The US impeachment hearings have been compelling political theatre. Even though the outcome is largely pre-determined (the Democrat-led House will vote to impeach, the Republican-led Senate will not vote to convict), they still represent drama and intrigue. No-one is quite sure who will rise to the occasion, who will sink to new depths of obsequiousness, and who will emerge from anonymity to capture the admiration or ridicule of a nation. We wonder what preposterous story Republicans will next put forward to either deny or excuse presidential behaviour that for any of the 44 previous presidents would have been an open-and-shut case for impeachment. We watch in astonishment as the Republicans on the committee argue in favour of their own irrelevance. And as the domestic and international credibility of the US political system withers. Fascinating stuff.
Good theatre has an interesting story line. This one starts with a pretty good one – an intelligence officer in the US government got wind of a scheme whereby the president of the US was using the power of his office to try and force a foreign leader (the new president of Ukraine) to discredit his domestic political opponents: in this case, Joe Biden and the Democratic Party. The whistle-blower alerted the proper authorities, and mayhem ensued. We have since learned that as part of the scheme, the president had delegated foreign policy to a personal “lawyer” working with known thugs and crooks. That the president and his staff had also manipulated funds earmarked to help Ukraine fight Russian incursions into its territory, again to try and force Ukraine to “dig up dirt” on his rival. And we saw how when his scheme was uncovered, the president and his staff circled the wagons and refused to provide any information to those who had a legal and constitutional right to find out what the hell was going on.
Democrats say that this represents a clear abuse of power, and is cause for impeachment of the president. Republicans say that “there’s nothing to see here,” so have spent the last few months attacking the whistleblower. They say, “Who cares about the fire – we demand to know who pulled the fire alarm!”
That’s how we got here. Cue the hearings.
Good theatre also has interesting characters. And we have people like these:
Devin Nunes, the Republicans’ Ranking Member. Nunes made his name running to the White House to report on what he’d been told in the committee when he actually ran the committee. His role in these hearings has been to read a list of alternative Democratic Party offenses, laud President Trump, and introduce Steve Castor, while sweating profusely. As Bess Kalb noted, “he’s sweating because his own bodily fluids are trying to distance themselves from him.”
Adam Schiff, committee chairman, who has the hardest job on the planet – keeping a straight face while two feet to his left, Devin Nunes portrays Donald Trump and the Irregulars as valiant patriots safeguarding the public purse against corruption, wherever it may exist (but only, it seems, in Ukraine, and only when possibly connected to people named Biden). Schiff has been described by Republican zealots as looking a bit bug-eyed. That’s understandable, given the superhuman effort required to keep his eyeballs from rolling back in their sockets when Nunes is speaking.
Jim Jordan, the only member of the committee who doesn’t need a microphone. Jordan wasn’t even on the committee until the Republicans decided they needed more volume and belligerence in the hearings. He looks for the world like a wrestling coach who was collared outside the Capitol and told to “get in there and yell at someone, anyone.” Does not own a suit.
Steve Castor, the party counsel tasked with asking the questions when the Republicans want to appear “lawyerly,” like they are just seeking the truth. He’s quite skilled at framing outrageous statements in the form of questions that elicit approval or agreement. “If Joe Biden helped his son Hunter steal Ukrainian children’s lunch money, that wouldn’t be good, would it?”
Dan Goldman, the Democratic counsel who fulfils the same role as Castor, but for the Democrats. His skill is in limiting his reaction to a slightly raised eyebrow when the witness’s response to his question should properly elicit a squeal of “Holy shit!”
Gordon Sondland, the US Ambassador to the EU, who was finally prompted to admit his involvement in the Biden investigation scheme when he realised that others had described his involvement while under oath. The highlight of his testimony came when he offered the following: “Was there a ‘quid pro quo?’ …the answer is yes.” The lowlight was when he was asked whether he really did say to Donald Trump that “Zelensky loves your ass,” and responded that it sounded like something he would say. Diplomacy at work.
