By David Morgan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump faced two deadlines in Congress this week as Democrats prepared to shift the focus of their impeachment inquiry from fact-finding to the consideration of possible charges of misconduct over his dealings with Ukraine.
The Democratic-led House of Representatives Judiciary Committee, tasked with considering charges known as articles of impeachment, has given Trump until 6 p.m. EST (2300 GMT) on Sunday to say whether he or his legal counsel will participate in a Wednesday impeachment hearing.
This first-in-a-series of expected Judiciary proceedings will hear testimony on the impeachment process established under the U.S. Constitution from a panel of legal experts that has yet to be named.
Hearings before the committee, which has responsibility for crafting any formal charges against Trump, are a major step toward possible charges. Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who will make the final decision, has not yet said whether the Republican president should be impeached. But in a letter to supporters last week, she called for him to be held accountable for his actions.
Trump has denied any wrongdoing, calling the impeachment inquiry a “witch hunt.” The White House has not yet indicated whether it will take part in the committee proceedings.
Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler also set a 5 p.m. EST (2200 GMT) Friday deadline for Trump to say whether he will mount a defence at further proceedings expected next week to examine evidence against him.
Three investigating panels, led by the House Intelligence Committee, are due to release a formal report this week when lawmakers return on Tuesday from a Thanksgiving recess. The report will outline evidence gathered by the Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight committees.
Congressional investigators have been looking into whether Trump abused his power by pressuring Ukraine to launch investigations of former Democratic Vice President Joe Biden, who is running to unseat him in the 2020 presidential election, and a discredited conspiracy theory that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Representative Doug Collins, the senior Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said in an interview with “Fox News Sunday” that the White House will mount a defence during upcoming impeachment proceedings and suggested calling Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the Intelligence Committee, as a witness.
In a separate interview on ABC’s “This Week,” another Judiciary Committee Republican, Representative Tom McClintock, suggested the possibility that Trump’s acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, and his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani should testify.
Representative Hakeem Jeffries, a member of House Democratic leadership and the Judiciary Committee, told Fox News, “We all may want to hear from John Bolton. We all would like to hear from Mick Mulvaney.”
In September, Trump fired Bolton from his job as national security adviser, citing policy disagreements.
The president and his Republican allies in Congress say the inquiry has been rushed and unfair to Trump by not allowing the White House to have legal counsel present or call witnesses during weeks of closed-door testimony and open hearings before the House Intelligence Committee.
However, Republican lawmakers were able to question witnesses during the closed hearings and called three witnesses during public hearings that wrapped up last week.
“The president may well look at this, or his counsel may well look at this, and say: Why would we want to get in here and legitimize this process, when it was made illegitimate at the beginning by shutting us out?” said Republican Representative Tom Cole.
The House Judiciary Committee could vote on whether to recommend articles of impeachment within the next two weeks, setting the stage of a possible impeachment vote by the full House before Christmas, according to Democratic aides.
If the House impeaches Trump, the Republican-controlled Senate would hold a trial to determine whether he should be removed from office.
House Judiciary Democrat Zoe Lofgren, interviewed on CNN’s “State of the Union” program, urged Republicans and her fellow Democrats to keep an open mind as they weigh possible impeachment charges against Trump.
“If we’ve got it wrong – it doesn’t look like we do – I would welcome an opportunity to reach a different conclusion about the president’s misconduct. We have to at least allow for that possibility,” Lofgren said.
(Reporting by David Morgan, Richard Cowan and Andrea Shalal; editing by Ross Colvin, Marguerita Choy and Nick Zieminski)