But now? From both a substantive and political perspective, the impeachment inquiry is going about as well as you could hope. Democrats are, in fact, getting this right.
That’s not to say everything’s been perfect. For instance, the leadership chose to focus on the Ukraine scandal and not include the many other impeachable acts Trump has committed as part of the inquiry. There’s a reasonable case you could make for either approach, but there are certainly plenty of high crimes and misdemeanors just around Ukraine.
So let’s look at where we are now. Keep in mind that we’re in only the first phase of the inquiry, in which depositions are being taken privately from key officials. What have we learned?
Despite the White House’s attempts to obstruct the investigation, several officials have testified, and their accounts of events are beginning to fill in a shocking picture of presidential misdeeds. At this point, it’s undisputed that Trump ordered his “lawyer” Rudolph W. Giuliani to set up a separate, quasi-official Ukraine policy, which Rudy did with his (allegedly criminal) friends, to coerce Ukraine into helping Trump’s reelection. Along the way, Trump withheld military aid from Ukraine, attempting to get the country to mount a probe of Biden that would produce something damaging — or at least provide a justification for Trump to publicly proclaim that Biden was corrupt.
Giuliani’s parallel foreign policy initiative sucked in a range of officials, nearly all of whom understood how inappropriate it was, and many of whom are sharing what they know with Congress.
Every time another one of them testifies, we get alarming new revelations of how unusual, improper and incompetent the whole thing was. Critically, those testifying are not partisan opponents of the president but respected career civil servants who have worked for both Democratic and Republican administrations. Their testimony has been devastating to Trump — and there’s more to come.
Meanwhile, the Republicans are left resorting to buffoonish stunts such as the one they pulled Wednesday, storming a secure room to protest the fact that they were being kept out of a deposition of a Pentagon official — except they weren’t being kept out, because Republican members of the House Intelligence Committee were in the room ready to question the witness, and members of the other two committees participating in the impeachment inquiry were welcome to attend as well.
Their strategy, if you can call it that, is being shaped by the president himself, who cares only about whether Republicans are angrily shouting at a sufficient volume on his behalf. If he turns on Fox News and sees them snarling and red-faced, he thinks he’s winning. Meanwhile, “Republicans have increasingly complained that defending Trump against those accusations is a herculean task made more difficult by the president’s impromptu tweets and the lack of coordinated messaging at the White House.”
The biggest problem Republicans have, however, is the facts. It’s indicative of how brutal this process has been for the administration that the president and his advocates can’t seem to decide on what the defense of him is supposed to be. Are the allegations all fabricated? Did Trump not pressure Ukraine to dig up dirt on Joe Biden to help his reelection campaign, or was it completely fine that he did so? Was there no quid pro quo, or are quid pro quos good? Whatever they’re saying today, they’ll probably be saying something different tomorrow. They can’t decide because there is so little ambiguity around what Trump did, and no good way to justify it.
Which is why the methodical approach the Democrats are taking is working well. In the current phase, they’re gathering testimony from officials, which is adding up to a damning indictment of the president. Then next month, they’ll move to public hearings, which will provide dramatic, made-for-TV moments in which Trump’s abuse of power will be laid bare.
This will then lead almost inevitably to a vote on impeach. The president is unlikely to be convicted in the Senate, which would require 20 Republican senators voting to remove him, but by then Democrats will have done all they could to gather information, display his wrongdoing for the public to see and understand, and impose what accountability they can.
And according to polls, it’s already working. Up until a few weeks ago, a majority of Americans opposed impeachment, but that has flipped. Now the polls show a plurality, or in some cases a majority, saying Trump should be impeached.
I suppose it’s theoretically possible that next month’s public hearings will finally show that the whole thing is a witch hunt, that Reps. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) suddenly display competence and dismantle witnesses so skillfully that the entire American people realize how innocent Trump is. It’s also possible that by next month I’ll be the starting point guard for the Golden State Warriors.
More likely, the process from this point forward will make Trump’s malfeasance even more clear and widely understood. Republicans will continue to flail as they try desperately to find a defense of Trump that doesn’t sound ludicrous. The president himself will grow more unhinged, rage-tweeting day after day in order to keep his base from abandoning him. And all of it will play out against the backdrop of the 2020 election, when the voters get to decide if they want four more years of this.
It’s almost as if the Democrats know what they’re doing.