Opinion

Why the Democrats' impeachment hearings have a politics problem

If they don't make the sale — and make it quickly — this will look like just another partisan Beltway food fight

The House of Representatives opens its next phase of the impeachment process today, with open hearings of witnesses who have already given testimony in closed session. House Democrats hope to break a public-opinion stalemate on the prospect of impeaching President Trump by allowing the public to become part of the experience, just as televised hearings captivated the nation in 1974. Back then, public opinion turned as witnesses testified to crimes and cover-ups, leading to then-President Richard Nixon's resignation as a bipartisan consensus formed for removal.

But a lot has changed since 1974, and this strategy has its risks. If Democrats don't make the sale — and make it quickly — this will look like just another partisan Beltway food fight, televised or not.

The hearings will definitely have the capacity to draw a large audience. In 1974, PBS broadcast the Nixon hearings out of necessity, as commercial networks focused on their usual programming and no other option was available for national access to the events. This time around, all of the major broadcasters have committed to live coverage, as have the cable networks, especially C-SPAN, which routinely broadcasts Congress' operations. C-SPAN's reach likely outstrips that of PBS in 1974, which means there will be plenty of people who can watch the proceedings without commentary. Combine that with all of the online platforms that will either carry the proceedings live or record for later consumption, and the saturation level will go well past anything imaginable in 1974.

But just because more people than ever before can watch these hearings doesn't mean they will. While in 1974, Americans were somewhat limited in their viewing options: It was either the hearings, or the soap operas and game shows that populated the dial. Today, most Americans have hundreds of choices for their viewing pleasure, and even under the best of circumstances for the most hopelessly addicted news junkies, committee hearings are anything but pleasurable viewing. If Democrats can't make a dramatic case immediately for staying tuned, viewers will "touch that dial" and move on.

Do House Democrats have a case ready for changing minds about the necessity of removing a president? Based on their initial witness list, they have their work cut out for them. House Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff (D-Calif) announced a week earlier that their lead witnesses would be former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, former Ukraine charges d'affaires William Taylor, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent. All three occupied or still occupy significant positions of trust and authority and will provide some gravitas to the proceedings.

Unfortunately for Schiff, what they won't provide is any direct testimony about a quid pro quo involving Trump — the very point on which Democrats will argue for Trump's removal. The depositions for all three have been released to the public, and not only do they not contain any eyewitness accounts of demands for investigation of the Biden family in return for U.S. aid to Ukraine, Yovanovitch in particular testified that she was unaware of any official policy tying aid to an investigation of Ukraine energy giant Burisma, on the board of which Hunter Biden served. "There's no official policy," Yovanovitch told Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin (N.Y.), and she didn't wonder about any unofficial policy until Politico first raised the issue months later, Yovanovitch testified.

Taylor spent much more time discussing the quid pro quo issue in his testimony, but once again did not testify to any direct knowledge that Trump ordered one. Taylor never spoke to Trump at all, but worked through U.S. ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland instead, whom Taylor testified was sending mixed messages. Taylor testified that he was genuinely concerned about the direction of U.S. policy, especially with Trump's attorney Rudy Giuliani operating as an unofficial diplomatic envoy. It was Taylor's opinion that a quid pro quo was being enforced, but he also testified that Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky was unaware that the promised aid had been delayed as late as August 29th — about two weeks before it was finally released. If Zelensky didn't know the aid had been delayed, then the case for a quid pro quo is pretty weak — at least in Taylor's testimony.

George Kent, on the other hand, did provide some testimony about raising concerns over quid pro quos and Ukraine. Those concerns, however, were raised in 2015, not 2019, and regarded the appointment of Hunter Biden to the board of Burisma, a company viewed as corrupt by the U.S., both then and now. Kent testified that he grew concerned that then-Vice President Joe Biden's actions in Ukraine could "create the perception of a conflict of interest," only to be rebuffed. On a Trump-related quid pro quo, Kent testified having no direct knowledge of one, and that the only mention he'd ever heard about it was an offhand comment by Sondland.

None of this adds up to a compelling case for abuse of power, even if the witnesses might have criticisms (legitimate or otherwise) of Trump's policies and deportment. House Democrats will ask viewers to slog through hours of committee protocol, arguments, speeches, and Beltway minutia without much of a payoff except to amplify Democrats' general complaints about Trump that they have made since his election three years ago.

And it might get worse. Schiff released rules for the inquiry on Tuesday that threatened Republicans on the committee with referrals to the Ethics Committee if they attempt to "further the same sham investigations into the Bidens or into debunked conspiracy theories about 2016 election interference[.]" The latter is especially rich coming from Schiff, who repeatedly insisted that he'd seen hard evidence of Trump's collusion with Russia in the same election, only to be contradicted by former Special Counsel Robert Mueller's finding of "no evidence" for that hypothesis.

If these are truly "debunked" theories, then Democrats should have no problem dealing with them in the hearing. Kent's deposition touched directly on the issue with the Bidens, though, and Republicans will certainly want to explore that further. If Schiff starts cutting off questions and threatening punitive action, the viewers who do tune in may well conclude that the purpose of this hearing isn't a fearless foray to find the truth, but yet another partisan soap opera.

That won't move Americans closer to consensus on impeachment and removal. It might move them closer to the realization that this is nothing much more than a political argument that belongs in an election campaign.

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