Fiona Hill, who thankfully emigrated to the US about 30 years ago – otherwise, her County Durham accent would have made anything she said completely unintelligible. When Dr. Hill speaks, people listen. So, her recounting of Sondland and other political appointees pursuing a “domestic political errand” made Republican members extremely uncomfortable. They couldn’t argue, obfuscate or deflect their way out of that, coming from her. And, Dr. Hill was more than capable of scolding the Republican committee members for repeating the farcical idea floated by Trump and his Band of Irregulars that Ukraine, not Russia, was the culprit was behind the interference in the 2016 election. A smart woman put things right.
The hearings crossed into absurdity early on, when Republicans brought in prop posters to attack Chairman Adam Schiff. One poster displayed the number of days since Adam Schiff supposedly learned the identity of the whistleblower. By the time of the hearings, the identity of that person was already moot – all of his or her claims had been independently corroborated. But, Republicans don’t let irrelevance stand in the way of theatre. They outdid themselves, however, when they put up a new sign which argued that Chairman Schiff was following the rules. They hadn’t quite thought that one through.
The farce continued with the constantly changing storylines presented by the Republican members to either excuse or deny the president’s abuse of power. They seemed to settle on one whereby President Trump was trying valiantly to root out corruption, and asked for these “favours” from Ukraine because he was so concerned about the provision of US tax dollars to a possibly corrupt administration. So, according to these fine folks, there was no quid pro quo, no bribery, no extortion, and Trump’s interactions with the Ukrainians were “perfect.”
Never mind that to accept the Trump/Republican version of events, one would have to believe that every official who testified before the committee is a liar, and did not hear what they claim to have heard. That Gordon Sondland, who bought his position with a $1MM contribution to Trump’s inauguration, is a “Never-Trumper.”That Mick Mulvaney did not really admit to a quid pro quo even when he came right out and said there was, during a recorded press conference. That Rudy Giuliani associates with thugs and crooks only to better understand corruption. And that the entire US intelligence service is incompetent.
All that was required to move the hearings from farce to serious investigation was for someone, anyone, on the Republican side to stand up and say, “Look, we can clear up this misunderstanding in no time. Let’s get Mulvaney, Bolton and Giuliani in here, and they can tell us the truth. Once they do that, the impeachment process will stop, the Democrats will apologize, and Trump can go back to whatever he was doing at Mar-a-Lago.” Didn’t happen. Republicans complained about “second and third-hand accounts” but looked the other way when first-hand accounts were provided. They expressed no interest in hearing from those who would be in the best position to present exculpatory evidence for Trump, if any exists. Instead, they demanded to hear from the whistleblower.
And in the midst of all that, Rep. Mike Conaway (R – Texas) used his questioning time to talk about fracking.
The farce even extended to enablers outside the committee room, such as Fox News, the propaganda arm of the Whitehouse. Soon after Sondland answered “yes” to whether there was a quid pro quo, in front of a House committee hearing broadcast to tens of millions, Fox News ran a chyron along the bottom of its screen that read “SONDLAND: NO,THERE WAS NO ‘QUID PRO QUO’”.
A Happy Ending?
So, the hearings appear to be heading for various articles of impeachment to be leveled against Trump. A conviction in the Senate appears highly unlikely, however. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says he’ll limit the trial to two weeks, and Trump apologists like Lindsay Graham are already saying that a trial isn’t necessary because they’ve already made up their minds.
But wait….there’s hope yet for the US Congress to take its oversight role and constitutional responsibilities seriously. As an example, look back to the mid-70s and the Watergate mess. The initial vote in the House Judiciary Committee to begin consideration of possible impeachment of President Nixon was passed along strict party lines, with all Democrats voting yes and all Republicans voting no. Mid-way through the committee’s hearings, only 47% of Americans thought Nixon should be convicted in the Senate and removed from office. And in drafting the articles of impeachment, a significant number of Republicans still voted against impeachment. A conviction in the Senate was not assured then, either.
But, as more and more information about the president’s abuse of power trickled out, by leak, testimony or subpoena, Republicans began to waver in their support. Before an impeachment trial could be scheduled, Nixon was forced by the Supreme Court to release tapes that proved his complicity in a cover-up. His support collapsed, and Nixon resigned a few days later.
Maybe there’ll be a happy ending to this story after all.