“Our previous witnesses had very little new, very little new information to share in these hearings,” Rep. Devin Nunes (Calif.), the committee’s ranking Republican, said at the start of Tuesday afternoon’s hearing — the fourth in the process. “That’s because these hearings are not designed to uncover new information. They’re meant to showcase a handpicked group of witnesses who the Democrats determined through their secret audition process will provide testimony most ... conducive to their accusations.”
As it turns out, though, what those tuning in to the morning’s hearing were most likely to see wasn’t testimony damaging to the president. Instead, it was Democratic members of the committee or the Democrats’ counsel opining on the events related to Ukraine or asking lengthy questions that were answered with a simple “yes.”
We took C-SPAN’s closed captioning of the hearing and segmented each exchange by who was asking questions and who was responding. In total, committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) spoke for more than half an hour, including lengthy introductory and closing statements. The total time that the witnesses — Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and Jennifer Williams — spent answering Democrats’ queries was about a minute longer than Schiff’s comments and questions.
The witnesses spent about 10 more minutes answering Democratic questions than Republican ones, in large part because more Democratic members asked questions.
That’s visible when looking at the flow of the hearing. Moving down each column and from left to right, the pattern is clear: opening statements, questions from Schiff and the Democratic counsel, questions from Nunes and the Republican counsel, a break, and then alternating questions from sitting members.
At times, the members engaged in extended speeches of their own, squeezing as much rhetoric as they could into their allotted five-minute blocks. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), shifted onto the committee specifically so he could help lead the questioning, was a frequent questioner, using up 10 minutes alone.
His last interaction with the witnesses was an extended riff attempting to link the impeachment probe to the broader anti-Trump conspiracy theory that’s popular in conservative media. It was longer, in fact, than Nunes’s closing statement.
“For 10 months, Jim Comey’s FBI investigated the president,” Jordan said. “Guess what? After 10 months, they had nothing. And you know why we know that? Because when we deposed Mr. Comey last Congress, he told us they didn’t have a thing. No matter. Special counsel Mueller gets appointed, and they do a two-year, $40 million, 19-lawyer, unbelievable investigation. And guess what? They come back and they got nothing. But the Democrats don’t care.”
That’s not quite accurate. Democrats cared very much about the results of the probe conducted by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, which they would probably point out did not result in “nothing.” It obtained dozens of indictments, resulted in a number of officials tied to Trump’s campaign being convicted in court and outlined ways that Trump attempted to stand in the way of the probe. Jordan and other Trump allies insist that Mueller didn’t find anything in part because they dismiss what was found and in part because it reinforces the narrative that Democrats are unfairly targeting the president.
The Democrats clearly learned a lesson from the Mueller probe. They had little choice but to turn that process over to Mueller, given the rules defining the appointment of the special counsel. The Trump administration, particularly Attorney General William P. Barr, was able to shape the public’s understanding of what Mueller found, and Mueller, when he testified in July, turned out to be a less-than-compelling witness.
All of which helps explain why the Democrats are conducting the impeachment inquiry the way they are. It explains why they are eating up more time than the Republicans, outlining the case on their own terms, under Schiff’s guidance. No Democrat is likely to object to having most of the airtime during the hearings occupied by their own side’s questions and witness responses.
It also helps explain why Republicans are lashing out at the process.