First and above all, Schiff’s North Star is not excitement but credibility. What’s imperative for him is that the American people, and if possible even a few Republican colleagues, believe that he is playing it straight.
That translates into generally staying calm and never rising to the bait from the other side. When Texas Republican Rep. John Ratcliffe sought to engage him in a colloquy on Wednesday, Schiff calmly parried it and said the hearing was intended for questioning the witnesses. Republicans didn’t try a stunt of that sort again.
In fact, all week the Republicans were off stride, trotting out a series of inconsistent defenses that left the firm impression they are flummoxed.
Truth-tellers do not scream or pull stunts. Ranking committee Republican Devin Nunes’s (Calif.) histrionics or Rep. Jim Jordan’s (R-Ohio) tantrums might provide a sort of short-lived sugar high for the base, but their erratic behavior and inconsistency only undermine the Republicans’ case in the long run.
Schiff’s grounded approach, and that of the committee’s counsel, Daniel S. Goldman, is to build the case brick by brick, marching with each witness through the most important parts of their depositions. After Wednesday’s opening hearing, there were a few murmurs that Schiff needed more flash, but the concerns were shortsighted. Schiff clearly understands that, when the witnesses for the prosecution are testifying, the spotlight has to be on the witnesses, not him. A corollary of that principle that prosecutors take to heart is that the witnesses have to above all be comfortable and themselves.
This is nowhere more true in the fishbowl setting of the hearings, by a good margin the most intense scrutiny that acting ambassador to Ukraine William B. Taylor Jr., Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch and the witnesses to come have ever experienced. To my mind, Taylor was plenty dynamic and authoritative, with a baritone voice from central casting. Kent may have been a less forceful presence, but he seemed no less credible. And if he’s the kind of guy who wears bow ties, then that’s what he should wear when he testifies.
You’ll see a sharply contrasting, and more electric style when Schiff or Goldman confronts U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland this week, which could perhaps be the highlight of a blockbuster week ahead that also includes former special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker and Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the former National Security Council director for European affairs.
Schiff had occasion to try one unscripted move last week, and his instincts were flawless: When the president tweeted out a nasty put-down of Yovanovitch while she was testifying, Schiff seized the opportunity to serve it up to her for devastating comment. Overall, Yovanovitch’s sincere and deeply affecting testimony, which earned her a standing ovation in the committee room, provided plenty of drama with no damage to the case’s credibility, and left the president — the absent defendant — looking small and despicable.
From his opening statement, Schiff hued to a panoramic view of the hearings as a whole. One of the best pieces of advice I ever received as a trial lawyer (though not one I always managed to follow) was to write out the closing argument to the jury before the trial begins. The point is to know the full arc of your case before you start and think tactically about how each witness and even each piece of evidence fits into the narrative you will summarize when you ask the jury to convict.
Schiff seems clearly to have brought to this task of a lifetime a calm assessment of what he can hope to do and what he can’t. Some are worried that without more tub-thumping or fireworks, Schiff cannot hope to move the needle of public opinion. But Schiff’s calculation seems to be that if an unassailable factual demonstration of the president’s shakedown of Ukraine to serve his own political interests to the derogation of the country’s doesn’t bring the public around, nothing will.
And if it all comes to naught — not a single congressional Republican breaks rank while 90 percent of Republicans remain firmly behind President Trump — Schiff and the Democrats still will have set out clearly what Trump did and advanced a powerful argument that the abhorrent conduct was incompatible with the office of the presidency. Compared to other episodes in which Trump has been able to prevent the full truth from coming out, this alone would constitute a vital service to the country and to history.