Elections have consequences, and one consequence of the 2018 election is that Democrats control the House and are on course to impeach President Donald Trump. Another consequence is that Republicans don’t have control over what witnesses get called in the impeachment inquiry.
They do, however, have the right to make requests, and in a letter last week they made a series of suggestions to House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff—including calling Hunter Biden, the son of former Vice President Joe Biden; Devon Archer, a business associate of his; Alexandra Chalupa, a former Democratic National Committee staffer; and the anonymous whistle-blower who filed a complaint about Trump’s July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Several of the witnesses the GOP requested, including the former National Security Council staffer Tim Morrison, will appear, though not necessarily on the witness panels Republicans wanted. But for the most part, Democrats have ignored the suggestions, as the GOP letter anticipated: “Your failure to fulfill Minority witness requests shall constitute evidence of your denial of fundamental fairness and due process.”
Committee Republicans are for the most part crying crocodile tears. As a matter of procedure, Democrats are following recent precedent. As a matter of politics, these witnesses might be a boon to Republicans. But that doesn’t mean Democrats should be so quick to dismiss calling Hunter Biden, Archer, and Chalupa to testify.
According to the rules governing the inquiry, the ranking Republican Devin Nunes can suggest witnesses. If Schiff refuses, Republicans can ask the full committee to vote. In practice, this means a Democratic veto, since the committee is majority Democratic and its members are unlikely to overrule their own chairman. Needless to say, Republicans would prefer to have more leeway, but this procedure echoes the Richard Nixon– and Bill Clinton–impeachment rules.
Calling the witnesses would not satisfy Republicans’ procedural concerns, which are really more of a smoke screen for their lack of substantive defenses of Trump’s behavior. GOP members complained when Democrats held closed-door depositions; when Democrats announced public hearings, Republicans denounced them as theatrics. Still, granting some concessions would take the sting out of GOP complaints by emphasizing an attempt at fairness.
There’s also still no compelling case for calling the whistle-blower. During yesterday’s hearing, Republican Representative Jim Jordan complained that “the guy who started it all” wasn’t there to testify, eliciting a crisp retort from his Democratic colleague Peter Welch: “President Trump is welcome to come in and sit down right there.”
As the whistle-blower’s complaint acknowledged, and as Trump allies never tire of pointing out, that person doesn’t have firsthand knowledge of the July 25 call. But since the complaint was filed, a great deal more evidence has come into public view: The White House released a partial transcript of the call, and a slew of witnesses who were aware of administration moves on Ukraine have testified. All of this confirms the substance of the complaint. The whistle-blower’s motivations are irrelevant, especially given the accuracy of the complaint, and the chilling effect on future whistle-blowers of unmasking this one could be serious.
But even though Republicans may be offering disingenuous objections, some of their proposed witnesses are worth calling. Republicans have complained, in various ways, that Ukraine meddled in the 2016 election to hurt then-candidate Trump. This includes the president’s entirely baseless theory about hacking and servers, advanced on the July 25 call. Another strain, similarly unproved, argues that Ukrainian diplomats were passing information to Chalupa.
Nunes had a chance to call hearings on this when he was the Intelligence Committee chairman in 2017 and 2018, but he instead was busy doing Jason Bourne cosplay. Nonetheless, if Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election, it’s worth investigating—though to be clear, it would be in no way equivalent to the president of the United States marshaling the power of the U.S. government to extort assistance for his political campaign. And if it’s all bogus, as Democrats say, why not put it to rest? Chalupa, for her part, told Politico this week that she is eager to testify.
There seem to be two main arguments against calling Archer and Biden. First, neither man has been accused of a crime, despite the president’s ceaseless innuendo and aggressive search for evidence. But people who are not accused of crimes are called to testify to Congress all the time, and the accusations are already in wide circulation. As with the claims of 2016 interference, there is a public interest in an investigation not conducted by hackish ideological journalists.
Second, from Democrats’ perspective, there is a danger that any testimony from Biden would hurt his father’s presidential campaign. But the principled case for impeachment centers not on hurting Trump’s electoral prospects, but on investigating and potentially punishing his abuse of power. Likewise, political concerns should not block the pursuit of the truth.
In any case, as Ezra Klein wrote last month, Joe Biden needs to be able to answer questions about his son’s work in Ukraine. Even if his fellow Democratic presidential contenders are skittish about bringing it up, Trump will not be in a general election. Even if the Democratic Party wants to proceed on the narrow calculus of political advantage, it might well benefit from bringing up and disposing of the debate at this early stage.
House Democrats are in a hurry to complete their inquiry, and calling minority witnesses would slow the process down. But calling them might offer crucial clarity to the public on some disputed issues, and neuter Republican charges of unfairness. Wouldn’t that be worth the wait?
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