December 4, 2019

Today was the first day of impeachment hearings in the House Committee on the Judiciary. It was a day in which both the contours of today’s crisis in our government and the stakes of that crisis became crystal clear.

The Committee on the Judiciary has received the report of the House Intelligence Committee about its investigation into the Ukraine scandal. It is now considering whether and how to write articles of impeachment. To help make that decision—but really to put the evidence into larger context for Americans watching—it invited four legal scholars to testify about whether or not the evidence gathered by the impeachment committees is sufficient to impeach a president.

Three of the four scholars were invited by Democrats. They included Professor Pamela S. Karlan of Stanford Law School, Professor Noah Feldman of Harvard Law School, and Professor Michael Gerhardt of the University of North Carolina School of Law. The Republicans invited George Washington University Law Professor Jonathan Turley.

The day played out much as we could have expected. There is really no dispute over what took place: Trump tried to rig the 2020 election with the help of a foreign country. He, and those working for him, pressured Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky to announce an investigation into Burisma, the company on whose board Hunter Biden sat, in order to get the media to run with the story and hurt Biden in the 2020 election, much as rumors of Hillary Clinton’s misuse of email helped to sink her in 2016. Trump withheld both a White House visit and almost $400 million in military aid to Ukraine for its fight against Russia to extract an announcement. The evident wavering of US support in the face of Russian pressure weakened Ukraine and strengthened Russia. These things happened. The question is whether or not these actions matter.

Republicans are saying they don’t. They say that the money was eventually released and that Zelensky said in public, repeatedly, that he did not feel pressured. These arguments do not contest the facts; they are simply optics for their base.

More than that, though, Republicans are trying to discredit the impeachment process itself. That effort was on display today with constant interruptions, interjections, and the rudeness of, for example, ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, Doug Collins (R-GA) staring at the ceiling in evident boredom rather than paying attention to the proceedings.

Their mockery of the investigation started this morning when Collins claimed the witnesses were there to talk about “things that you probably haven’t had a chance—unless you’re really good on TV of watching the hearings over the last couple of weeks, you couldn’t have possibly actually digested the Adam Schiff report from yesterday or the Republican response in any real way.” Karlan snapped that she was insulted: “I read transcripts of every one of the witnesses who appeared in the live hearing because I would not speak about these things without reviewing the facts.”

And that is how the hearing went. The Republicans insisted it was a sham that they couldn’t be bothered with so they made grandstanding speeches instead; the Democrats took it very seriously indeed.

To my mind, the scholars didn’t add much to what we already know. Turley told sort of weird folksy stories that reminded me of the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, a man for whom Turley has expressed great admiration. He said that impeachment might be reasonable if it could be proved that there had, in fact, been a quid pro quo, but he did not think that proven. He said impeachment required a crime; Democrats turned up that he said the opposite when arguing in favor of the impeachment of Bill Clinton.

The other three scholars said that the evidence that Trump tried to steal the 2020 election with the help of a foreign power was overwhelming, and if that is allowed to stand we will lose American democracy.

None of this is new.

What was new, to my mind, was that although the Republicans kept insisting that those finding fault with the president were simply “TRUMP-HATERS,” as Laura Ingraham announced tonight on her Fox News Channel program, the Democrats quite effectively framed impeachment as a question of patriotism rather than partisanship. They constantly referred to their oaths of office, and noted that Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and former ambassador William Taylor, for example, both witnesses against Trump, were both decorated military veterans, and that Taylor was initially appointed by a Republican president (meaning that he is almost certainly a Republican himself). At length, they recalled the war service of their family members, and noted that they, too, had an oath to uphold.

That played strongly against the Republicans’ antics.

Also new to this impeachment inquiry was that Judiciary Committee Chair Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) suggested that the committee has not yet abandoned its investigation of the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. Remember, the pressure on Ukraine did not begin with an attempt to smear Biden; it began long before Biden was a presidential candidate, shortly after the 2016 election, with statements by Paul Manafort, among others, that it was Ukraine rather than Russia that attacked us in that election. That narrative would have enabled Trump to remove Russian sanctions despite its invasion of Ukraine. The Russian piece of the puzzle is apparently back on the table, for now, anyway.

Meanwhile, we learned today that Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani is currently in Ukraine working with One America News Network (OANN) to continue to try to publicize the debunked 2016 Ukraine and Biden stories. OANN is the pro-Trump radical right wing pay television news channel started in 2013 and rising in popularity as Trump turns increasingly to it rather than to the Fox News Network, which he often feels is hostile. Giuliani and OANN are apparently filming a television series that pushes the Biden story and the idea that it was Ukraine rather than Russia that attacked us in 2016. Giuliani met yesterday with Yuriy Lutsenko, the corrupt Ukrainian prosecutor who was originally the point man for making the announcement that Ukraine was investigating Hunter Biden. Apparently, he traveled to Kyiv (the Ukrainian name for the city the Russians called Kiev, if that name has confused you) today to film Viktor Shokin, the corrupt prosecutor Joe Biden boasted of getting fired, and Kostiantyn H. Kulyk, another prosecutor who was one of Giuliani’s primary Ukrainian contacts in the fabrication of information against Biden, and then against U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch. Kulyk was fired a week ago.

Evidently, the Republicans’ willingness to defend Trump has convinced his team that there is no downside to trying to rig the 2020 election. They are still trying to create a false narrative about 2016 and Joe Biden with the help of foreign nationals.