With the likely conclusion of Rep. Adam Schiff’s impeachment proceedings, it’s worth taking a step back and looking at how things went for the majority Democrats and minority Republicans on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
Democrats ideally would have started their inquiry with credible bipartisan support and run things in such a way that public opinion developed in their favor. Public opinion would build pressure on Republican members toward an impeachment vote that had even stronger bipartisan credibility.
That did not come even close to happening. To begin with, not only was the vote to begin proceedings not bipartisan, there was bipartisan opposition to it. Polling initially looked promising for impeachment, with media outlets attempting to claim significant bipartisan support for inquiry and removal, but then the polling moved in the wrong direction for Democrats.
Emerson polling showed that support for impeachment flipped since October from 48 percent support with 44 percent opposing to now 45 percent opposed and 43 percent in support. Among key independents, the switch was even more pronounced. In October, 48 percent supported impeaching President Donald Trump, with 39 percent opposed. Now, 49 percent of independents oppose impeachment, while only 34 percent support it.
A new Marquette University Law School poll found that 40 percent of registered voters in the swing state of Wisconsin think that Trump should be impeached and removed from office, while 53 percent do not think so. Another 6 percent weren’t sure.
A new Gallup poll shows that Trump’s approval has ticked up two points since the impeachment drama began, with 50 percent of Americans opposed to it and 48 percent in support. Henry Olsen notes that Gallup polls all adults, not just registered voters, meaning that a poll of registered voters would have Trump’s job approval even higher and impeachment opposed by closer to a 52-46 margin.
And not only are no Republicans expected to join with Democrats in an eventual impeachment vote, some members expect the bipartisan consensus against it to grow.
Republicans, by contrast, needed to aim for bipartisan opposition to the impeachment proceedings, keep their members in line, make the case that the impeachment proceedings lacked fairness, and that concern about Ukrainian corruption was legitimate. They managed to do all that.
Here’s why things went well for Republicans in phase one of impeachment.
Before we get to the politics and how they were played by Republicans and Democrats, it should be noted that President Donald Trump has not been credibly accused of committing any crime, much less a high crime or misdemeanor. It’s almost shocking that Trump, of all people, keeps managing to do well on this score. Yet, as with the Russia collusion hoax, in which he was accused of being a traitor to his country, the lack of evidence for the charges against him is his ultimate saving grace.
What the charge is keeps changing, of course. The whistleblower initially suggested a campaign finance violation arising from a call Trump had with the president of Ukraine. That morphed into a quid pro quo for military aid to Ukraine, then extortion, then bribery, then obstruction of justice, then back to a quid pro quo, but this time only a quid pro quo for a White House meeting. The lack of certainty among even Trump’s critics certainly worked in his favor.
There can be no question that President Trump generally dislikes the boatloads of taxpayer cash in the form of foreign aid that is sent to countries, wishes other countries would support their neighbors more, and absolutely disliked Ukraine corruption. Further, we all know Trump wanted Ukraine to investigate Ukraine’s 2016 election meddling and the involvement of former Vice President Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden in well-known corruption of Burisma, the energy concern on which’s board the former VP’s son found himself on in questionable circumstances. We know these things because of Trump’s public statements and the release of his transcripts with Ukraine’s newly elected president.
We also know that Trump’s support of Ukraine increased over the Obama years, including with the provision of Javelin missiles. And precisely no one had any evidence of anything actually illegal happening, even if they wished that Trump loved foreign aid more and didn’t want the investigations he told everyone he wanted. That further made the case against Trump difficult to argue.
Objectively speaking, they weren’t just boring but soul-crushingly boring. The testimony was lengthy, the discussion was complicated and bureaucratic. The questions weren’t particularly interesting and the answers they elicited weren’t particularly compelling. You can complain all you want about the fact that they were boring, but they were boring.
Media outlets did all they could to bolster Schiff’s show and ran the impeachment hearings non-stop, as if Schiff’s inquiry had a legitimacy it never quite managed to earn on the merits. But instead of viewership increasing over time, it decreased.
Reporters kept deleting their tweets because they were getting facts about the hearings wrong. If reporters who were paid to follow the hearings weren’t able to keep details straight, what hope was there for normal people who have real lives and better things to do than watch hearings all day?
Democrats didn’t want Rep. Jerry Nadler chairing impeachment since he had so completely botched the initial impeachment effort that was the Robert Mueller probe. Any chair worth his salt would have investigated whether star witness Robert Mueller was fit to answer any questions, much less the questions needing careful handling for an impeachment probe given the failure to find treasonous collusion with Russia to steal the 2016 election.
Instead, a seemingly confused Mueller destroyed the chance of convincing the country that he had run the probe that bore his name and had morphed into an attempt to nail Trump for vehemently fighting the false charge he was a traitor. A few other mistakes by Nadler meant that Speaker Nancy Pelosi gave Schiff the gavel for the big show.
Schiff had run the Democrats’ efforts in the Russia collusion conspiracy they peddled for several years. During that time, his team leaked like sieves to compliant media outlets such as CNN and falsely claimed for years to have secret knowledge of Trump being a traitor who had colluded with Russia to steal the 2016 election. With compliant media outlets, again, he tore down Republican members on his committee and their efforts to get at the bottom of the Russia collusion theory.
When it came time for impeachment, he followed the same pattern, leaking to the compliant media selected excerpts of transcripts to paint a false narrative. But this time, it didn’t work nearly so well. For one thing, the complexity that he weaponized so successfully in the Russia hoax didn’t work with the public. The public had been willing to at least consider an elaborate tale of Trump being a traitor who had colluded with Russia to steal the 2016 election.
