Capitol Hill Republicans are turning the impeachment inquiry into an examination of the ethics of Rep. Adam B. Schiff, chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
As Republican members of the committee emerged Friday from closed-door testimony of Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson, their main concern was the chairman’s alleged connection to the investigation. They demanded that the California Democrat resign.
“They are now fact witnesses in the same investigation that they are now running,” said Rep. John Ratcliffe, Texas Republican. “Nowhere else in the United States can you be both a fact witness and prosecutor of any kind, much less an investigation to remove the president from office.”
During his testimony Friday, Mr. Atkinson was unable to shed any light on contacts between the whistleblower who filed a complaint against President Trump and Democrats, according to participants in the grilling.
“The inspector general for the intelligence community can provide no information about the contacts between the [intelligence committee] majority and the whistleblower prior to his involvement,” Mr. Ratcliffe said.
Last week, The New York Times reported that the whistleblower — who accused the president of trying to pressure the Ukrainian government into investigating a political rival — first approached an intelligence committee staffer who relayed some “vague” information to Mr. Schiff.
Mr. Trump and his GOP allies seized on the report as proof the investigation is a partisan hit job concocted by Democrats.
According to the newspaper, Mr. Schiff’s aide directed the whistleblower to Mr. Atkinson, which is standard protocol.
The California Democrat rebutted Republican arguments, accusing them of merely trying to protect the president.
“Republicans continued the president’s strategy of deflection by making the absurd claim that because a whistleblower contacted the committee seeking guidance, the committee cannot conduct an investigation into the complaint,” Mr. Schiff said.
“If that were true, no whistleblower could contact Congress and no committee could conduct an investigation,” he said.
Mr. Schiff last month said his team has not spoken to the whistleblower.
“We have not spoken directly with the whistleblower,” he told MSNBC in September. “We would like to, but I’m sure the whistleblower has concerns that have not been advised as the law requires by the inspector general or the director of national intelligence just as to how we are to communicate with Congress.”
Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona, chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, filed a censure resolution against Mr. Schiff for mischaracterizing the president’s comments on the infamous phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
During a hearing on impeachment, Mr. Schiff parodied Mr. Trump’s phone conversation as if the president were a mobster.
“I have a favor I want from you,” Mr. Schiff said imitating Mr. Trump. “And I’m only going to say it seven times so you better listen good. I want you to make up dirt on my political opponent, understand? Lots of it, on this and that.”
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California and more than a dozen other Republicans signed on to the resolution.
“Chairman Adam Schiff has been lying to the American people for years. Now he is so desperate to damage the president he literally made up a false version of a phone call,” Mr. McCarthy tweeted.
Mr. Schiff likely will weather the GOP attacks.
“I don’t think going after one person like that is a winning argument,” said G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College.
Claire Finkelstein, a philosophy professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said Republicans must address the whistleblower allegations directly.
“The Republican strategy should be to deal with the substance,” said Ms. Finkelstein, who specializes in ethics. “Instead of deflecting the blame and nitpicking the process they should address the story on its merits. I don’t mean the merits of the Hunter Biden story, but the merits of their own conduct and address what looks like pretty serious wrongdoing.”
She said shifting focus to Mr. Schiff is not going to be a winning strategy.
“I don’t think that strategy will be very useful to the Republicans,” she said. “It is a small detail on an otherwise damming picture for the president and for others who are involved now.”
The crackdown on Mr. Schiff is only part of what appears to be a three-pronged approach from the GOP to fight back against the impeachment surge.
Many Republicans are pointing the finger at former Vice President Joseph R. Biden and the business dealings of his son Hunter Biden.
They argue there’s enough smoke around the allegations the Bidens profited off a corrupt company that an investigation would be legitimate, which is what the president was looking to do.
They also launched an offensive against the inquiry itself — saying it is illegitimate and unbalanced.
Mr. McCarthy demanded Wednesday that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi suspend the investigation until there is a full House vote to authorize and set rules that give both parties equal weight in the investigation.
Mr. McCarthy said Republicans have a stronger case by arguing there needs to be a full House vote on the impeachment inquiry before Democrats can move ahead.
“I think the Republicans are on better grounds arguing the process itself is not fair because that will appeal better to independent voters,” Mr. McCarthy said. “They can argue that if the process is not fair, what does that mean for anyone else who comes under scrutiny? I think that’s a better approach.”