This excerpt is from episode 176 of The Editors.
Charlie: Yesterday was the day on which the rain stopped and the sun hid behind the clouds and the eyes of the nation turned in unison toward Capitol Hill for the first day of public hearings in the impeachment of Donald Trump. The results of that first day were . . . well, inconclusive, really; nothing new was said; no great breakthroughs were made; both trenches are where they were at daybreak when the lark stopped singing and artillery began. Jim, what happened yesterday? What does it tell us about the Democrats’ case, about the Republicans’ defense, and about the next few months of this American life?
Jim: All right, Charlie, I have a confession to make. I realize everyone in political journalism is supposed to be sitting on the edge of their seats for this and unbelievably excited, and this is bigger than the Super Bowl and the Olympics! Impeachments, they’re so rare, we only get them once every two decades these days; and Charlie, this thing’s moving slower and more painfully than a kidney stone.
You know, two prominent witnesses from the diplomatic corps, neither of whom had spoken directly to Trump but were saying, “Look, this is what I heard the President wanted with Ukraine.” We’re mostly getting the same information we got presuming you’ve been paying attention to this story from the beginning. I’m having a very tough time really getting all that . . . I don’t even know if excited is the right term here. Look, we all know how this thing is going to end.
Charlie: How’s it going to end?
Jim: Most Republicans are going to vote no, I don’t see anything impeachable here. Most Democrats are going to say heck yeah, I see something impeachable here. A bunch of them have been saying this since, oh, spring 2017, if not going back to Inauguration Day. They might as well just project Rorschach tests above the panel, above the witnesses every time. Everybody’s going to insist, oh, this is terrible, and then the Republicans are going to say, no, no, it’s not that bad; this is all hearsay.
It’s going to have the occasional moments of Democrats insisting that hearsay testimony is even more compelling than direct evidence, but I don’t know. This, to me, is a not-so-compelling side show to the really decisive question before the country, which is going to be the 2020 election, and that’s going to decide whether Donald Trump continues as president, not the impeachment process; and in the meantime, we get to see a lot of high dudgeon. It was almost important enough for Jim Jordan to put on a jacket, that’s how big a deal this is.
Charlie: Alexandra, do you agree? Is this a sideshow? Are you bored by it, or do you think this may shift American public opinion and take us into waters we can’t yet anticipate?
Alexandra: I’m with Jim. I’m so deeply bored by the entire thing, and I have been since maybe a week or two after the news about the Ukraine call first broke. I think that obviously was relevant, something that needed to be looked into, but I think we have pretty much as much information about that . . . relevant information . . . as we’re ever going to get, and it looks to me like people in Congress . . . Democrats, in particular, and Republicans are just kind of going along for the ride because they don’t have a choice, but . . . people in Congress are just doing this in lieu of doing anything else. They have nothing legislative they want to accomplish.
When you have Democrats in the House and Republicans holding the Senate, and Trump without much of a legislative agenda to speak of, then no one really has anything to do, and going into an election year, this is a good opportunity for Democrats to grandstand and make a case that they’ve been trying to make since, as Jim said, since Trump got into office . . . they’ve been saying for one reason or another he deserved to be impeached, and now they have I think, perhaps, even a plausible case that he did something that arguably might have been impeachable. But with the election next year, I don’t see how Republicans would ever go along with that. And so, I think we’re just going to be treated to a lot more of this sort of nonsensical back and forth where everyone gets to shout their talking points during the hearings and look like they’re doing something when no one’s really doing much of anything at all.
Charlie: Well, look, let me push you on this a little bit. Isn’t there a devil’s advocate case here that this is precisely what Democrats should be doing if they believe that Donald Trump did something that is worthy of impeachment? They presumably can’t just hold an impeachment vote. Technically, they can, but that would be seen as premature, and it would be regarded by Republicans as akin to holding a show trial. It would hand the Republican party a weapon unnecessarily.
Is your general lack of interest in this the product of your belief, Alexandra, that there is not much here? Or your belief that we’ve already debated this, there’s no more to be announced, and so we’re going to be going through the motions?
Alexandra: I think it’s very . . . there’s a case being made that it is impeachable; I don’t know if I, myself, would vote for impeachment were I in Congress. But I think that at this point, it really . . . and impeachment itself is a political tool, and going into an election year, I think it’s not really a good use of anybody’s time. It’s maybe perhaps politically beneficial for Democrats as the gamble that they’re making here, but I think the American people have as much information as they’re going to have in order to know whether or not what Trump said or did on that call . . . you know, the attendant things that went on with Giuliani . . . if that’s something that they think makes him unfit for office, and they’re going to vote on that in less than a year now.
