Democrats, don't hand impeachment to Mitch McConnell
Democrats should be firing off more subpoenas, not handing the reins to the Senate's makeshift Machiavelli
House Democrats are about to make a big mistake. There are indications from leading House Democrats that they intend to wrap up their impeachment inquiry soon, drafting as many as four articles of impeachment against President Trump.
This is folly. Instead of bringing the hearings to a close, House Democrats should be firing subpoenas off at the White House and delaying Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's (R-Ky.) inevitable whitewash for as long as possible.
Let's start with what has worked so far in the Democrats impeachment inquiry. The witnesses who testified before the House told a remarkably coherent story. Like an episode of Showtime's The Affair, the same events were told from slightly different perspectives, resulting in occasional clashes over details but little difference in the underlying narrative.
The story was this: Beginning in the spring of 2019, various foreign policy professionals working in Ukraine grew concerned that official American foreign policy was being directed away from the national interests of the United States and toward what former National Security Council official Fiona Hill termed "a domestic political errand" to benefit President Trump's re-election campaign.
A conspiracy had been launched under the auspices of the president's personal attorney, a comically unraveled Rudy Giuliani, and was so incompetently hidden that its architect himself repeatedly went on television and goofily revealed its contours for viewers. It principally involved Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, and Special Envoy Kurt Volker conditioning a White House meeting with President Trump and nearly $400 million in military assistance on new Ukrainian President Voldymyr Zelensky opening up bogus investigations into Ukraine's imagined interference in the 2016 election, and former Vice President Joe Biden's son Hunter's service on the board of a Ukrainian energy firm called Burisma.
In a way the hearings were anticlimactic, because in late September the White House released a rough and incomplete transcript of a July 25 phone call with Zelensky in which Trump asks the Ukrainian leader for a "favor" that involves investigating the Bidens and the right-wing sweat-dream about Ukraine's subversion of the 2016 election. There has never been any substantive doubt whatsoever that Trump wanted these investigations announced, if not actually pursued, not least because our ignominious leader keeps going on Fox and confirming it, as he did on Friday.
But what Democrats did was put a group of mostly career public officials before Congress to testify to everything that they knew and had heard about the plot. Acting Ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor described the "irregular channel" led by Giuliani, and relayed clear understandings given to him by Sondland in particular about what was happening. Former Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch described how she was unjustly pushed out of her post because she stood in the way of this scheme. Sondland himself testified, most explosively, that he sought a "quid pro quo" from Zelensky and was acting at "the express direction of the president." Hill talked about her growing concern that normal channels of policymaking were being deliberately avoided so that Giuliani could carry out his "errand." Diplomat David Holmes described overhearing an open-air phone conversation that the president had with Sondland when he was in Kyiv in which the president could be heard asking for the investigations.
Throughout the process, these calm, unflappable professionals endured hours of completely off-the-wall questioning from Republicans who had only two strategies. One, they would relentlessly try to legitimize the president's interests in these investigations by reading febrile nonsense into the official record about Hunter Biden and random DNC staffers. Two, they would try to argue that none of the witnesses had first-hand knowledge of President Trump ordering the investigations or extorting Zelensky in exchange for them. This narrative-building task was passed off to the six most irritating and aggressive people in the House Republican caucus, who without any sense of shame tried to give cover to the president's paranoid delusions by shouting them at people who had to act composed and act like this insanity was somehow normal behavior.
And then, suddenly, it was over. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) announced Friday that Democrats would not go to court to force testimony from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and former National Security Advisor John Bolton, among others. The ongoing failure to seek testimony from Giuliani himself and his various henchmen like Lev Parnas is also incomprehensible from a strategic perspective. There is some chance that their testimony could be compelled by Chief Justice John Roberts during a Senate trial, but then again there is a chance that Roberts will side with his Republican patrons.
In any case, this means that House Democrats will be voting on articles of impeachment having rolled over for obstruction while allowing their GOP colleagues to continue grandstanding about hearsay and second-hand evidence. It is President Trump and his allies who are hiding the most important witnesses to these events in the equivalent of a narrative safehouse and refusing to release critical documents to House investigators. Concluding the impeachment inquiry without a more sustained effort to fight this obstruction in court feels like surrender. And despite the fact that the president's bribery and extortion scheme was quite public and really not very much in dispute, it would still help build credibility for the general public to hear from these witnesses.
Finally, if Democrats vote on articles of impeachment sometime in the next few weeks, they are essentially turning over the denouement of this saga to McConnell and his Republican vassals in the Senate. They are already salivating over the possibility of tying up leading Democratic contenders for president in weeks of mandatory-attendance trial proceedings, effectively granting McConnell, our premier procedural manipulator, the opportunity to kneecap multiple potential 2020 opponents including Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vermont), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), possibly through Super Tuesday or beyond if Kentucky's makeshift Machiavelli wishes it to be so.
The better path for the party would be to continue holding impeachment hearings indefinitely, while they await court rulings about the testimony of Mulvaney, Bolton, and others. Hold an impeachment hearing a week from now until next October, and pass a dozen or more articles of impeachment just before the election so McConnell never has a chance to run interference for the president.
Is there some law that says this must only be about Ukraine? Why not schedule hearings about the president's decision to order agents of the federal government to commit ongoing crimes against humanity at the U.S.-Mexico border? Why not some hearings about the Trump administration's relentless self-dealing? This is what today's ruthless Republicans would do.
For Democrats to quietly wrap up their inquiry like good little boys and girls and then wait patiently for other institutions in the American political system to do the right thing is beyond delusional.
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