Democrats Don't Mind If The Impeachment Hearings Are A Show

They're still worth holding, they say, and they're still worth watching.

WASHINGTON ― If there’s one thing Democrats and Republicans both agree on with the impeachment hearings, it’s this: There’s a certain inevitability to them.

Democrats will bring forward many of the same witnesses they have already deposed for hours, to repeat testimony they already took, only to have Republicans focus only on the most exculpatory details while disregarding the mountains of incriminating evidence that President Donald Trump sought to influence U.S. elections with foreign help ― even dangling nearly $400 million in security aid to entice the Ukrainian government to investigate Joe Biden and his son.

And at the end of these hearings, after we’ve heard hours of testimony that is obviously damning, the House will hold a vote it already held, to a similar, near-party-line result.

The inevitability doesn’t mean the hearings aren’t important. We may have a really strong idea of what will come out in these televised inquisitions, and that none of it will matter with Republicans, but Democrats see the hearings as a chance to educate the public.

“There’s a reason that, in a jury trial, you don’t just hand the jurors transcripts, right?” Democrat Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) told HuffPost. “You get to see the person. So much of our language is communicated nonverbally.”

Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) said the more voters see these public hearings, the better it would be for Democrats to make the case to impeach Trump.

“There’s value in actually having these folks tell the story to the American people,” Huffman said. “There’s value in having the country tune in and see these preposterous Republican claims contrasted by these unimpeachable witnesses who are just doing their patriotic duty and telling the truth.”

And Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) said the hearings would be an opportunity for normal people to contrast serious-minded witnesses with “the conspiracy theories that the Trump defenders are offering.”

He added that voters would see “career professionals, who obviously know what they’re talking about, who are not political, who are not arm-waving ‘Never Trumpers,’ but just speaking the truth.”

While Republicans certainly don’t see these hearings moving the needle on public opinion the same way Democrats anticipate, they were happy to charge that the hearings were more about putting on a show than finding new facts.

Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas), who sits on the Intelligence Committee and was also once Trump’s pick to be director of national intelligence before Ratcliffe withdrew from consideration, said he didn’t mind telling HuffPost that “the House Democrats already made up their mind.”

“I think they had before all this started that they plan to impeach this president,” Ratcliffe continued.

When we countered that Republicans also seemed to have made up their minds that they wouldn’t impeach Trump, Ratcliffe agreed.

“Yeah, I think so, because we’ve seen all the evidence,” he said.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), left, talks with ranking member Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) on
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), left, talks with ranking member Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) on the first day of public impeachment inquiry testimony on Wednesday.

And when you confront Republicans like Ratcliffe with the evidence, that Trump clearly pressured a foreign government to open an investigation into a political opponent, they will argue there is nothing wrong with that.

“He is the unitary executive, so he is vested with that authority to open or close investigations where there is a prima facie case of anything,” Ratcliffe said. “And so, if he believes there’s a prima facie case of corruption, he has the ability to pursue that.”

(Ratcliffe kept using the Latin term “prima facie,” a legal term that literally translates to “at first face.”)

For the record, as the Federal Election Commission chairwoman recently reminded all candidates, it is illegal to solicit campaign help from foreign governments. And Trump conditioning security aid appropriated by Congress on Ukraine opening an investigation into Biden actually borders on extortion, former federal prosecutors note.

Republicans were also happy to charge that, if the hearings were a show, it was a bad one for Democrats.

“I saw a lot of the reporters yawning and looking at the ceiling,” Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), who watched the hearing from the audience section, said Wednesday.

“Talk about laying an egg,” Freedom Caucus Chairman Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) said of Democrats.

And fellow Arizona Republican Paul Gosar told HuffPost that Democrats hadn’t “moved anybody” on the Republican side. “And with that kind of testimony, that was hardly compelling for the other side,” he said.

The word “boring” got tossed around a lot on conservative Twitter feeds, with Eric Trump tweeting that it was a #SnoozeFest. That prompted “Daily Show” host Trevor Noah to facetiously quote-tweet Trump with, “Good point. Article 6, Section 2 of the Constitution clearly states that a President can’t be impeached for crimes that don’t excite his third-favorite child.”

Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) recounted that Noah tweet to reporters Wednesday night when he was asked about the right-wing charges that the hearing was “boring.”

“Yeah, I’m sorry if, you know, we didn’t entertain them, but that wasn’t the goal for today,” Swalwell said.

Still, for a hearing that was largely for the edification of the American people rather than to discover new facts, the entertainment value of these hearings isn’t an entirely unfair measure.

In a normal world, it would be stunning news that an ambassador was told that “everything” ― meaning a White House meeting with the Ukrainian president, as well as the $400 million in military aid ― was contingent on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announcing an investigation into the energy company that once employed Hunter Biden.

More to the point, the hearing actually did include a new bombshell not included in the released transcripts. William Taylor, the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, said an aide had recently told him he overheard Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, on the phone with Trump. The president was heard asking about “the investigations,” Taylor said.

The implication is that Trump was even more actively involved in the quid pro quo than previously known ― and that Sondland was even less truthful in his already-amended testimony.

In a fit of congressional drama ― where “drama” is usually measured by someone using a swear on the House floor ― the Intelligence Committee announced during the hearing Wednesday that it would hear directly from that aide who overheard the conversation.

This actually is a very serious question, it’s not just a tactical question: Should we imitate [Republicans'] approach? Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.)

Swalwell pointed to those new discoveries when HuffPost asked if Democrats were just forced to “play out the string” with these impeachment hearings, and he thought the display could move polling and put pressure on Republicans.

“Their job title is ‘representative,’ right?” he asked. “Their constituents will be watching.”

And yet, the developments seemed to barely register in a new media landscape where Trump can make headlines with tweets before breakfast. NBC News claimed the hearing lacked “pizazz.” Reuters summed it up as “consequential, but dull.”

One of the most moderate Republicans left in Congress, Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, didn’t seem to be feeling any new pressure after the first day of hearings. In fact, he thought it would be moderate Democrats who would be struggling more than the few moderates on his side.

“For some of the Democrats, the inquiry vote was easier than impeachment,” Fitzpatrick said.

The only Independent in Congress, Justin Amash of Michigan, who left the Republican Party in July partly over the GOP’s fealty to Trump, told HuffPost that Democrats needed to steer these hearings more toward the damning facts and less toward partisan policy disputes. He was particularly concerned with how much time Democrats spent on establishing how important the security aid was for Ukraine.

“That plays into the Republican argument that it’s just a policy dispute, there are just some bureaucrats who disagree with the president on policy and that’s all it is,” Amash said. “And that’s not the case. That’s not what actually happened. But Democrats sort of played into that with the testimony, or at least the order of the questioning.”

Part of the reason Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) spent so much time on the importance of the aid was because the two witnesses underscored it themselves in their opening statements ― and because Taylor actually suggested at one point that Ukrainians might have died because the United States had delayed that aid.

Taylor eventually walked that claim back a bit, ultimately noting that the aid helped Ukraine fight Russia and that Ukrainian soldiers were dying each week in that conflict, but the discussion eventually led to Republicans noting the lack of aid under President Barack Obama.

Democrats understand they are in a different world, where Republicans can make bad-faith arguments, or mislead, or simply bring up conspiracy theories as a response to a clear case of the president breaking the law.

But they don’t believe there’s any novel way to respond, other than to just proceed with their hearings and their impeachment vote.

When we asked Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), who sits on the Intelligence Committee and perhaps had the most viral moment of the first day, whether Democrats should consider using more of the GOP playbook, he became thoughtful.

“This actually is a very serious question, it’s not just a tactical question,” Welch said. “Should we imitate their approach? The serious dilemma we face in a democracy is that there is a shattering of norms. And you need norms, and you need some mutual respect, in order to sustain a democracy.”

Welch said one of the clearest examples of the “shattering of norms” on impeachment was when acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney held a press conference in which he essentially admitted there was a quid pro quo and advised Democrats to “get over it.”

“If we go to those tactics, a) we lose. But, b) we will be accelerating the deterioration of the norms and trust that we need to sustain a democracy,” Welch said.