David A. Graham: Trump’s obstruction letter
The SCIF storm was a good stunt, and it won the president’s endorsement. But it doesn’t withstand much scrutiny. The protesters claimed that as Republicans they were being squeezed out of the process, but as BuzzFeed noted, 12 of them were already authorized to participate in the process, because they’re members of committees involved in the depositions. Republicans have not been allowed to call witnesses, and it’s easy to understand why they’d feel slighted by that, but they are allowed to participate in questioning of witnesses—and have been doing so, according to The Washington Post.
Republicans complain that Democrats are offering selective leaks from the hearings, and insist that the testimony, if heard in full, would exonerate Trump. But it’s difficult to believe that, if there were exculpatory evidence being aired, Republicans wouldn’t leak it to both the public and the White House.
Democrats now say they intend to start holding public hearings as part of the impeachment inquiry in November. The public ought to be able to see the evidence they’re amassing behind closed doors, too. But they have a valid case for keeping these initial interviews private.
While there are signal differences between an impeachment and a criminal trial, the analogy is useful for understanding the process. An impeachment is like an indictment, and the House serves as a sort of grand jury. The Senate then holds a trial; senators are like jurors. (The chief justice of the United States presides over that trial.) In this analogy, the current closed-door depositions are a little like police interviews with witnesses. These aren’t held publicly, and a suspect’s lawyer doesn’t get to sit in on them. There are some good reasons for that, too: You don’t want witnesses to coordinate their stories in order to throw off investigators.
Trump’s defenders are angry that these hearings are not public and say that he should be allowed to defend himself in the process, but it’s a similar situation. In fact, Democratic members even charge that some witnesses are coordinating their accounts to avoid conflicts.
Another useful analogy is the most recent impeachment in U.S. history, that of President Bill Clinton in 1998 and 1999. House Republicans began the process after receiving a lengthy report from Independent Counsel Ken Starr. They didn’t feel they needed to conduct the preliminary interviews that are going on now, because Starr had already conducted them—in private. Republicans also complain that Democrats have not held a vote on an impeachment inquiry, and they are right that the process was different in 1998. After receiving the Starr Report, the House Judiciary Committee voted for an impeachment inquiry, followed by a full House vote. This time, the House has not carried out a full vote.