The second hearing of the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump on Friday followed House Democrats opening the proceedings to the public Wednesday — and it was about time. Devin Nunes, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, which is in charge of the inquiry, kicked off his opening statement on that occasion by predicting, “What we will witness today is a televised theatrical performance staged by the Democrats.”
He was half-right. The impeachment hearings have indeed been “a televised theatrical performance.” But it’s been staged by both Democrats and Republicans. And so before we go much further in this process, I’d like to urge my fellow travelers on the right (I’m looking at you, Jim Jordan): Please don’t continue to grandstand on impeachment. It only hurts the cause and draws attention away from the invidious ways the Democrats themselves are piling on the drama.
I’d like to urge my fellow travelers on the right (I’m looking at you, Jim Jordan): Please don’t continue to grandstand on impeachment.
Republicans need to stay laser-focused on the overriding goal: to show the American people that they, not Democratic politicians, should decide whether Trump leaves office. When the GOP committee members instead become the center of attention, they not only distract from that aim, they also strengthen the notion that the outcome of the impeachment inquiry should be determined based on theatrics, not facts and due process.
Democrats are acting as though the point of these impeachment hearings is to remove Trump. Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, the Democrat leading the inquiry, was so bold as to use his opening statement Wednesday to lay out a summary of the allegations against Trump — that he withheld aid from Ukraine to pressure the country’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, to initiate an investigation into a key 2020 political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, and his son Hunter — and then rhetorically ask, “If this is not impeachable conduct, what is?”
In other words, Democrats say the evidence already uncovered shows Trump obviously committed an impeachable offense (if not many). Or as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi declared Thursday: “The devastating testimony corroborated evidence of bribery uncovered in the inquiry, and that the president abused power and violated his oath.”
But the actual point of these hearings is to provide members of the House, and through them the American public, with information so they can decide whether there’s enough evidence to support a vote of impeachment, something that’s akin to the indictment that starts a trial — not a determination of the outcome of that trial. If the House votes to impeach, it’s the Senate that weighs the evidence and then votes on the removal of the president.
Since Americans are just starting to have the opportunity to observe the testimony themselves through open hearings, they need — and deserve — to receive an unvarnished, credible, dispassionate presentation of the facts. It’s vital that Republicans do their part, regardless of the fact that Democrats are not doing theirs.
Unfortunately, the GOP has already started on the wrong foot. Republicans unwisely moved Jordan, an Ohio representative, to the Intelligence Committee for the impeachment hearings. Jordan was the only member Wednesday not wearing a suit jacket, as is his wont: “I can’t really get fired up and get into it if you’ve got some jacket slowing you down,” he has said. It’s clear he was moved to the committee to cause trouble.
Jordan wasn’t interested in using the opening hearing to question the witnesses or give them a platform to show that they themselves don’t think it’s obvious that the president committed an impeachable offense. He was interested in showing off for the cameras, complaining not about the subject at hand but unrelated allegations that Democrats started harming the nation in “July 2016 when they spied on two American citizens associated with” Trump’s presidential campaign.
Jordan later dismissed a piece of testimony from witness William Taylor, the acting ambassador to Ukraine, by saying: “We got six people having four conversations in one sentence, and you just told me this is where you got your clear understanding. … I’ve seen church prayer chains that are easier to understand than this!”
It’s such melodramatic moments that go viral after a hearing in the Trump era. And it meant the Democrats’ own melodramatic moments could be ignored.
Texas Democrat Joaquin Castro provided one of the most eye-rolling moments. With his own eye likely on the cameras, he intoned that Trump when on the phone with Zelenskiy “was talking to a desperate man, wasn't he?” He asked Taylor, if the aid had been withheld, “What would have happened to Zelenskiy's career and what would have happened to Ukraine?”
Zelenskiy was elected by a wide margin in May and his party won a landslide in the July 21 parliamentary election. Trump made his infamous call July 25, the proceedings of which are at the heart of the inquiry, to congratulate the new leader on his victories.
I know something about the tone of that last election because I was there as an official election observer with the International Republican Institute. The many Ukrainians I talked to in different parts of the country expressed hope that the United States would continue to help them in their fight against Russian aggression — but they didn’t see it as a sure thing. And for the most part, they said they voted for Zelenskiy because they thought he would root out the corruption that’s stymied Ukraine since it gained its independence from the Soviet Union. It’s unlikely one decision by an American president would have ruined his career.
But Republicans didn’t pounce on Castro or on the other overly dramatic moments of the first impeachment hearing. They were too busy creating their own. At the hearings still to come, they’d be wise to ditch the histrionics and follow the lead of Texas Rep. John Ratcliffe — one of the few Republicans to ask reasonable, relevant questions rather than offer a nonsequitur of a soliloquy.
In one of the most powerful moments for the GOP in the hearing, Ratcliffe elicited from Taylor that he had “no reason to doubt” Zelenskiy’s public statements in September that he did not feel pressured to open any investigations in exchange for aid during the July 25 phone call with Trump.
The benefit of having so many days of hearings before an impeachment vote is that Republicans have more opportunities to do a better job.
Fellow Texan Mike Conaway was shrewd to yield his time to Ratcliffe, giving the effective questioner more opportunity to shine — and obtain useful information. “Are either of you here today to assert there was an impeachable offense in that call?” Ratcliffe asked Taylor and the other State Department witness at his side. They demurred. Ratcliffe also used questions to point out to the public that Friday’s witness, the former ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, was out of her position long before July 25.
The benefit of having so many days of hearings before an impeachment vote is that Republicans have more opportunities to do a better job, to act more like Ratcliffe and less like Jordan. Here’s hoping they take advantage of them.