The House Republican strategy for the first day of public impeachment hearings showed they knew Democrats were playing a strong hand, and they didn't.
Former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti, writing for Politico, explained how GOP lawmakers tried to confuse jurors -- in this case, the public and their counterparts in the Senate -- by talking about Hunter Biden or Javelin missiles because they wanted to distract from the strong evidence tying President Donald Trump to an extortion scheme.
"I’ve tried many federal criminal cases, and Wednesday’s hearing looked a lot like trials in which the prosecution has the defendant on tape admitting to a crime," Mariotti wrote. "When defense attorneys can’t mount a defense on the merits, they raise a lot of peripheral issues in the hope of convincing at least one juror that there is reasonable doubt."
Most of the GOP questioning of two State Department witnesses was "chaotic and often unfocused," Mariotti wrote, but he said Republicans appeared to be overwhelmed by the evidence of high crimes and misdemeanors.
"They simply can’t overcome the abundant evidence Democrats possess to prove their central point — that President Donald Trump conditioned military aid to Ukraine on a public announcement that his political rival, Joe Biden, was under investigation," he wrote.
The former prosecutor praised Democrats for keeping their case simple enough to understand.
"When prosecutors have overwhelming evidence, as the Democrats have here, it can be tempting to pile on as much evidence as possible," Mariotti wrote. "But when too many points are made, the jury has difficulty picking out what is important. It’s better to select a few key points and hammer them over and over."
Mariotti wrote off questioning by Reps. Jim Jordan (R-OH) and John Ratcliffe (R-TX), who he said raced through their five minutes trying to create "gotcha" moments that never came, and felt sorry for GOP counsel Stephen Castor, who struggled to fill his allotted time with relevant questions.
"Unlike an attorney at a trial, Castor wasn’t allowed to just ask a few questions and sit down," Mariotti wrote. "It appeared that he was told he had to fill 45 minutes, which is not easy to do when your side has no legitimate defense on the merits."
Going forward, Mariotti said, each side faces a serious challenge in making their case for or against impeachment.
"What hamstrings Republicans most is the psychology of Trump himself," Mariotti said. "He has refused to admit the quid pro quo and instead argue that it is not an impeachable offense, as many prominent Republicans have advocated. Admitting wrongdoing would take a lot of the air out of the impeachment hearings, but Trump appears incapable of doing so."
On the other hand, Mariotti said, Democrats must grab and keep Americans' attention, because the public can tune out the testimony, unlike a trial jury.
"It’s not hard to tell a compelling story when you hold all the cards," he wrote, "but it won’t be a winning hand unless they can move public opinion."