But when it turned out that Schiff, other Democrats, and the media had been completely wrong about their elaborate theory, it had consequences. They weren’t nearly so willing to fall for the old song and dance a second time, particularly on a story that conveniently began precisely the day after Mueller’s failed testimony.
Even worse for Schiff, he had destroyed the goodwill and comity that had once existed on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. While the compliant media were willing to spoon up whatever he gave them, Republican members knew not to trust him at all. They had also learned from the Russia collusion hoax that they had spent years painstakingly evaluating. Their report outlining Russian meddling as well as a report on some of the concerning behavior of government officials investigating the Trump campaign holds up infinitely better than the Democrats’ report on the same.
While the argument for impeachment was difficult to understand, Democrats’ own witnesses kept making Trump’s case against “the swamp” for him. There is no question that these bureaucrats, sometimes using third-hand information, were deeply opposed to Trump, his policies, and his behavior. Their problem was that they were not elected president. In fact, they weren’t elected anything. Some of them were political appointees — a testament to the awful job Trump has done at finding personnel who can accomplish his policy goals — and other times they were career bureaucrats.
The Resistance has generally had a difficult time with this issue, but the proper way to litigate political differences is not with the 25th Amendment, threats to the Electoral College, leak campaigns, spying operations, or impeachment proceedings, but at the ballot box. At no time did any witness make an effective case for anything other than, at best, a trip to the ballot box.
In part because Schiff and his team seemed confused about what case they were prosecuting, questions to witnesses were almost always leading, but never focused on a particular or consistent goal. Conversely, Republicans kept focused during their questions, always pointing out that the witnesses didn’t actually have first-hand information, or were basing their views on their own conjecture, a shaky basis for impeachment.
In general, Republican members did a surprisingly good job on cross examining witnesses. The Democrats kept rolling out new star witnesses, and some, such as Gordon Sondland and Lt. Col. Alex Vindman had opening statements that were quite strong for Democrats. Their opening statements withered under strong GOP questioning.
Schiff kept a tight hand on the wheel, controlling witness lists, controlling their testimony, keeping things secret, selectively leaking, and withholding information. That’s his prerogative, but for impeachment to be considered something other than political theater, the unfairness didn’t work.
The entire proceeding began because of a whistleblower claiming a nefarious phone call took place. Initially, Schiff insisted that this whistleblower testify. Schiff repeatedly demanded that testimony. That all changed the precise moment that it was revealed the whistleblower had communicated with Schiff’s staff, something both the whistleblower and Schiff had been dishonest about.
Republicans hammered Schiff about his self-serving about face, even if the media wanted to pretend it wasn’t a big deal. They also reminded him that they weren’t being allowed to call their own witnesses, ask questions, use transcripts of previous depositions, and other things that a fair proceeding would allow. It worked to their benefit.
The initial phase of impeachment being done prior to a vote being held, and in manipulated secrecy did not help Schiff’s case.
The lack of daylight between Democrats and many in the media was difficult to ignore. They seemed to march in lockstep with the day’s messaging from Schiff, as well as the overall legitimacy of the proceedings.
Here, too, the media seemed to underestimate the significant toll their participation in the Russia hoax had on their credibility. Where the public previously may have been willing to trust them when they claimed they had done their homework before claiming some evidence of wrongdoing by Trump, that trust no longer exists.
Each day, Schiff’s team would leak out the messaging for the day along with the prepared testimony of the morning witness. “Wow,” the corporate media would all say in unison as they repeated the message.
The problem is that none of their bombshells exploded, as the Washington Post’s Marc Thiessen noted. The supposed “bombshells” rarely made sense, were frequently contradictory, were never based on first-hand information, and mostly just supported the claim that many bureaucrats wish they ran foreign policy instead of the president.
George Conway called her trash and distributed a fake photograph of her supposedly behaving in boorish fashion. Nicolle Wallace, a woman who undermined the McCain-Palin campaign on which she ostensibly served before going to MSNBC, lashed out at Stefanik as “pathetic” and compared her negatively to Nikki Haley. Former Ted Cruz aide Amanda Carpenter called the fake photo “believable” and derided Stefanik as “obnoxious.”
By the end of the hearings, the media were falling back into their most dramatic Russia collusion theories, long since debunked. GQ writer Julia Ioffe, who has had a rough couple of years, saw a Russian plot in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s story about Hunter Biden being the father to an Arkansas child.
Impeachment has been all but a foregone conclusion since the moment Trump shocked the ruling classes with his 2016 victory. The Washington Post announced within minutes of his inauguration that the “campaign to impeach President Trump has begun.”
The Mueller probe was supposed to be the vehicle to accomplish this goal and it would have been if it had been able to come up with anything in favor of its dramatic tale of treasonous collusion to steal the election. Democrats responded to that defeat not by coming up with a stronger case, but a dramatically weaker one.
Still, if media reports are to be believed, it will proceed apace before heading to the Senate where Republicans will control the inquiry on much more favorable ground for Trump. There, they may drag things out to showcase questions about the Biden family’s enrichment during the previous administration, general corruption with countries that have powerful and connected American board members, and other witnesses that Schiff forbade.
They will presumably call the whistleblower to testify about who leaked information to him and which members of Schiff’s committee he worked with before filing his claim. They will almost certainly call Schiff himself to testify about his team’s role in helping the whistleblower set things in motion.
While many in corporate media will attempt to pretend otherwise, the first phase of impeachment did not go well for Democrats. It needed to be their strongest phase. It needed to be a time when support for the inquiry and impeachment grew. Instead, it shrank. Partly that’s due to Democrats’ failed strategy.
But GOP members also played a significant role. They stood strong against both the media and Democrats, showed very little weakness, sent signals early on that they weren’t going to sit back and cower during the proceedings, and generally learned a great deal from the previous few years’ efforts to undo the 2016 election.