LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
A new round of impeachment hearings begins this week on Capitol Hill. This time, the Judiciary Committee is in the starring role. They will be looking at the evidence gathered so far and exploring the constitutional grounds for impeachment. The president and his lawyers have also been invited to attend the public hearings and participate. Will they, or won't they? And meanwhile, the Democratic race is still unsettled as Democratic voters are taking a harder look at the top candidates running to challenge Trump in 2020.
NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins me now to talk about all of this. Good morning.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Lulu.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. The Judiciary Committee has given the president until Friday to decide whether he wants his lawyers involved in the public hearings. If he says yes, that means they could review the evidence - right? - against him and question the witnesses, Mara.
LIASSON: That's right.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: This seems different than the previous committee.
LIASSON: It is different. You know, the president has complained that he hasn't had a chance for his lawyers to question the witnesses. On the other hand, his White House counsel has said that the White House would not participate at all in the impeachment hearings 'cause they think they're illegitimate. We're waiting to see what the White House decides.
And you're right. The jobs of each of these committees are very different. The Intelligence Committee did a fact-based hearing. They tried to establish what happened. Their draft report begins circulating tomorrow. Democrats on the Intelligence Committee believe they made the strongest case they could with the testimony they were able to get that the president did ask Ukraine to open an investigation into his political rival and, at the same time, withheld military aid to Ukraine in exchange for an announcement of that investigation.
But the goal for the Democrats on the Judiciary Committee is to draw up the articles of impeachment for the entire House to vote on and to convince the public that what the president did was an abuse of power and that it was bad enough to warrant his removal. And that's why their first witnesses are going to be legal scholars - constitutional scholars - to describe the definition of an impeachable offense.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to get into this. Can the public be convinced? I mean, what is public opinion on this? Has it really shifted?
LIASSON: It hasn't shifted. Big majorities of the public in every poll, including ours - the NPR/Marist/PBS poll - say what the president did was wrong. In other words, asking a foreign country to intervene in an upcoming election was wrong. But when people are asked if he should be removed from office because of that, public opinion is split down the middle. We're a 50/50 country. We don't know exactly what accounts for this difference. It's possible that voters make the distinction because it's so close to an election. They want the question of removing a president to be left up to them.
So there's bad news for both parties in these polls. There's been no big backlash against impeachment. That's bad for Republicans. But there's been no groundswell for impeachment and removal, and that's bad for Democrats.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I guess coming up to these new public hearings, they - the Democrats might want to hear from people who didn't testify during the first hearings to try and shift that public opinion. Is there a chance we'll see them come before the Judiciary Committee?
LIASSON: I think it's highly unlikely people like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, former national security adviser John Bolton, chief of staff Mick Mulvaney - it's unlikely those people will come. There was a ruling last week from a federal judge that said former White House counsel Don McGahn must testify before Congress in an unrelated case, but that's going to be appealed to the Supreme Court.
These cases take a long time to resolve. The House Democrats say they don't want to wait. They're going to move forward regardless.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. We have all that swirling around Washington. But let's shift gear a little bit because, of course, we have the Democratic race just weeks away from the start of the primary season.
LIASSON: We do, and the Democratic race right now has a very defined top tier. That's Biden, Warren, Sanders and Buttigieg. But we don't know if Joe Biden survives, if he doesn't do well in New Hampshire and Iowa. He'd like to make it to South Carolina we has - where he has very strong support among African American voters. And we don't know if Pete Buttigieg, who's been surging in New Hampshire and Iowa, can survive South Carolina, where his support among African American voters is next to zero. And you have Elizabeth Warren's support, which has dropped since she came out with her mandatory "Medicare for All" plan that does away with private insurance. And then hovering over this whole field is billionaire former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yes. He's sort of come in at the very last minute. Just briefly, what do Democratic voters seem to want? It's not clear.
LIASSON: Well - you know, it's not clear. I think Democrats have a lot of concerns about the electability of two of their top choices. Biden's performance has been weak, and his fundraising has been poor. Many Democrats think Warren is too far to the left to win a general election. And then you've got Bloomberg, who sees his chance. But he has a very unusual strategy - wait till Super Tuesday, spend a tremendous amount of money - that's never been done before. And right now, he's really not registering in the polls at all.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson breaking it down. Thank you.
LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.