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Trump impeachment inquiry's secrecy, and Nancy Pelosi denying a House vote, weaken Democrats' case

A closed-door process won't convince the public — or the GOP — to remove the president.
Image: Nancy Pelosi
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi walks into her office on Capitol Hill on Thursday.Susan Walsh / AP

The House of Representatives didn’t need to vote on articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon in 1974. After millions of Americans watched days and days of hearing proceedings on television, they knew exactly what they thought of the president they’d re-elected not even two years before — and Nixon knew they knew. That’s why he resigned Aug. 9 that year before Congress ever held a floor vote.

If the Democrats are as confident that Trump is guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors as they act, why not conduct witness interviews in public so everyone can see the evidence?

Watergate and its aftermath proved one of the most painful episodes in American political history, but the impeachment inquiry might be said to have brought the country together. When Gerald Ford was sworn into office as Nixon’s replacement, he could reasonably declare that “our long national nightmare is over.”

Conducted openly and led by both sides, the Nixon impeachment hearings show the importance of presenting the case to the American people. Now in week four of the impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump, however, Democrats show no sign of wanting a transparent process. The three Democratic-led committees in charge of the probe House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced Sept. 24 have conducted almost the entirety of their hearings in private.

Pelosi decided last week, moreover, to refuse to allow the House to vote on initiating an impeachment inquiry “at this time,” despite one occurring in every other such inquiry in American history. Adam Schiff, House Intelligence Committee chairman and leader of the investigation, says he might not even seek the testimony of the whistleblower whose complaint — that Trump pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in a July 25 telephone call to help his re-election bid — directly led to the impeachment inquiry.

Impeachment of an elected president, especially when he’s up for re-election in just over a year, is a serious step. If the American people — and Republican members of Congress — are going to have any chance of backing this inquiry’s final recommendations, it needs to be conducted in an open and transparent way that respects established legal principles, such as the right to face one’s accusers and to cross-examine witnesses.

The country remains divided on impeachment. You might not be shocked that an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found 76 percent of Republicans don’t believe there’s enough evidence to merit an inquiry. Surprisingly, though, only 45 percent of Democrats — and 40 percent of independents — believe Congress should move forward with it. And while 42 percent of Democrats want Trump removed from office now, only 20 percent of independents do. A closed-door impeachment process isn’t likely to give Democrats in Congress the public trust they’ll need to remove the president from office with wide support if that’s what they hope to do.

So far, the House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs, and Oversight and Reform committees have interviewed a half-dozen witnesses behind closed doors in a secure room in the basement of the Capitol. They range from Kurt Volker, until recently the administration’s point man on Ukraine policy, and Marie Yovanovitch, the ambassador to Ukraine whom Trump recalled in May, to lower-level George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state responsible for Ukraine. The same secrecy is expected for at least five more people Democrats have scheduled to testify this week, NBC News reports.

Not among them is the whistleblower who started it all. Schiff has said having him testify might endanger him if Republicans reveal his identity after Trump’s repeated — and ill-advised — verbal attacks on him. But this is a hypothetical concern, and Democrats can’t sacrifice fairness and limit Republican participation on this account.

Democrats have given various reasons they can’t do the work of the American people in front of the American people when it comes to other witnesses. On the one hand, these are “depositions,” not hearings. But what’s the difference? Both are sworn testimony with witnesses facing questions. And depositions don’t traditionally begin with an introductory statement from the witness as they are doing here.

On the other hand, Schiff has compared the Congress to a “grand jury,” where witnesses need to be interviewed in secret so they can’t coordinate testimony. But given that we all know who is appearing, witnesses could still easily do so here. More telling is a Bloomberg headline: “Schiff Says Secret Testimony Aimed at Keeping Trump in the Dark.”

Even more concerning, Schiff has now indicated that these witnesses might not be recalled for public testimony before an impeachment vote. That’s not how Democrats handled the Nixon affair: The marathon hearings were public. There were closed-door depositions before the impeachment vote, as well as other private sessions to gather evidence, but these were conducted by a special counsel — a Republican, incidentally — and the president's own lawyer also participated and examined witnesses.

If the Democrats are as confident that Trump is guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors as they act, why not conduct witness interviews in public so everyone can see the evidence? And why not begin with a full House vote? Pelosi didn’t offer an explanation for her refusal to hold one beyond that it wasn’t required. It seems most likely that she wants to protect Democratic control of the House by not making those in swing districts go on the record and risk constituent wrath.

It might also be that Schiff is not leading the investigation fairly, a criticism that has legs because the process isn’t open. Some Republicans on the three committees have said Democrats are making it difficult for them to ask witnesses questions. And details of the Volker interview indicate that Schiff was determined to get the answers he wanted, chiding the ambassador when he protested that Schiff’s version of events was wrong.

I should say, “Schiff was reportedly determined.” We can only rely on what reporters tell us, and they’re not revealing their anonymous sources. Not surprisingly, Democratic sources put out details that are most damning and Republicans those most exculpatory. This further erodes Americans’ ability to understand the investigation, let alone come to independent conclusions on what it turns up.

Even members of Congress not on the committees can’t find out what really transpired.

Even members of Congress not on the committees can’t find out what really transpired. A group of House conservatives tried to attend one of the closed-door hearings for a committee they aren’t on and were denied access. Their request simply to read a transcript of the Volker meeting was also denied. Texas Republican Louie Gohmert noted that the House Judiciary Committee on which he sits usually handles impeachments of federal officials and had approved the impeachment inquiries into Nixon, Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton. He couldn’t see the transcript, either.

It wasn’t wise for Trump to bring up a possible 2020 rival in his phone call with the new president of Ukraine in July. But is it impeachable? Americans, and their representatives in Congress, deserve to see all the evidence to make that political determination.

If Americans are to be confident that this inquiry is serious and fair, and not a last-minute attempt to overthrow the president before next year’s election, Schiff and his colleagues must let Americans watch it take place.