The Democrats’ Biggest Impeachment Challenge

Because every witness and even the president are telling essentially the same story about Ukraine, the suspense has gone out of the inquiry.

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Anyone who’s ever seen a CSI episode, read an Agatha Christie novel, or white-knuckled their way through a thriller in a movie theater understands that the key element of such stories is suspense. At the most basic level, there’s a crime, no one knows whodunit, and someone has to crack the case. It’s the suspense that keeps readers and watchers engaged, searching for the clinching evidence.

This time-honored formula also underscores the perverse challenge that House Democrats now face: Their investigation is going so seamlessly that there’s hardly any suspense at all.

It started, as all good mysteries do, with a tantalizing clue: The White House was holding up a whistle-blower report, apparently illegally, that alleged President Donald Trump had made an inappropriate promise to a foreign leader. Democrats began demanding the report, setting up a contentious exchange with the administration. Within a few days, the White House had released a partial transcript of Trump’s July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, and then gave the whistle-blower complaint to the House, which promptly released it. This was enough for Speaker Nancy Pelosi to announce an impeachment inquiry.

Democrats began summoning witnesses to Capitol Hill to testify, and their accounts are slowly filtering out to the public—through prepared opening statements and leaks, and now this week in transcripts of the closed-door depositions. Something peculiar has come out of those accounts. Career professional staffers have told a consistent story, in which Trump sought to extort from Ukraine a statement promising to investigate the Biden family and hacking of the 2016 U.S. election in exchange for a meeting and congressionally appropriated aid.

Trump appointees have also told a consistent story, including Ambassadors Gordon Sondland and Kurt Volker and the former National Security Council staffer Fiona Hill. Here’s the noncatch: It’s the same story as the one told by the career staffers. Yes, there are some minor discrepancies; Sondland initially denied communicating the quid pro quo to Ukraine, but then updated his testimony on Monday to agree with other accounts. In most respects, and in broad terms, the accounts are surprisingly similar. Everyone knows what the president knew and when he knew it.

But surely Trump is telling a different story? Not really. The president has fulminated against the investigation as a witch hunt, and he has insisted he did nothing wrong—but that’s more a matter of interpretation than fact. Trump has argued (implausibly, but nevertheless) that the very-incriminating partial transcript of his call with Zelensky exonerates him. Some congressional Republicans suggested that once the full depositions were released, they would contain exculpatory information, but that hasn’t happened yet either.

Meanwhile, Rudy Giuliani said on Twitter Wednesday that when he pressed for Ukraine to make the statements, he was doing so as Trump’s personal attorney, rather than in some foreign-policy capacity—in effect confirming that the extortion was to benefit the president personally.

In theory, this ought to be great news for Democrats. They set out to prove that Trump abused his power by extorting Ukraine for help in his reelection campaign, and so far they have produced a fat pile of evidence supporting that theory, balanced on the other side of the ledger by little more than process complaints and attacks on the motivation of the witnesses. In a courtroom, they’d be in great shape; in fact, the other side might be seeking a plea deal.

But an impeachment, with its political nature, is more like a crime show than a criminal trial. If there’s no suspense or drama, you lose your audience. Columbo can’t ask one more thing if the suspect coughs everything up at the first question. And if you lose your audience, it’s hard to win on politics.

When the Ukraine scandal broke and Pelosi announced the inquiry, public support for impeachment, long underwater, suddenly inverted. By October 14, a few days after Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch testified to investigators, a majority of Americans—50.3 percent—backed impeachment, according to FiveThirtyEight’s polling average. Since then, the facts have only gotten worse for Trump—but there have been few surprises. Sondland’s reversal on whether there was truly a quid pro quo was most interesting as palace intrigue; the quid pro quo was already clear enough. FiveThirtyEight now shows that the support for impeachment has slipped to 47.7 percent, still a plurality but a decline.

The paradox for Democrats, then, is that if things keep going so consistently, they can’t keep up momentum. This is one reason the party’s leaders have been eager to make the impeachment inquiry move as quickly as possible and resolve as quickly as possible. And it is a problem that the party’s impeachment honcho, Adam Schiff, a crime-screenwriter manqué, must sense well.

In a way, the emerging status quo is a return to the equilibrium before the Ukraine scandal broke. Nearly everyone in America knew what they thought about Trump: A significant chunk loved him, and an even more significant chunk loathed him. What they were not was undecided or in need of more information. The Ukraine case shook up politics both because it was more straightforward and easier to understand than the sometimes-byzantine Russia investigation and because it was genuinely fresh. Now that freshness is wearing off, and Ukraine risks melding into all the other scandals that have pervaded the Trump administration, though it will likely leave Trump weaker than it found him.

On Wednesday, Schiff announced that the first public hearings of the inquiry will begin next week, with testimony from Yovanovitch and Ambassador Bill Taylor. That might be Democrats’ best chance to put some drama back into the proceedings before the public reaches for the remote control.