Washington’s Jam-packed December Will Cast a Long Shadow on 2020

There’s very little comfort and joy in our nation’s capital this month. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Normally, the beginning of December would signal the onset of a slow season in Washington, particularly in Congress. In many years, the House and Senate would be long gone for the holidays by now, but this year December could be one of the wilder months in living memory, as several major developments are pending that could light the already dry tinder of partisanship into a roaring flame as hot as any Yule log. Here they are in rough order of when they will occur:

Trump’s Impeachment in the House

House Democrats are still hoping to wrap up the impeachment process by Christmas as a sort of holiday present to their electoral base. But the schedule is tricky and subject to major revisions.

We know there will be at least two major developments this week:

1. House Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff will circulate among committee Democrats a draft report to the Judiciary Committee on the majority’s findings during the closed and public hearings. A party-line vote to approve the report could occur as early as Tuesday.

2. Judiciary will hold its first impeachment hearing on Wednesday. Four constitutional scholars (three chosen by committee Democrats and one by their Republican counterparts) will offer testimony clarifying the “high crimes and misdemeanors” standard for impeachment and removal of a president. The White House received and rejected an opportunity to participate in this hearing via a representative empowered to question witnesses and possibly call one (or more) of its own.

We could see some guerrilla theater in this first, dry-sounding Judiciary hearing, orchestrated by ranking Republican Doug Collins of Georgia. He told Fox News Sunday that the first witness he wanted to call was Schiff, whom the White House, congressional Republicans, and the conservative media machine have all relentlessly accused of inventing the entire Ukraine scandal in cahoots with a “partisan” whistle-blower whose identity they are demanding be disclosed publicly, presumably so he or she can be hounded and further investigated.

Next week, Judiciary Committee chairman Jerrold Nadler is expected to give Schiff an opportunity to present his committee’s report in a public hearing, which will occasion some fresh outrage from Republicans. Before that happens, the White House faces a Friday deadline set by Nadler on deciding whether to participate in Judiciary’s impeachment proceedings at all. Given Team Trump’s general posture of regarding the impeachment inquiry as an illegal if not unconstitutional “witch hunt,” participation by some lawyer representing Trump is unlikely, though the White House may be tempted to leap into the proceedings strictly in order to slow things down and ensure that any impeachment occurs next year (reinforcing its argument that Democrats are trying not only to reverse the 2016 results but preempt the 2020 election as well).

Presumably, behind the scenes, the Judiciary Committee staff is already working on articles of impeachment; those might be revealed the week of December 16, leaving a very short period before Christmas for a formal committee vote, a full House debate, and then a House vote. Nadler will have to really cook to get it all done, with congressional Republicans and the White House fighting him every step of the way.

And in case you were wondering, there are exactly zero signs of House Republicans breaking ranks to give the likely impeachment of the president any bipartisan cover.

Justice Department Inspector General’s Report on the Russia Probe

Complicating next week’s impeachment development will be the likely release of a huge piece of Republican counterprogramming, as explained by the Washington Post’s Philip Bump:

Next week, we’ll have … the release of a report from Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz assessing the origins of the Russia investigation that evolved into Mueller’s probe. It has been hailed for months as being potentially explosive, depicted by Trump’s allies and the conservative media as likely revealing broad malfeasance on the part of the intelligence community in unfairly targeting Trump and his campaign before his election as president.

Both the Post and the New York Times have claimed that Horowitz’s report is unlikely to confirm the key claim of Trump and his allies: that rogue elements in the FBI (hand in glove with “deep state” operatives directed by Barack Obama and/or Hillary Clinton) cooked up the entire Trump collusion with Russia saga and in doing so illegally spied on Trump campaign advisers, notably George Papadopolous and Carter Page. In Page’s case, there was definitely an FBI-solicited wiretap after he left the campaign, with the famous Steele dossier — itself the object of another Republican conspiracy theory involving Clinton and the Democratic National Committee — serving as a justification. And the Times suggests Horowitz will criticize the FBI for its handling of Page:

Mr. Horowitz will sharply criticize F.B.I. leaders for their handling of the investigation in some ways, and he unearthed errors and omissions when F.B.I. officials applied for the wiretap, according to people familiar with a draft of the report. The draft contained a chart listing numerous mistakes in the process, one of the people said.

Mr. Horowitz concluded that the F.B.I. was careless and unprofessional in pursuing the Page wiretap, and he referred his findings in one instance to prosecutors for potential criminal charges over the alteration of a document in 2017 by a frontline lawyer, Kevin Clinesmith, 37, in connection with the wiretap application.

The bottom line is that Horowitz’s report will spur a frenzy of spin, particularly from Republicans who want to distract attention from the Ukraine scandal:

Mr. Horowitz’s mixed bag of conclusions is likely to give new ammunition to both Mr. Trump’s defenders and critics in the long-running partisan fight over the Russia investigation. Last week, Mr. Trump described the coming report in a phone interview with “Fox & Friends” as potentially “historic” and predicted “perhaps the biggest scandal in the history of our country.”

This report, with its conflicting findings on multiple rabbit holes Republicans have been digging, will not elevate the tone or focus of the impeachment inquiry.

Possible Government Shutdown

If that’s not enough potential confusion for you, an appropriations deadlock that could fuel a second annual holiday government shutdown is brewing for mid-December as well.

A second stopgap funding bill signed by Trump on November 21 will run out on December 20. (The first was enacted just prior to the start of the fiscal year on October 1.) All kinds of disputes and questions involving the 12 regular appropriations bills would have to be enacted by December 20 to fully fund the federal government until next October. Beyond that, there remains the perpetual possibility that Trump will engineer a shutdown over the predictable refusal of House Democrats to give him the money he wants for his border wall.

Yes, in theory, congressional negotiators could come up with yet another stopgap spending bill and kick the border-wall fight and other policy disputes into January and February, avoiding a holiday shutdown. But every day that goes by without appropriations bills means that spending increases both parties want — the lubricants for a much-ballyhooed two-year “spending deal” enacted last July that just set targets for appropriators — won’t be implemented.

Meanwhile, the timing is such that, whether the bills that reach Trump’s desk in mid-December are regular appropriations bills or another stopgap, Congress will be asking POTUS again to scale back his border-wall demands on the brink of his base-obsessed reelection campaign and at a time when Democrats are trying to remove him from office via impeachment. The vibes are not likely to be very good.

Sixth Democratic Debate

On top of everything else, this month marks another ratcheting up of intensity in the 2020 Democratic presidential-nominating contest, with candidates focusing to an insane degree on the early states of Iowa (February 3), New Hampshire (February 11), Nevada (February 22), and South Carolina (February 29). Early voting in California, moreover, begins the same day as the Iowa Caucuses.

The next (and sixth) Democratic candidates’ debate is scheduled for December 19 in Los Angeles. That’s in the middle of what may be the week that articles of impeachment are disclosed and possibly even voted upon in the Judiciary Committee and the night before the current stopgap spending bill is due to run out. With impeachment, the DoJ report and the expected spin war over it, and a possible government shutdown all in play, the debaters may as well be exchanging pithy views right in the middle of a three-ring circus.

D.C.’s Jam-packed December Will Cast a Long Shadow on 2020