Impeachment hearings are leaping out of the shadows and onto your television screens and social media feeds this week. But with everything we already know about President Trump and Ukraine, and amid a hyperpartisan political climate, will they have much of an impact? I tried to game out the answer with political columnist Jonathan Chait and senior editor Margaret Hartmann.
Ben: So far, the meat of the impeachment process has taken place behind closed doors — several witnesses have testified, but we’ve had to wait for the testimony to come out via released transcripts. This week, the public show begins. On Wednesday, we’ll hear from William Taylor, the chargé d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Kiev, whose initial appearance was very damning for President Trump, as well as from George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of State. Do you expect this new phase to change anything about the current, seemingly immovable dynamic with almost all Republican lawmakers (and voters) dug in defending the president?
Jon: Probably not, since they’ve testified already. In theory, this could grab public attention and move the polls, but right now I think Republicans are going to stick with Trump.
Margaret: No. I think it’s worth trying, as there is little downside for Democrats. Very slim chance they get some explosive moment that sways the public and/or Republican lawmakers. I really doubt that, but there’s a decent chance they’ll get some incriminating clips to run on cable news — straight from the source, rather than anchors quoting from transcripts. CNN and MSNBC aren’t going to run a Jim Jordan tirade in a loop all day, so there’s low risk for Democrats.
Ben: How much has the endless scandal of the past three years, chiefly the Russia investigation, cut into the potential for this to be more of a holy-shit kind of moment? I may be wrong, but it feels like the appetite for a unifying, everyone-watching-TV-together moment is lower than it was — partially because we’ve already had the Comey hearing and the Mueller hearing and all the rest of it, and partially because there’s now an election coming up anyway
Jon: That sounds right to me. The bar is way, way higher now. Trump has mostly lost the parts of America that listen to non-Republican-run news. Of course, events like this make it harder for him to win some of those voters back.
Margaret: Vulture told me Game of Thrones is the last show we all watched together. Case closed.
Ben: Good cross-promotion, there.
Margaret: I think the Comey hearings had superhigh stakes. The report itself had already failed to deliver, and Democrats were clinging to the hope that Comey himself would sell the findings to the public. Then that flopped too. People are not expecting something more explosive than what they already know — and most Americans, I think, have made up their mind already on whether they think it’s very cool and perfect for the president to hold up foreign aid in return for personal favors. So again, I think Dems can get some good anti-Trump coverage out of this, maybe crystallize it for people who already think Trump’s dealings with Ukraine were not great. But I don’t know: Prove me wrong, impeachment witnesses! “I just thought it was crazy for Trump to offer a quid pro quo to Ukraine — especially because the pee tape is real and I’ve totally seen it.”
Ben: The prosecution calls … Joseph Mifsud! [Courtroom gasps]
Jon: I do think a House impeachment vote will get some attention; I’m just not sure the hearings of witnesses who have already testified will (in fact, I’m pretty sure they won’t).
Ben: Right — won’t they just be mostly repeating what we already know they said?
Jon: You would think.
Margaret: I think there were some surprises in the Watergate testimony
hearings that apparently all of America tuned in for.
Ben: Look, we know you just watched a documentary about it.
Margaret: Lol, guilty as charged. I think there is a historic element to this, and if we weren’t all numb, it would be more significant that the House is holding hearings over impeaching the president.
Ben: It is indeed a bit strange that it seems so run-of-the-mill. Though the Clinton hearings were also kind of like that because, as in this situation, the outcome seemed preordained.
What do you think the three Republican senators who have not backed Trump on this so far — that’s Mitt Romney, Susan Collins, and Lisa Murkowski — are thinking as this process begins?
Jon: They’re probably looking for other Republicans to jump in with them and vote to remove, but they also probably need some more crimes to get that outcome. Not sure if they have anything specific in mind. Perhaps if Dmytro Firtash — the Russian oligarch close to the Kremlin who paid Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman — was directing Rudy’s activities and coordinating with him? That would mean Trump literally handed his Ukraine policy over to a Kremlin-aligned crook. Even that probably doesn’t trigger removal, but maybe?
Ben: It seems like they’ve settled on the line of defense, which is “Hey, it’s not ideal but also not the end of the world.” You can fit a lot of transgressions under that rubric.
Margaret: Yeah, I think even that might be too complicated to count as a smoking gun,
and it would take something simple, truly shocking, and digestible on cable TV for Republicans to turn on Trump at this point.
Ben: What do you think of the current Democratic time line, which seems to be to wrap all this up pretty quickly, possibly even finishing by the end of the year?
Jon: I think it’s probably a necessary concession to the argument that we should just let the election play out. The closer we get to it, the more sway that argument will have, so they’re probably at the end of the impeachment window and acting quickly on that basis. The counterargument is, if Republicans are acquitting regardless, why not impeach Trump during the election?
Margaret: Yeah, I’m fine with it. I want all the facts to get out and everyone who has info on the Ukraine situation and/or other impeachable offenses to have the opportunity to come forward. But I think it could start backfiring on Dems if there’s the appearance that they’re dragging it out just to interfere with campaign season.
Ben: I think Nancy Pelosi feels pretty strongly that doing impeachment just before the election would not only be a distraction but would look to voters like they’re trying to throw anything at Trump, in a way that may be off-putting.
Jon: Her strategic instincts are to play it safe and tight. It certainly worked in 2018. Like an old-school football coach — run the ball, play great defense, and let the opponent self-destruct. It’s a bad football strategy, but it works against a horrible opponent and Trump is a horrible opponent.