What on Earth was the point of the first day of the House Judiciary Committee hearings on impeachment?
The House Intelligence Committee hearings in November told a coherent story. Public-spirited career personnel and a Purple Heart Army officer were aligned on one side; venal and untruthful political operatives aligned on the other. Each witness was called for a reason.
A televised hearing in a high-stakes political contest is not a classroom seminar. It is not convened for the benefit of the already well informed. It is a show: a show that succeeds or fails according to whether it catalyzes the second-most-attentive and third-most-attentive tiers of citizens.
The Republican minority on the Judiciary Committee understood this basic rule. For all their intellectual and ethical limitations—and those were excruciating—Republicans on the committee arrived with a clear message. These hearings are a farce. We refuse to respect the most basic rules of decorum, and we grant permission to all like-minded Americans to dismiss them as thuggishly as we do. Ugly, but clear and comprehensible.
What was the majority’s message?
Well before the first preposterous interruption, well before the first wince of exasperation on the face of Chairman Jerry Nadler, the majority already knew that the hearings would be heckled, interrupted, and sabotaged by a minority acting in bad faith. The more damning the evidence against President Donald Trump, the more obdurately that minority would deny everything, and the more outrageously that minority would behave. A scholarly discussion under such circumstances was doomed before it started. Instead, the camera revealed a contest that pitted the earnest but weak against the perverse but unyielding. Guess who won?
Nobody seems to have planned the first day at all. Why start with a discussion of the law? Why these particular discussants? Nobody seemed to have considered what Professor 1 should do or why he should be the person to do it. Nobody appeared to have planned how Professor 2 would expand and support the case laid out by Professor 1. What was the strategic rationale for also including Professor 3? Only Professor 4, invited by the House Republicans, seemed to arrive with a clear mission. Unsurprisingly, he was the only one who succeeded in his apparent task: to obfuscate, to confuse, and to maximize his future TV bookings.
In the end, the professors called by the majority sabotaged their testimony by their deportment. Pamela Karlan’s quip about Barron Trump’s baronial name could not have been less provocative. And, obviously, the most acid-tongued and demeaning president in American history has no standing to complain about how anyone else speaks.
Yet the Trump White House’s propensity for soccer flops is a notorious fact, readily anticipated. The members of the same first family that demand the death penalty for their critics will howl and wail and clutch their shins at the lightest joke about them. That performance will then be amplified by an infrastructure of conservative media. It’s all as fake as an operatic death scene, and there are definitely days to challenge and mock the White House’s self-pitying melodramatics. Precisely for this well-advertised reason, it would have been wise to weigh in advance: Was today to provide fuel to the pro-Trump self-pity industry? Instead, the Democrats’ ineffectual messaging delivered Republicans the opportunity to seize control of the debate with a stronger message, however contrived and insincere.
What should the majority have done instead?
The House Intelligence Committee’s forceful report addressed two issues: Trump’s abuse of power to extort a bribe from Ukraine, and the subsequent obstruction of justice to conceal the extortion.
The Intelligence Committee’s hearings powerfully dramatized the first of these issues. The Judiciary Committee’s hearings should have dramatized the second.
The minority complains that the American people have not heard from firsthand witnesses to the extortion. This is not true. Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman listened to the July call in which Trump delivered the extortion message directly to the president of Ukraine. Ambassador Gordon Sondland led the extortion project. Ambassador Bill Taylor witnessed the extortion in real time. Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch was the extortion ring’s first target.
Still, important witnesses have heeded the president’s order not to testify. Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and the president’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani led the conspiracy; Energy Secretary Rick Perry participated in it; National Security Adviser John Bolton tried to stop it. All refused to testify. The process of enforcing subpoenas upon them all will be slow.
At a minimum, however, the Judiciary Committee could have dramatized their refusal: Set the table. Arrange the chairs. Fold the name cards. Then read aloud the questions that should have been asked of them, if they had not obeyed the president’s order to obstruct justice.
The organizers of a televised hearing need to ask themselves at every turn: What are we trying to accomplish? To whom are we speaking, and what are we hoping to communicate to that audience? The Republicans know their answers to those questions. Their message is massive resistance. They behave like goons to warn the majority of the high and painful cost of any attempt to hold Trump accountable. They are not trying to convince. They are not even trying to refute. They are trying to mobilize their supporters and to frighten their opponents.
The majority needs to be equally clear. Seventy percent of Americans believe that Trump’s actions in Ukraine were wrong. A majority disapprove of his conduct in office. A plurality favor impeachment and removal. Those numbers fall short of a national consensus, but deployed properly, they should sober Trump’s party—and frighten vulnerable Senate Republicans such as Cory Gardner of Colorado, Martha McSally of Arizona, Thom Tillis of North Carolina, Susan Collins of Maine, and Joni Ernst of Iowa, as well as Georgia’s David Perdue and the soon-to-be-appointed Kelly Loeffler. These hearings are for them, and for their voters. Nothing happened yesterday to move them.
Tomorrow, something should—and it’s way past time that Nadler and his staff develop a plan for what that something should be.
The facts are against Trump. The law is against Trump. The people are against Trump. But Trump and his supporters have the will to win, by any means, at any price. At least on the Judiciary Committee, the people tasked by history to defend the American Constitution against its pro-Trump saboteurs lack anything like an equal willpower. If they do not find that will soon—and develop means to make their will effective—they will lose, and the country with them.