Televised impeachment hearings are Democrats' chance for a Mueller do-over
OK, let's try this again.
Next week, the House Intelligence Committee will hold its first public impeachment hearings — nationally televised events that will give Americans their first chance to hear from Bill Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, as well as current Europe adviser George Kent and ex-U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch. The trio have already given explosive testimony behind closed doors, but American political history shows there's nothing like television to sell an impeachment drama — or stop it dead in its tracks.
Of course, that was also the promise when Robert Mueller, who led the special investigation of Trump's ties to Russia, appeared before Congress in July. He could've been the TV star who damaged Trump's credibility irreparably, by offering compelling public testimony that the president had welcomed Russia's interference in the 2016 election, and had tried obstructing official inquiries into the matter. Instead, Mueller seemed uncertain, offering backwards answers to some questions and non-answers to others. He failed, appearing to let President Trump off the hook.
So consider the new impeachment hearings a do-over of the Mueller hearing — a chance to get it right this time.
The sense of urgency is reflected in the rules for the House Intelligence Committee hearing. Instead of the usual committee free-for-all, in which every member of the committee gets a few minutes to ask questions of the witness — a process that results in an incoherent line of inquiry, made worse by the tendency of politicians to grandstand before the cameras — the chairman and top Republican on the panel can take up to 90 minutes to make their cases, or defer to a staff lawyer to do it for them.
The result — hopefully — will be a sharper and more sustained public case that the president has committed wrongdoing.
The similarities between Mueller's Russia investigation and the Ukraine scandal at the heart of the impeachment hearings are quite striking:
Both involve foreign involvement in U.S. presidential elections — Russia's interference in the 2016 campaign on behalf of Trump, and Trump's attempt to pressure Ukraine to announce an investigation into the family one of his 2020 rivals, former Vice President Joe Biden.
Both feature damning documents making the case for Trump's guilt. In the Russia inquiry, Mueller found that Trump had welcomed that country's 2016 actions, and that Trump had tried to order a premature end to Mueller's investigation. In the newer scandal, Trump released a "transcript" of his phone call with Ukraine's president that seemed to clearly show him pressuring that country to investigate his domestic political rivals.
And in both cases, Trump and his allies have offered consistent misrepresentations of those damning documents — Trump's "No collusion! No obstruction!" campaign was affirmed, wrongly, by Attorney General Bill Barr. Now Trump is urging Americans to "read the transcript!" of his Ukraine call, as though that transcript isn't incriminating. Spoiler: It is.
Given the similarities, how can Democrats make sure the Ukraine scandal sticks to Trump?
Easy. They can take at least one of the witnesses to testify next week and turn them into a bona fide TV star.
Better rules are already in place, as already noted. Now Democrats need one of the witnesses to be a bit more scintillating on TV than Mueller was during his disastrous appearance.
The best bet: Bill Taylor, the ambassador to the Ukraine. He comes with built-in credibility, and was well-placed to witness events: "Taylor is a career diplomat and Vietnam War veteran who has served under Republican and Democratic administrations," the Washington Post reported Wednesday. "Key figures in all this, including ones who were Trump's preferred point people, were open with Taylor as they tried to get Ukraine to do what Trump wanted."
Taylor has already testified privately that Trump made military aid to Ukraine conditional on officials there announcing a Biden investigation. If he says that on TV — and says it boldly, confidently and directly instead of in a halting Mueller-esque manner — Democrats may be able to build impeachment momentum. If the show is a dud, though, Democrats will have wasted their last, best chance at holding this president accountable.
Television helped Donald Trump win the presidency. It may be that television is the only thing that can take it away. We already know this president is worth impeaching. Now we'll find if Democrats have learned from their Mueller mistake, and have enough showbiz savvy to convince the public they're right.
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