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Democrats' Impeachment Strategy

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

At this hour, House lawmakers are gathered in the U.S. Capitol to cast their first votes on impeachment. Now, this is not a vote for or against impeaching the president. Rather, this is a vote that formalizes the process and brings more of it into the public eye. Americans are still split on the question of whether or not President Trump should be impeached, according to our latest NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll.

So how will the impeachment inquiry change going forward? Earlier, I spoke with Massachusetts Congresswoman Katherine Clark. She is the vice chair of the House Democratic Caucus.

KATHERINE CLARK: Good to be with you, Rachel.

MARTIN: Republicans have attacked House Democrats on process from the beginning, asking why the inquiry was happening behind closed doors. It has been almost six weeks. Why didn't Democrats make this a formal process from the get-go?

CLARK: This is the procedure that has been set out, actually put in place by Republicans since 2015. As we know very well here, the Republicans cannot excuse the conduct of the mounting evidence of abuse of power of this president, so they're trying to fall on a manufactured process argument when the truth is that 48 members of the Republican Party who sit on the committees of jurisdiction have been able to be in every single deposition - take part, ask questions - and that they have their own Republican counsel, who also has been part of every proceeding that has happened to date.

But today, we're moving into bringing the facts directly to the American people and setting up the process for how we will have those open hearings, just like we said that we would always do as we conclude the closed-door testimony of witnesses.

MARTIN: Although, has keeping it behind closed doors - has that allowed you to control the narrative? I mean, after all, these testimonies happen, then when there are things that are damaging to President Trump, they seem to leak out.

CLARK: It isn't about controlling a narrative. It is about getting the facts before the American people. And what we have seen is that in the last five weeks, every piece of the whistleblower complaint has been corroborated and supported by firsthand witnesses and career diplomats, veterans, people who have put patriotism over that of the political. And it hasn't left a substantive argument for my colleagues across the aisle to make. And we're hoping today, with this vote, that they will remember their oath of office and they will remember they work for the American people...

MARTIN: Let me...

CLARK: ...And, you know, put their needs first and the needs to have these facts out in full sight before them.

MARTIN: Let me ask about the scope. Right after the White House record of the Ukraine call came out, some Democrats said, that's it. We don't need any more evidence. The four corners of the transcript are enough to bring articles of impeachment. Do you agree?

CLARK: I think it is critical that we don't prejudge, that we make sure that we are following the facts. And the facts have led us to a very sobering point. This is not a celebration. This is a joyless activity, but one that we feel we are constitutionally required to do. Our founders anticipated a situation where we had a president who put his own political gain over the national security of the country, who invited foreign government interference into our elections, and they put the impeachment process in for just this type of situation. But we are going to continue to follow the facts, to be methodical.

MARTIN: Does that mean you have not made up your mind yet? I mean, you just laid out what you consider to be several abuses by this president.

CLARK: You know, the evidence is very clear, but I think that we want to move step by step. It is about following the facts, following the truth. And today is a change from having what - you know, the process of having the witnesses come before Congress, testifying in front of the committees of jurisdiction to a conversation and a presentation of facts to the American people.

MARTIN: I want to play some tape from Congressman Jeff Van Drew of New York talking about what he sees as a political risk in the impeachment. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEFF VAN DREW: It'll happen here in the House. Then it'll go over to the Senate. He won't be convicted. And then he will believe that he's been exonerated, you know? And he will still be the president, and he will still be the candidate, and he will be a candidate who has been exonerated by the Senate.

MARTIN: If the House impeaches and the Senate does not, will it still have been worth it?

CLARK: The Constitution doesn't leave us any other choice. Once we heard and read the words of Donald Trump - do us a favor, though - we were put on a course where we have to defend our democracy. And we don't know what the political outcome will be, but we're going to continue to pursue the truth, stand up for our Constitution and abide by our oath of office.

MARTIN: Congresswoman Katherine Clark, thank you very much for your time this morning.

CLARK: Thank you, Rachel.

MARTIN: NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis was listening in on that conversation and joins me now. So, Sue, what is substantively going to change now that the House is going to hold this vote, presumably along party lines, and it's going to become this more formalized process? How does that change anything?

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Well, I think the thing that we're looking for to see what changes next is what exactly goes public. Part of that resolution that Democrats are voting on today calls for the Intelligence Committee, which is currently leading the investigation, to have public hearings - the public has not heard anything from Congress on this yet - and to see whether that might shift public opinion. Also, all these details that some have leaked out, some have been in the opening statements of these witnesses that have sort of trickled out bit by bit - the resolution also calls to release the transcripts of those depositions to the public to see the full details of their testimony.

Now, we don't know what effect they will have. What she says there when she says, we don't know the politics of this yet - we simply don't. It's not necessarily true that this is going to be all bad for Democrats, as public opinion has continued to shift in their direction on the question of impeachment, although the question - the country still is very much divided on it.

But I think we've also seen across the aisle, Republicans are incredibly united behind this president. This question of, will anyone break with the president? Will this be the time they break with the president? If anything, the way the Democrats have handled the process has given Republicans a bit of a rallying cry to stick behind President Trump. And that vote today is also being seen as a sort of test of loyalty on the Republican side of the aisle.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Susan Davis covers Congress. Thanks, Sue.

DAVIS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.