Jump cut to Christopher: “We want to proceed as if this is a proper legal process, not a political street fight,” he says, fastidious to the point of inertia.
The movie was, of course, only a dramatization of real events, but it revealed a political truth: in a battle between street fighters and court fighters, lawyers rarely win. We’re seeing much the same now in the impeachment proceedings against President Trump, and the results are likely to be as they were in 2000.
Why is that? Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) isn’t nearly as stiff as Christopher was; ranking Republican Devin Nunes (Calif.) isn’t nearly as sharp as Baker. But the Republicans excel at false equivalency and they seek to introduce doubt, not clarity. When the Democrats work diligently to build their legal case, the Republicans foghorn disinformation and confusion. Ukraine? Nothing happened, says Ohio Republican Jim Jordan, who excelled at muddying every question. Extorting allies for personal gain is business as usual, says acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney. Get over it.
Schiff was a terrific prosecutor. He chose his witnesses carefully, and the case they made against Trump was hard to dispute — legally. But the Republican street fighters had the benefit of a weapon developed over the past quarter-century by their party’s extremists — and perfected by Trump: an abiding cynicism about all things Washington. “Everybody does it” is their opening and closing argument. Everyone digs for dirt on opponents, home and abroad, don’t they? The Ukrainians got their money and their meeting, so what’s the big deal? And didn’t the Clintons play uranium-ball with the Russians — for big speaking fees? “I don’t know who to believe” may be the defining public sentiment of the Trump presidency. Doubt is all that Trump supporters, including Vladimir Putin, need to establish.
Now the spotlight swings to the House Judiciary Committee. The chairman, Jerrold Nadler of New York, is the product of a Yeshiva education, which involves the rigorous wrangling of arguments about arguments about Talmudic codicils. Indeed, when we last saw Nadler interrogating former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III in July, he was burrowing down an obstruction-of-justice rabbit hole — thank you, Fiona Hill — a narrative too obscure for the average voter. Nadler never asked the most obvious question: “Does your report conclude that the Russians wanted Donald Trump to be elected president . . . and that they worked to achieve that goal?” The answer wouldn’t have been news to political junkies, but the headlines would have been sharper: Russians wanted Trump to win.
As he writes the articles of impeachment, Nadler will have legal scholars testify in the next round of hearings this week; I’m sure the Republican stalwarts — including, yet again, Jordan — will have lots of fun with them. The chairman might be better advised to consult his old friend, the notorious trans-party consultant, Dick Morris, who managed Nadler’s candidacy for student body president at New York’s Stuyvesant High School. Morris, who revived Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in 1996, would advise his old schoolyard client now not to be afraid to win ugly if necessary — just as he advised Clinton. Nadler should follow his own admonition against “a partisan impeachment which will tear the country apart.”
Indeed, in retrospect, one wonders whether even the law-impeded Warren Christopher would have raced the Democrats into this box canyon. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s Senate is a court of politics, far more than law. Nancy Pelosi — the best street-fighter the Democrats have — was opposed to impeachment, but Trump can drive even the sober to the sauce. He stands a chance only in a street fight; anarchy is his only tactic.
Meanwhile, the Republicans are racing toward a dead end of their own. Their tribe is dwindling, which may be why they fight so desperately — why they nominated and defend a president so indefensible, why they use Russian disinformation to smear Ukraine and potential rivals. In a democratic republic, this cannot be a winning strategy in the long run. For the moment, though, the Democrats play chess while the Republicans stage a UFC cage match, and right now the lawyers are losing.