Whether you want the hammer to come down on Donald Trump or finally get the chance to dismiss the whole impeachment inquiry as wrongheaded, the hammer may fall this week if you believe in magic.
Wednesday is Opening Day for the Democrats’ assault on the White House, a chance for House Intelligence Committee members led by Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) to put the Ukraine impeachment case against Trump in public view.
The idea among Democrats, of course, is that because people refuse to read, public hearings will take the testimony from former ambassadors and national security people out from the shadows and into the light, where all can hear directly from these witnesses, adjudge their independence and credibility and move toward a declaration of impeachment. Schiff said public hearings will show "the most important facts are largely not contested" related to Trump's use of "illicit" means to secure damaging information on his political rivals.
"For a serious person who actually does not already accept or dismiss these impeachment plots, it will take a bit of congressional magic to make these hearings actually draw out persuasive new information."
The idea among Republicans is to try to show that the process is less than serious, that you should look elsewhere, that sideshows like fighting is legitimate over whether to call the original—and protected—whistleblower to the stand.
For a serious person who actually does not already accept or dismiss these impeachment plots, it will take a bit of congressional magic to make these hearings actually draw out new persuasive information.
If you get all your news from identifiably conservative news sites, the testimony may come as a surprise, since the subject has gotten relatively little coverage in that world in favor of commentary that debases those describing what happened.
Given that this is about impeachment, expect some distractions along the way.
Three witnesses will testify Wednesday and Friday. Our American diplomat Bill Taylor, a man recruited by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to return to the foreign service in Ukraine and State Department official George Kent, another long-time diplomat, will appear Wednesday to say that they both objected to what they saw. Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, who is getting death threats at home for her previous testimony, will appear Friday.
They will be the first of several diplomats or intelligence professionals who have testified privately that there was much more than a bad phone call. They have detailed a months’-long campaign to have our ally against Russia, Ukraine, help derail Trump's main Democratic rival so far in the 2020 presidential campaign.
Trump and his team of lawyer Rudy Giuliani, cabinet member Rick Perry and envoy to Europe Gordon Sondland sought to extort Ukraine’s relatively new, inexperienced leader into promising investigations on Democrat Joe Biden and family, according to private testimony since released.
In case you need a scorecard: Taylor basically tried to stop what he saw as extortion, and he called Kent, a career State Department official who testified that he was ordered “to lie low” after raising concerns about Giuliani undermining policy in Ukraine. Ambassador Yovanovitch will testify that she was recalled in the middle of the night after being seen as an obstacle to getting dirt for aid.
Of the dozen witnesses, only one – Sondland – has said there was no problem and then he recanted, saying he understood that there was a demand for the extortion.
Needless to say, Trump continues to say he was “perfect” in his phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, without acknowledging a broader campaign, and attacking witnesses as “never-Trumpers” bound to do him harm.
Republicans in Congress have fallen over themselves to find ways to pick apart witnesses or process or now to say the Trump administration is too stupid and incoherent to have come up with a dirt-for-aid extortion. In any event, even those who acknowledge bad behavior here see no reason for impeachment. In their world, apparently, extortion is not a crime, and abusing the office for personal political gain is perfectly OK.
Republicans replaced Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Ark, with Jim Jordan of Ohio on the Intelligence Committee because Jordan is particularly disruptive in hearings. Jordan already has criticized Democrats for not bringing back for public testimony U.S. special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker, whose transcript he said raised questions about any quid pro quo a.k.a. extortion even though Volker, too, said there was a campaign by Giuliani’s group under way.
Instead, Jordan heads the folks who insist on unveiling and attacking the original whistleblower. Jordan, too, wants to call as a witness Hunter Biden, Joe Biden’s son, to face questions about whether he won his former job for a Ukrainian company based on his father’s involvement as vice president under Barack Obama with Ukrainian aid. These tacks will produce a war-within-a-war because the Democrats have the votes to deny a subpoena for the whistleblower, whose testimony Democrats feel is unnecessary since it has been subsumed by people who were principals in the matter. Plus, federal law is meant to protect the identify and to keep a whistleblower safe from retribution.
According to the rules voted last week, the hearings will afford Democrats and Republicans 45-minute blocks of time to have a single questioner, in itself a procedural relief from the usual five-minute format that promotes grandstanding. The president may have lawyers present, though Republican defenders find none of this enough to make the hearings fair.
Trump says there should simply be no hearings; he did nothing wrong.
In any event, the hearings – which each side at one time or another said they wanted in public before they said they didn’t – are a necessary step along the legal way. And they are necessary for the political reality as well: If you believe in magic, these televised hearings will move the needle one way or the other for American voters, either putting pressure on Trump or putting pressure on Republican senators who would sit as a jury to hear the impeachment trial that results.
If the stakes were not so great, we could feel better about all of this.