The photograph has all the trappings of a Renaissance painting — crowded with characters, action and emotion — only this one is set in a congressional hearing room and features figures frequently found on C-Span.
It captures a small moment in a big event: The first hearing by the House Judiciary Committee officially called to determine whether to impeach President Donald Trump. But to look at the frame, captured on Tuesday by Doug Mills, a New York Times photographer, is to understand something deeper about the forces at play as the House grapples with the prospect of trying to remove Trump.
We decided to give it a close reading.
AT THE CENTRE OF IT ALL
1. Chairman Jerrold Nadler, Democrat of New York
Nadler, a long-serving progressive from Manhattan, is literally in the middle of the impeachment debate — not just between the Republicans and Democrats seen here, but between competing factions of his own party. Nadler and most of his fellow Democrats on the committee have become increasingly outspoken about their support for "vindicating the Constitution" through an impeachment vote, but moderates in the party remain deeply skeptical, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi has publicly downplayed the effort.
The photograph documents a tense scene during the panel's questioning of Corey Lewandowski, Trump's former campaign manager, who Democrats believe may hold a key to proving that the president obstructed justice. At issue is whether House rules allow a consultant working for the Democrats to directly question Lewandowski.
As Nadler leans back his chair, an intense debate unfolds around him even after he overruled Republicans' objection to a prominent defense lawyer questioning Lewandowski, and then quickly dispatched with their attempts to shut down the hearing.
His broader goal is to try to methodically fight back opposition to build a case for the public that Trump obstructed justice, abused his power and profited from his office. As he sees it, Tuesday's hearing, like others before it, may have been chaotic and given the witness a platform to blast Democrats, but it also allowed his committee to demonstrate before rolling television cameras that Trump had tried to obstruct the special counsel investigation, and is now working to thwart the committee's own.
2. Representative Doug Collins, Republican of Georgia
Hunched over, thrusting a small sheaf of papers across the frame, Collins has initiated this particular fight, grinding the proceedings to a halt. In his hand is a copy of the contract for Barry H. Berke, an experienced white-collar defense lawyer, to serve as a consultant to the committee. Collins, a fast-talking conservative, is arguing that Berke is not a full committee employee, and therefore ineligible to question witnesses under the rules.
In this case, as in most other conflicts Republicans provoke over terms and rules, they want to portray Nadler and Democrats as running roughshod over congressional norms in a political campaign hellbent on destroying Trump. If they can help muddle the case Democrats are trying to build, all the better.
"Under the circumstances of the current so-called impeachment inquiry, it would constitute an unprecedented privatisation of impeachment," Collins said of Berke's participation. He added, "If it's win at all costs, Mr. Chairman, then we have a problem."
HAND AFLOAT, IN A "COOL IT" GESTURE
3. Representative Zoe Lofgren, Democrat of California
Lofgren is a crucial member of the committee's brain trust. She served as a Democratic staff member for the panel during the impeachment investigation of President Richard M. Nixon and was a member herself when the committee voted to recommend impeaching President Bill Clinton.
This time, though, she has made no secret of her reservations about Democrats' case and the wisdom of pursuing an impeachment strictly along partisan lines.
She also serves as the head of the House Administration Committee, and, as such, is stepping in as something of an arbiter to this rules dispute. As far as her committee is concerned, she said, it is well within the rules for Berke to ask questions.
AT NADLER'S RIGHT HAND
4. Barry H. Berke, a Democratic lawyer for the committee
Berke is the subject of the particular fight playing out here. A partner at the New York firm Kramer Levin with strong connections to Democrats (he once represented Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York in a federal investigation into the mayor's campaign fundraising), Berke was hired by Nadler last winter to help the committee shape its investigative work. Up until Tuesday, he had laboured mostly behind the scenes. The stage was set for him to take a more prominent role last week when the committee approved new procedures governing its impeachment investigation including allowing for staff lawyers to question witnesses directly after lawmakers have had their turns.
Berke's rapid-fire cross-examination of Lewandowski, when it finally commenced, drew widespread praise and highlighted just how choppy and unproductive the typical questioning by lawmakers in hearings like these can be. Most notably, Berke was able to force the hearing's sharp-tongued witness to admit he had been less than truthful about his involvement with the special counsel in national television interviews.
"I have no obligation not to be dishonest to the media because they are as dishonest as anybody else," Lewandowski said.
THE SURPRISING CAST
5. Committee staff
A very small army of professional staff members stand behind elected officials in any congressional proceeding. In this case, a mix of Democratic and Republican aides who specialise in investigations and committee rules are advising the lawmakers on the finer points of their debate. Pressed against their chests or tightly rolled in their hands are legal papers and procedural documents that undergird the committee's work. When they aren't embroiled in mid-hearing flare-ups like this one, they help craft strategy, write speeches, draft scripts for questioning witnesses and attempt to keep the business of the committee on track.
NOT PICTURED (BUT A LOOMING PRESENCE)
Speaker Nancy Pelosi
As the Democrats' leader, Pelosi overshadows the entire debate, quietly approving every move Nadler has made even as she tends to the tricky politics of impeachment in a party that is deeply divided over the issue. As the Judiciary Committee has intensified its talk of impeaching the president, Pelosi has maintained the skeptical stance she adopted months ago when she said doing so was "just not worth it." Though she has not ruled it out entirely, she argues the House has not yet built a strong enough case, and must stay its current course of investigating and fighting the president in court.
The tensions between Pelosi, Nadler and the Judiciary Committee have increasingly spilled into public since Congress returned from summer recess last week. Though she has signed off on each of the panel's actions, she has pointedly declined to use the phrase "impeachment investigation," and in one private meeting last week, first reported by Politico, she took a thinly veiled swipe at the committee and its staff for pushing too aggressively on the process given that some Democrats are not yet sold on it, according to people familiar with her remarks. Supporters of impeachment fear she is trying to sow confusion to justify not going down that road.
NOT PICTURED (BUT ON THE WITNESS STAND)
Try as Democrats might, they struggled at points on Tuesday to keep the focus on their witness and the story he had to tell about Trump's attempts to enlist him in mid-2017 to drastically curtail the Russia investigation. Lewandowski, a pugnacious loyalist of Trump's who is considering a Senate run in New Hampshire, was never going to make it easy. He dodged questions based on orders from the White House, taunted Democrats in the hearing room and, even as he confirmed key details about possible obstruction of justice, declared the president had never asked him to do "anything illegal."
Though Lewandowski is the first fact witness to show up for public testimony before the Judiciary panel, his blockade was part of a larger White House effort to stonewall the committee's work. It has repeatedly intervened to direct former officials at the center of the case not to testify and slow-walked the production of documents, making it far more difficult for Democrats to create the kind of vivid hearings that could generate more public interest.
Written by: Nicholas Fandos
Photographs by: Doug Mills
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