The first sound that greeted me, rounding the corner outside the hearing room in the Longworth House Office Building, was the eerie echo of Representative Adam Schiff’s voice emanating from the several dozen cellphones blasting live-stream footage of the testimony going on inside.
With the public phase of the impeachment inquiry starting last week and continuing into this one, throngs of people—young and old, mostly Democrats—have waited outside the room every day to try to get a seat to see the hearings in person. Many of them had traveled very long distances to watch the California Democrat and other lawmakers on the House Intelligence Committee question a number of witnesses. Why were they there? Almost all of them used the phrase “democracy in action.”
Some Democrats have long worried that impeachment is a waste of time: The Republican-controlled Senate will never vote to convict Trump, they argue, and an impeachment process with no real consequences for the president might only serve to dishearten Democratic voters ahead of the 2020 election. The many voters I met outside the hearing room seemed to acknowledge the likelihood that, when all this is done, Donald Trump will still be president. But they weren’t exactly disappointed about that prospect, either: They still see impeachment—the whole process—as good for American democracy and, more important, good for the Democratic Party heading into an election year.
“This is the healing that our country’s got to go through from someone who’s destroyed it,” 65-year-old Sulyporn Bannon Kulsrethsiri told me outside the hearing room on Wednesday morning. “The focus right now isn’t so much on removal itself, but more on the 2020 election,” said Mason Hill, a 22-year-old Washington, D.C., resident, the day before. It’s “to paint a picture [of the president] in the general public’s mind.”
Since the start of public hearings last week, Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee have sought to build a case for impeachment through testimony from current and former diplomats and administration officials about the allegations that Trump pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his family. The strategy has been relatively fruitful: William Taylor, acting ambassador to Ukraine, last week revealed previously unknown information about a phone call involving Trump that could add to the Democrats’ case. And on Wednesday, European Union Ambassador Gordon Sondland implicated the president directly in the Ukraine scandal, and explicitly confirmed that there was a quid pro quo.
But Democrats are still facing a grim reality: While it seems likely that the House will vote to impeach the president, the Senate, which is controlled by Republicans, almost certainly won’t. So far, only three GOP senators have expressed even the slightest openness to impeachment.
The Democrats I talked with who flocked to Capitol Hill to see the hearings in person weren’t there to witness the buildup to the eventual removal of a president. They were there, they told me, to offer a show of support for the democratic process. “If impeachment succeeds or fails [to remove the president], just getting into this line and saying ‘What happened is not right,’ it makes sense to me,” said Raj Nath, a Best Buy salesman who lives in Reston, Virginia. Melanie Robertson, an architect who traveled from Piedmont, California, just to see the hearings in person, called her trip “a recon mission to save democracy.”
Others were optimistic that the mere fact that the hearings were being conducted is evidence that American democracy is, at least in this arena, functioning as it should. “Getting to see the evidence laid out right now makes me feel a little bit better about my country,” 58-year-old Bill Condell told me while he waited in line to see Sondland’s testimony on Wednesday. “This is a civics lesson that only comes around every few generations,” said Liz Marshall, a resident of Takoma Park, Maryland, who stood in line with her teenage son. “It is an example of checks and balances, an example of democracy working.”
Many of the hearing attendees also told me they were reassured by the veteran public officials who testified—people like Taylor and former Ukraine Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch. “The public ought to see the professionalism of these longtime State Department employees,” said Carla Kurfess, a retired teacher from Annapolis, Maryland. It should be comforting to Americans, she added, to see people so devoted to the country. Marti Cronin, a retired public-school teacher from Long Island, told me that she doesn’t follow politics closely, but her friends persuaded her to wait in line with them for three hours to see Taylor and George Kent testify last week. They returned a couple of days later to watch Yovanovitch. “To hear those two wonderful men with the résumés that they had … I had to come back,” Cronin told me. “I was going to the museums today, but here I am. I’m hooked!”
Across the country, Republicans and Democrats are dug in regarding their support of or opposition to impeachment: While more than 80 percent of Democrats support impeachment, just 10 percent of Republicans do. Most Americans do not expect the public hearings to change their minds about impeachment, according to a new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll. The voters I met recognized this. But over and over again, they told me the process isn’t about impeachment itself; it’s about getting out the truth about Trump—about gathering all possible ammunition to use against him in 2020. Democrats are hoping that undecided or unengaged voters will be persuaded by what they’ve learned and inspired to vote against Trump.
“The Trump cult can’t be swayed; our side can’t be swayed. So we need to persuade the people who are just living their lives and ignoring the situation,” said Lara Ragunas, a 53-year-old housewife from Jacksonville, Florida. “Let’s get ’em [to listen to] NPR and see the seriousness of the situation,” she added. “They might want to engage and vote.” Jenny Braithwaite, a 63-year-old educator, said she hopes the hearings help the public understand “what our president is really about—whatever that may be.” If people actually listen to some of the testimony, “I think it’ll be much easier for them to vote in 2020,” she said.
But even if some Americans have been influenced by the hearings to vote against Trump, a lot can change between now and Election Day next November. And given the likelihood that the Senate will vote to acquit Trump of any charges ultimately levied by the House, it’s not at all clear what kind of long-term effect the impeachment inquiry will actually have. What’s more, the impeachment process carries a real risk for Democrats: Just as it appears to be exciting their own base ahead of the 2020 primary season, the process may also be exciting Trump’s.
Most of the Democratic voters who gathered on the Hill to watch history in the making these past two weeks said that they were keenly aware of this possibility. Still, they said, they believe that the impeachment inquiry was a risk worth taking.
“I’m reassured,” said Bannon Kulsrethsiri, “that [democracy] in this country is not completely kaput.”