After two weeks of impeachment hearings, House Democratic leaders were poised to draft articles of impeachment against President Trump, but their rank-and-file members were stumped about what should be the next move.
Lawmakers headed home for Thanksgiving break unsure whether there would be more hearings or when they would cast a seemingly inevitable vote on impeachment, with just eight legislative days remaining before the end of the year.
Rep. Adam B. Schiff, the California Democrat and intelligence committee chairman who presided over the hearings, said the parade of witnesses had presented a clear-cut case that Mr. Trump abused the levers of power and bribed Ukraine officials to help his re-election campaign.
“They were willing to do whatever was necessary to get Ukraine to do that dirty work, to do that investigation. And then there was a quid pro quo regarding the White House meeting,” Mr. Schiff said in a closing argument.
He also has floated an obstruction charge, noting that one of the articles of impeachment against President Richard M. Nixon was his refusal to obey subpoenas by Congress. And yet, the testimony from a dozen witnesses spread across five days of hearings over two weeks has failed to move Republican lawmakers or the general public against Mr. Trump.
Rep. Will Hurd of Texas, an outspoken anti-Trump Republican on the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said he wasn’t convinced.
“An impeachable offense should be compelling. It’s not something to be rushed or taken lightly,” he said. “I have not heard evidence proving the president committed bribery or extortion.”
Democrats had eyed Mr. Hurd, who is not running for reelection, as a possible crossover vote for impeachment.
Congress members were “in the dark” about what would happen next, Rep. Devin Nunes of California, the ranking Republican on the intelligence committee, said as the final hearing of the week came to a close.
He railed against the House Democrats’ rules for the inquiry, which were passed on a party-line vote, saying the hearings were skewed against Mr. Trump, denying him due process.
“What you’ve seen in this room the past two weeks is a show trial, the planned result of three years or political operations and dirty tricks campaigns waged against this president,” he said. “And like any good show trial, the verdict was decided before the trial ever began.”
The impeachment inquiry heard Thursday from former National Security Council official Fiona Hill and State Department aide David Holmes.
Ms. Hill backed up earlier testimony by U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland describing a quid pro quo deal with Ukraine. They testified about plans to give newly elected Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky a prized White House visit in exchange for his announcing investigations of Ukraine meddling in the 2016 election and alleged corruption at Burisma Holdings, a Ukraine natural gas company linked to former Vice President Joseph R. Biden and his son Hunter.
The quid pro quo, a Latin phrase meaning a transaction of “this for that,” is the linchpin of the Democrats’ abuse of power and bribery case. None of the witnesses directly tied the dealmaking to Mr. Trump, though he did ask Mr. Zelensky in a July 25 phone call for a “favor” on the matter of investigations without apparent strings attached.
A whistleblower, who is believed to be a CIA official assigned to the White House, accused the president of abusing his power for personal gain on the call, including withholding U.S. military aid from Ukraine to force the investigations.
A rough transcript of the call released by the White House did not show a quid pro quo with the investigation request, but Democrats argue the threat was understood and part of an ongoing pressure campaign of “shadow” foreign policy conducted by Mr. Trump’s private lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani.
Mr. Holmes testified that he was with Mr. Sondland in a Kyiv restaurant when he overheard a cellphone call between the ambassador and Mr. Trump in which the president asked about the investigations.
According to Mr. Holmes, after the call, Mr. Sondland told him that Mr. Trump doesn’t care about Ukraine, but only cares about “big stuff that benefits the president” such as “the Biden investigation.”
When Mr. Sondland testified Wednesday, he denied that he mentioned the Bidens.
None of the witnesses provided evidence supporting the most serious allegation against Mr. Trump, that he withheld $391 million of U.S. military aid from Ukraine as leverage to force the investigations.
Ms. Hill and Mr. Holmes echoed others’ testimony when they said they did not know why the aid was held up.
Mr. Holmes guessed a reason.
“My clear impression was that the security assistance hold was likely intended by the president either as an expression of dissatisfaction with the Ukrainians who had not yet agreed to the Burisma/Biden investigation or as an effort to increase the pressure on them to do so,” he said.
The answer provided more ammunition for Mr. Trump’s defenders to dismiss the impeachment case as a hodgepodge of conjecture and second-hand speculation.
A new Emerson College poll released Thursday revealed that American voters were turning against the impeachment effort. It found 45% of voters oppose impeachment, compared to 43% that support it. That’s a reversal of public opinion from the same poll in October, before the public hearings on impeachment, when 48% supported impeachment and 44% opposed it.
The biggest swing was among independent voters, who now oppose impeachment 49% to 34%, compared to October where they supported impeachment 48% to 39%, according to the national survey.
Mr. Trump’s approval rating also increased to 48%, a bounce from 43% approval last month.
The impeachment hearings are being watched or followed by 69% of voters.
“We are winning big, and they will soon be on our turf,” Mr. Trump said, referring to the Republican-run Senate where he would stand trial if the House impeaches him.
Under the House rules for the inquiry, upon finishing its investigation, the intelligence committee will submit a report to the House Judiciary Committee, which will deliberate whether to send articles of impeachment to the full House for a vote.
They are anxiously eyeing the calendar and the prospect of the impeachment process bleeding into the 2020 election season.
“I hope it’s possible to wrap up by the end of the year, but I just don’t know whether it will be possible and what the leadership has in mind,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin, Maryland Democrat and Judiciary Committee member.