One Big Day. Two Key Lessons
Public impeachment has begun. Here’s what Democrats need to do.
There is a delicious irony to all this. Before running to become the nominee of the Republican Party, Donald Trump was known in Washington for two things. Firstly, showing the wherewithal to fire Gary Busey on the Celebrity Apprentice (great move, Don!), but secondly, for peddling the racist birther myth of his predecessor.
In both instances, Trump relied on his media presence to further his brand. Even when he was running for the nomination of his party and subsequently running for President, his last-minute dial ins to Fox and Friends married with a twitter meltdown became a text-book play. And now, with the eyes of the world once again on him and his administration, public impeachment proceedings have begun. Well, Donald, you live by the 24/7 media, you die by the 24/7 media… as they say.
And that is really what yesterday was about. The legality of impeachment is wrapped up in the Constitution and subsequent statutes, the politics are probably already determined by the Democrat controlled House and Republican controlled Senate. But the optics, the way in which millions of American citizens are going to digest these historic events, will be hugely important and as yet are unknown.
Frank Luntz, famous Republican pollster, ran a poll on Twitter yesterday asking how many people will likely watch the public hearings on their opening day. Nearly 4,000 answered, two thirds of whom said ‘no’.
Yet American TV consumption is still at over three and a half hours a day per person; that is before we begin to consider how much time people spend consuming information on their mobile phones or computers. Just look at this Google Trends graph from yesterday.
Make no mistake then, public hearings are important. Just ask Republicans, they have been demanding them for weeks.
Which surprises me, if I’m being honest. Because the Democrats and their witnesses were more effective and more damning that I could have ever expected. Adam Schiff was calm, cerebral and Chaired the six hour session with the grace and poise of someone who appreciated the magnitude of the occasion.
Nunes, on the other hand looked like a rookie who’d been called off the bench without any pre-season training and was caught totally off-guard in the biggest game of his life. Then there’s Jim Jordan, whose lack of intellectual heft is only outweighed by his obsession with refusing to wear a jacket.
However, even Chairman Schiff looked like an adolescent trainee compared to the giants of Bill Taylor and George Kent. Bipartisan diplomats who have over 75 years of combined service. Kent began by highlighting how he is the third generation of his family to choose a career in public service, with he himself serving under five presidents — three of whom Republican. Similarly, Taylor described his experience in Vietnam serving with the 101st Airborne. Kent and Taylor were star witnesses for a reason, and it showed.
The Democrats securing these two witnesses was their first win; the damning testimonies from both men was their second. Aside from the way Kent and Taylor delivered their points, the content was startling. Taylor was able to reveal that in July this year an aide overheard a telephone call in which the President asked about politically advantageous investigations he wanted Ukraine to conduct. For Democrats, they must get Taylor’s aide to testify.
The revelation is particularly important for three reasons. Firstly, it is further evidence, from highly credible sources, that Trump did encourage Ukraine to conduct investigations into a political opponent in exchange for military aide.
But, just as importantly, it reveals two important lessons that should shape Democrats’ approach to these hearings.
Lesson 1: In addition to Republicans demanding these hearings being made public (which they may well be regretting now), their other demand is that Democrats seek evidence from first hand accounts, not second or third hand
This is a powerful argument and could potentially swing the thoughts of even sound-minded viewers. Let’s remind ourselves, impeachment is the ultimate power Congress has — we have to get this right.
Regardless of the credibility of people like Kent and Taylor, so the argument goes, they themselves did not see or hear anything, certainty not enough to prove the criminal conduct of a President. Talk of whistle-blowers and anonymous aides is ambiguous.
To combat this, Democrats need to make absolutely clear that all their attempts to call on witnesses who have the ability to discuss first hand accounts have all been blocked by their Republican colleagues at the White House. As Representative Peter Welch said, the Committee would welcome those who have ‘started it all’. If the likes of Bolton, Pompeo and Mulvaney aren’t going to testify, Democrats need to make it known who is stopping them.
Lesson 2: Cynicism of politics is at an all time high. It is partly what propelled Donald Trump — a TV personality — to beat probably the most qualified candidate to run for office in history. With cynicism high, spear headed by a brute like Trump, nuanced policy understanding is low; particularly foreign policy. It is something that simply cannot be distilled into a tweet.
But most of the public don’t care about that and as such really significant pieces of information can be missed. Republicans know chaos theory, and if they confuse and conflate well enough, then it could work for them. For example, immediately after the hearing, Brad Parscale put out a written statement that said ‘foreign policy isn’t a crime’. You’re right, Brad, but this isn’t foreign policy.
Making it absolutely crystal clear that there is a difference between foreign policy and corrupt acts of criminality should be a priority for Democrats. Withholding aide from a country unless they promise the world they will investigate a political opponent is not foreign policy. It is an impeachable offence, regardless of political orientation.
The first day of public impeachment hearings when very well for Democrats. Schiff Chaired expertly, their star witnesses delivered in a way Democrats would have hoped, and Republicans unfolded. My concern is, however, that as much as this is an intellectual and legal exercise, it is also a political and media led exercise. While the Democrats lead the race in the former, Republicans currently pip them in the later.
The real cruelty of these hearings, regardless of what Republicans say, is that Democrats have a bar set for them that is so high it is virtually unattainable; far beyond that of what the Framers would have envisaged.
I do not know, nor, I presume do the Senators themselves know what would have to be revealed for a two thirds majority to reached and for Trump to be removed from office. To re-frame one of Trump’s most infamous quotes in a 2020 context, he could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot someone and still be acquitted in the Senate.