time?
KELLY: Congressman Collins, thank you.
COLLINS: Appreciate it.
KELLY: That is Congressman Doug Collins of Georgia, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, speaking in his office on Capitol Hill this morning. On Monday, his committee will be back at it with a hearing on the House Intelligence Committee's impeachment report. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.