The House Judiciary Committee voted along party lines Friday to approve articles of impeachment against President Trump. It's an important step in holding him accountable for attempting to blackmail Ukraine into smearing his top political opponent.
Yet it can't be denied that the proceedings have been extremely dull. (Frankly, even I struggle to pay attention.) Democrats have largely failed to dramatize the proceedings — and in the process, markedly weakened their own inquiry. It is yet another missed opportunity.
To start with, Democrats have shied away from using their constitutional authority to force testimony from either Trump's lawyer and fixer Rudy Giuliani, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, former National Security Adviser John Bolton, or Vice President Mike Pence — all of whom were up to their necks in the Ukraine scandal. Some have been subpoenaed, but they have refused to testify on Trump's orders. And because they were allowed to get away with it, the televised hearings lacked recognizable faces. The star witness at the impeachment hearings was ... Gordon Sondland? Hardly thrilling to the casual observer.
Now, the House has "inherent contempt" powers under which witnesses can be arrested and detained to force them to testify (and many have been in the past). The sight of Giuliani being arrested by the House sergeant-at-arms would have riveted the national media and added some excitement to the proceedings.
And it's not like that would have discredited the Ukraine investigation. On the contrary, it might have secured important testimony that so far has gone unheard — Giuliani in particular was a key figure throughout the whole conspiracy. Furthermore, it would have bolstered Congress's constitutional authority by demonstrating correctly that the president cannot obstruct justice through his authority.
Instead, Democrats have created a precedent that the president can stymie investigations into himself by preventing his subordinates from testifying. As Peter Baker reports at The New York Times, "Democratic leaders have decided not to wage a drawn-out fight to force them to testify over White House objections." Great work.
The narrow scope of the investigation also limited Democrats' ability to create interesting drama. Looking into his violations of the Constitution's emoluments clause (which bans the president from collecting money other than his salary from the federal government, state governments, or foreign nations) would have instantly found all manner of juicy, rancid corruption that would be an easily-understood outrage and catnip for the media. Rep. Wright Patman (D-Texas) did this to great effect to corrupt Republican Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon in 1932.
A full accounting of his profiteering off the presidency would have also handed a nice talking point to the 2020 Democratic nominee. Trump donates his official salary of $400,000 but has raked in many times that much through emoluments violations. A detailed embezzlement report would deflate Trump's claim that he is cleaner than other politicians because he is so rich that he doesn't need the money, revealing him as the money-grubbing charlatan he in fact is.
But apparently Democrats are too chicken to use every tool at their disposal to even get Trump's tax returns. They would have every right to send the sergeant-at-arms into the IRS to get them by force, but Way and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.) won't even use a New York state law passed for this express purpose. Now, he has sued for them, but only after dragging his feet for months, and given how slowly the courts move, there is little chance they will be seen before the 2020 election.
It is admittedly somewhat petty to complain Democrats haven't done enough cartwheels in their impeachment inquiry. But any impeachment is an inherently political enterprise, and Democrats seem unable to grasp the florid, clownish nature of the current political moment — with a buffoonish, corrupt reality TV star and compulsive tweeter as president. Instead they've done a sober, clinical investigation of just one of Trump's hundreds of abuses and crimes — and rushed to get it done as quickly as possible. This in turn just hands control of the process to the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kent.) is already publicly promising to work hand-in-glove with the Trump administration to get him off the hook.
Democrats seem to believe that by scrupulously following established nonpartisan norms and procedures their impeachment inquiry will be more credible. But it is plainly obvious that those norms no longer exist, and haven't for years. All that is left of American's fast-crumbling democracy is political mud wrestling — a grimy, disgusting clown show.
If they want to win, Democrats better start creating some spectacles.