Today’s impeachment hearing was supposed to be a check-the-box session for House Democrats—a formality, really: Its purpose was to televise the evidence against President Donald Trump that party lawmakers presented in a voluminous written report released last week.
What it turned into, however, was the weirdest, most chaotic hearing of the entire impeachment saga so far.
The witnesses were not exactly household names: two staff lawyers for Democratic House committees, Barry Berke and Daniel Goldman, and one serving Republicans, Stephen Castor. They were there to discuss the findings of the House Intelligence Committee, a necessary but decidedly anticlimactic step ahead of the introduction of official articles of impeachment. Democrats could unveil those charges by the end of the week, and the full House could vote on them before Christmas.
The hearing began ominously with the first protester disruption of the impeachment inquiry, as a smartly dressed man proclaiming Trump’s innocence and denouncing the Democrats’ “sham impeachment” was hauled out of the room a few moments into the session. The demonstrator was gone, but the protests continued from the dais: One after another, Republican lawmakers challenged Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler’s handling of the process, attempting arcane maneuvers such as points of order and parliamentary inquiries to stop, or at least slow down, the Democrats’ investigation.
House Republicans have been trying to throw sand in the gears of the impeachment inquiry from the start. Nadler, along with Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff before him, has largely succeeded in keeping things on track. But the frequency and fervor with which the GOP lawmakers objected today seemed to trip Nadler up a bit, and they focused relentlessly on the Democrats’ unusual if not unprecedented structure for the hearing.
Republicans had hoped that Schiff would testify about his committee’s report, which would give them an opportunity to question the chairman on whether he ever met the anonymous whistle-blower whose August complaint to Congress set off the investigation. (Schiff has denied any such meeting.) There is precedent for both congressional staff and elected members testifying before congressional committees, but Democrats decided to shield Schiff by inviting only committee staff members to appear. Republicans responded by displaying a poster with Schiff’s image on a milk carton.
The setup got odder from there. Officially, the Judiciary Committee was to hear presentations from both the Intelligence Committee’s counsel and its own staff counsel—the veteran lawyers who have become familiar to close observers of the impeachment hearings over the past few weeks. Because Castor has been filling both roles for Republicans, only he appeared on the GOP side. The Democrats had Berke, from the Judiciary Committee, and Goldman, from the Intelligence Committee.
Berke opened with a flourish, presenting the case for impeachment without notes or a prepared text, as if he were delivering a closing statement before a courtroom in a jury. But after giving his testimony from the witness stand, he returned to the committee dais to ask questions of Goldman and himself.
Republicans were astounded.
“He can either ask or answer. He can’t do both,” protested Representative Doug Collins of Georgia, the committee’s top Republican.
“It’s just wrong!” bellowed Representative Louie Gohmert of Texas.
Nadler confused matters further by telling Republicans that Berke was appearing on behalf of the Judiciary Committee, not as a witness, although he had referred to him as a witness earlier. Republicans were also peeved that unlike Goldman and Castor, Berke was not sworn to testify under oath.
Today’s sessions did allow both parties to cross-examine the men who have, in effect, played the roles of prosecutor and defense attorney for the past several weeks. Castor appeared uncomfortable in the witness chair as Berke tried to poke holes in his defense of the president. Asked about the central charge in the impeachment case—that in the infamous July phone call, Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for the favor of helping to investigate his political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden—Castor replied: “I think it’s ambiguous.” At various points, Republicans tried to step in to protect Castor. “The lawyer is badgering the witness,” Representative James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin said of Berke. Nadler defended his counsel, saying it was simply “sharp cross-examination.”
Procedural skirmishes dominated the first several hours of today’s hearing, but they pale in comparison to the stakes of the broader impeachment inquiry. As Democrats have moved from the dramatic accounts offered in the Intelligence Committee to the far drier presentations in the Judiciary Committee, they seemed to have conceded that the moment for persuading the public on the case for impeachment has largely passed—at least in the House. Trump late last week tweeted that if the Democrats are going to impeach him, they should “do it now, fast,” and get on to the trial in the Senate. After the messiness of today’s hearing—likely one of the last before a House vote—Democrats may be even more inclined to agree.