As the cameras go live at 10 a.m. Wednesday in the storied Ways and Means Committee hearing room, the risk for Democrats is not that they will fail to make the case against Trump. It’s that they will make the case in so much detail, with so many extraneous bits, that focus will be lost as Republicans throw up red herring after diversion after distraction in their attempts to create a circus atmosphere.
“This is a really simple case,” Neal Katyal tells me. A former solicitor general, he has argued some of the most difficult cases before the Supreme Court. But Katyal, author of the forthcoming book “Impeach,” summarizes this one in seconds:
“A sitting president secretly tried to get a foreign government to announce an investigation into his chief political rival. In essence, Trump was using the awesome powers our Constitution gives presidents not to benefit the nation, but to benefit him personally.”
Katyal also identifies what is less essential in this case:
“It doesn’t matter whether the plot succeeded. It was a grave offense (and one that opened the president up to blackmail). The other questions, like whether or not there was a quid pro quo (there was) and whether or not there was a coverup (there was), are gravy. They are important questions, but the case for impeachment is even more straightforward. Asking us to wait until the election to remove him from office is like asking to resolve a dispute based on who wins a game of Monopoly — when the very crime you’ve been accused of is cheating on Monopoly.”
Certainly, Democrats should, and will, make clear that they believe Trump broke election law, threatened to leave an ally defenseless against Russian aggression, obstructed justice, and violated his oath of office by acting as if constitutional restraints and the law don’t apply to him. They’ll say that he did this partially in pursuit of a conspiracy theory about Ukraine in the 2016 election that U.S. intelligence and his own appointees told him was nonsense. They’ll discuss how his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, circumvented and sabotaged U.S. diplomats with two associates now under federal indictment (they have pleaded not guilty).
But Democrats need to keep the emphasis on the core misconduct — abusing the vast powers of the presidency for personal benefit — if they are to defuse the Republicans’ weapons of mass distraction. Placing himself above the law and jeopardizing national security, Trump withheld an ally’s military aid to demand foreign interference in the 2020 election on his behalf, then he and aides tried to cover up these illegal actions.
The response from the White House, with a nonspeaking spokeswoman and without a reputable lawyer, has bounced among “where’s the whistleblower?,” “no quid pro quo” and “perfect call.” That the place is in disarray can be seen in just one day’s antics this week: Acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney reversing himself on whether to join a lawsuit that names Trump as a defendant, Giuliani talking about doing a podcast on impeachment hearings and Trump tweeting about “Dancing With the Stars.”
House Republicans are tiptoeing away from White House claims of innocence; in a memo circulated Tuesday, they argued that Trump’s actions didn’t amount to “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” In lieu of exoneration, they sampled mitigation strategies:
That the July 25 call between Trump and his Ukrainian counterpart “shows no conditionality” (extensive evidence refutes this dubious reading); that both presidents said there was “no pressure” (did they expect the Ukrainian leader to antagonize the man who controls his country’s future?); that the Ukrainians weren’t aware at the time that their security assistance was on hold (they were soon after, and panicked); and that the funds were restored “without Ukraine investigating President Trump’s political rivals” (because Trump’s scheme was exposed).
The Republicans also reprised their greatest hits from recent weeks: “Capitol basement bunker” . . . “fabricated evidence” . . . “cherry-picked information” . . . “unelected and anonymous bureaucrats” . . . Ukraine’s “pervasive corruption” . . . “legitimate questions about Hunter Biden” . . . “Ukraine officials interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.” And they argued that “the president’s state of mind” was not criminal.
Assessing Trump’s “state of mind” has always been a fool’s errand. House Republicans’ state of mind is more transparent: They will try to provoke a shouting match over irrelevances and tangents. Democrats must return with discipline to investigating what matters: whether Trump cheated, broke the law and abused the highest office in the land for selfish gain.