And so, for this to be happening and the fact that Democrats called as their first two witnesses in public hearings, people who have only hearsay knowledge of what went on, tells me that this is just going to be a chance for lawmakers to sort of repeatedly make the same case that people have already heard, and I don’t think the Senate is going to vote to convict, so there’s not going to be any practical difference, regardless of what other information most likely surfaces.
Charlie: Luke, let me commit a cardinal sin here and ask you not about the substance which we’ve discussed at length, including last week, and on which we somewhat disagree, but about the hearing itself, about how it is being received, about the arguments that are being made. This is ultimately a political question. This will be decided politically; that means that partisanship will and has come into play, and it means that ultimately the aim here is to convince the jury, and the jury is the public. What did you see yesterday politically?
Luke: I saw a weak first hand from the Democrats, and it’s important to understand that in any extraordinary political process like a recall election or an impeachment, the clock is working against the impeachers and against the recallers, until they find really lockdown, smoking gun evidence. Because at a certain point when the process is extended, the accused, so to speak, can say, look what the other side is putting the country or the state, whatever, through . . . right?
I mean, this is, in effect, what Scott Walker did during his recall election. He said this recall is unnecessary, look at what the Democrats are putting Wisconsin through, it’s polarizing our politics, et cetera. And so, while in the absence of any kind of smoking gun evidence, partisans retreat to their corners, which is what you would expect, and that’s why we’ve seen initially impeachment surge and then retreat back down to Trump approval, and increasingly retrench into partisanship. There is an independent subset of the population that needs to be persuaded, and they need to be persuaded early on, because if they’re not, then as the process extends and protracts, they will not blame the accused for the process. They will blame the accuser. And given that the Democrats came out of the gate with these two damp squibs, one of whom was wearing a bow tie, I don’t really think that you see what they’re going to need from a political standpoint to start getting the public, one, engaged, and two, persuaded that there’s anything there.
Charlie: Jim, do you agree with that? And what did you think of the Republicans’ response? Republicans seem to be still hampered by President Trump’s absolutist approach, his insistence that the phone call was perfect. Andy McCarthy in NR has argued repeatedly and somewhat persuasively that the best defense case that can be mustered here is that this was ugly, but that it was by no means impeachable. Alexandra herself suggested that, especially in an election year, this may be unnecessary.
That’s not Trump’s view. Trump’s view is that the entire thing is a witch hunt, that there is no there there, that he not only did nothing wrong, but that his diplomacy was impeccable, was unimpeachable, to borrow a phrase. Is this going to hurt Republicans? Even if they know full well that they’re not going to convict, is this going to hurt them politically? And should it hurt them morally?
Jim: I think Republicans would prefer to have this in their rear-view mirror as quickly as possible, and try to put as much space between this and the election as possible. I agree with Luke in part, and I disagree in part. I agree that this was kind of a damp squib. I don’t think there’s no there there. I think this is the president . . . I think it’s pretty clear that there was quid pro quo. I think the president very clearly wanted this investigation of the Bidens, and I think there’s some indication he wanted an announcement of the investigation of the Bidens much more than he actually even wanted an investigation into the Bidens. He wanted to use this to beat Biden over the head; he should not have done this, there are official channels to do this sort of thing; he should not have used Rudy Giuliani; et cetera, et cetera.
The big question is, is this something you remove a president over? And I’m pretty skeptical in that direction. If this ends with an impeachment by the House, acquittal by the Senate, just . . . Trump will join Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton. I think that probably fits the crime. Because I was one of those guys who thought back in 1998 that suborning perjury was a perfectly good reason to remove a president; the country disagreed; okay, fine, guys. The bar is set very high and I don’t know if this quite gets there.
That having been said, if you’re a Republican . . . you know, I’m sure Trump probably loves this on some level, because it’s all about him. It gives him somebody to rage against on Twitter and all that. I think, as Andy has put, it’d be nice if the . . . the Republicans would probably be easier to say, “You know, the president shouldn’t have done this, but we’re close to an election day. This isn’t something to have the first removal of a president in American history. And oh, by the way, all these folks have been pushing for this outcome. This is the fourth vote the House has had on impeachment since Trump became president.” I think that’s a very defensible ground for Republicans considering where they are.
For Trump to keep saying that this is the immaculate conversation, that it was conceived without sin and that the transcript was perfect and all that kind of stuff . . . that complicates life for Republicans, although I think when push comes to shove, and there’s some winner on Election Night 2020, this will probably be seen as a minor factor, if any, in all that.
Charlie: Luke, is there an upside to the maximalist defense or is this Trump being Trump?
Luke: It would definitely be helpful for the president to say something like, “Look, I certainly I didn’t want to give the impression that this was conditionalized and I’m sorry if anybody felt that way. That wasn’t my goal. My goal was to” . . . and then redirect the discussion towards all the shady, borderline if not explicitly criminal and obviously corrupt stuff that the Bidens were up to in Ukraine and China, among other places.