The Closed-Door Impeachment

The Democrats’ current strategy could undermine their bid to get public opinion firmly on their side.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff arrives for a meeting on Capitol Hill.
Alex Brandon / AP

In the three and a half weeks since Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced a formal impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, House investigators have broken through the administration’s stonewalling of Congress and heard dozens of hours of testimony from key witnesses.

The public, however, has seen virtually none of it—and that dynamic could ultimately threaten the Democrats’ bid to get public opinion firmly on their side.

Except for an initial open hearing, Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee have so far conducted their impeachment investigation entirely behind closed doors. They have yet to release transcripts of their depositions, either to the public or, to the chagrin of Republicans, other lawmakers. The only testimony that’s filtered out has come secondhand from those on the committee or in selective leaks to the press.

That decision has, in some respects, paid dividends for Democrats: They obtained—and found a way to make public—damaging revelations about Trump’s dealings with Ukraine that have gone significantly beyond the accusations initially leveled by a whistle-blower. The current and former U.S. diplomats who provided that information might have fought requests to testify in public hearings, making the Democrats’ approach all the more valuable to their fact-finding.

But the closed-door strategy runs counter to another goal Democrats have. The lack of televised hearings could limit their ability to capture attention and build voter support for the party’s case against Trump—which Pelosi had long made a prerequisite for pursuing impeachment in the first place. While public hearings haven’t always been a success for the Democrats since they won the House majority last year, they’re a potentially useful venue for compelling political theater.

In interviews, lawmakers pushed back on the suggestion that Americans have been cut out of the process. “I’m not aware that the public is experiencing any confusion,” Representative Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, the co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said in an interview yesterday. “I have zero concerns on that front.”

What the process has done, however, is open the party up to criticism from Republicans that it’s running an overly secretive operation, including from those who have not marched in lockstep with Trump.

“I want to get to the truth, just like everybody else,” said Representative Jaime Herrera-Beutler, a Republican from a competitive district in Washington State. “But this needs to happen out in the open, with full transparency, and right now that’s not happening.” Herrera-Beutler was speaking in a video she tweeted on Thursday, in which she stood outside the room where the Intelligence Committee has been hearing testimony in secret.

For days, Republican members who are not on the panel have been trying to get into the room, knowing full well they would be turned away, to highlight what they claim is a fundamentally unjust process. Yesterday, that was the subject of a heated exchange between the second-ranking members of each party, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Minority Whip Steve Scalise, that devolved into a shouting match on the House floor.

“Are we going to finally get beyond this secret, closed-door star-chamber process of impeachment and get to something that is rooted in fairness?” Scalise asked Hoyer.

“I reject wholly and fully the premise underlying the whip’s representation,” the Democrat replied. “There is no unfairness in this process.

“The Republicans are pounding on process, Mr. Speaker, because they do not want to discuss the substance,” Hoyer continued, pounding loudly on his own lectern for effect.

As for why the Democrats are holding hearings behind closed doors, Hoyer added, “We do not want to turn it into a circus.”

That is probably more compelling a reason than many Democrats would care to admit. The party saw firsthand the downside of televised hearings when the House Judiciary Committee called Trump’s pugnacious former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, to testify during the brief period when that panel had opened an impeachment probe. Bickering with members and stalling for time, Lewandowski tried to make a mockery of the proceedings. He largely succeeded in stymieing Democrats’ attempt to elicit useful information until the very end of the hearing, when a lawyer for the committee questioned him uninterrupted for a half hour.

“I think we saw that wasn’t a particularly productive way to get information in front of the committee or in front of the public,” says Molly Reynolds, an expert on Congress at the Brookings Institution. “Congressional hearings, particularly in today’s media environment, aren’t necessarily well structured for deliberative consideration of material.”

Impeachment in the House is roughly equivalent to an indictment in criminal law. The Senate conducts the trial, which is held publicly and during which attorneys for the president can mount a defense. Democrats say the Intelligence Committee is still in fact-finding mode; Hoyer likened the process occurring now to a grand jury, whose proceedings are secret.

While Republicans point out that previous impeachment inquiries have been conducted more openly, Democrats counter that unlike Watergate with President Richard Nixon or the Kenneth Starr investigation into President Bill Clinton, they are starting from scratch, without the help of an exhaustive report from a special prosecutor. (Democrats might have been able to move more swiftly to public hearings had they continued pursuing impeachment based on the Robert Mueller investigation, but they put that effort on hold to pursue the separate Ukraine matter.)

“The reasons for conducting interviews in private are sound and based on the best interests of a thorough and fair investigation,” Representative Adam Schiff of California, the Intelligence Committee chairman who is leading the investigation, wrote in a letter released this week. Schiff also wrote that Democrats plan to make interview transcripts public, but are holding back for now so that witnesses can’t coordinate their statements or align their stories.

“That information will be made public,” echoed Representative Derek Kilmer, the chairman of the New Democrat Coalition, when we asked whether he was concerned about the appearance of secrecy. “There will be an opportunity to review the evidence.”

A key question, however, is when—or if—Democrats will release that information and hold those public hearings before they decide whether to take articles of impeachment to the House floor. The clock is ticking: Lawmakers have said they want to finish the proceedings as early as Thanksgiving, which means only six weeks remain.

For now, rank-and-file Democrats say they aren’t worried about the process, or the attacks from Republicans. The caucus seems uniquely united on this front: They believe they’re following the proper procedures to ensure that the inquiry is treated with the seriousness that it deserves, and they argue that the American people recognize that.

“I think it’s a manufactured issue by Republicans,” Pocan said. “They can’t defend the president, so they’re trying to throw misdirection out there.

“As someone who does magic,” Pocan added, “I understand misdirection.”