The hearing before the House Intelligence Committee was a rigorous civics lesson, a reminder that the United States employs battalions of envoys who live for long stretches in often unfriendly countries, representing the interests of the place they call home.
It was a stage for fiery courtroom rhetoric, with the chief Republican defender of the president, Rep. Devin Nunes (Calif.), trashing the proceedings as an “impeachment sham . . . a televised, theatrical performance staged by the Democrats.”
And it was a made-for-TV forum for fresh revelations, as one of the first witnesses, the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, testified that a member of his staff heard Trump ask about “the investigations” he had urged Ukraine to launch into former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter.
The first public step in an impeachment process that seems likely to flow well into the new year and the 2020 presidential primary season took place with Trump down the street in the Oval Office, where, he said later in the day, “I haven’t watched for one minute.”
Even as the hearing’s spotlight stayed fixed on Trump — his phone calls, his policy shifts, his quest to find usable dirt about a leading Democratic rival — the possible removal of the president seemed to lack the potency and gravity of previous impeachments.
Committee members largely steered clear of the kind of dark oratory that launched impeachment debates in 1973 and 1998, when the possible removal of Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton occasioned speeches about the country’s perilous politics and damaged psyche.
Trump’s remarkable ability to skate through crises that wreck other people’s lives — bankruptcies of his businesses, abandoned projects, divorces and accusations of sexual misbehavior — seemed again to be at work.
The president’s defenders in politics and the media projected a determined “nothing to see here” vibe.
“Welcome to Year Four of the Trump impeachment,” said Rep. Chris Stewart (Utah), one of several Republicans who dismissed the inquiry as a partisan witch hunt.
Breitbart News, a dependably pro-Trump site, dubbed the proceedings “boring,” the same term that White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham deployed. She tweeted that “this sham hearing is not only boring, it is a colossal waste of taxpayer time & money.”
Nunes characterized Trump’s July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky — the spark that lit the impeachment fire — as “a pleasant exchange between two leaders who discuss mutual cooperation over a range of issues.”
Trump took his version of the high road, saying at a news conference with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that “I hear it’s a joke . . . I’d much rather focus on peace in the Middle East.”
Although the hearing’s witnesses and questioners all collect paychecks that say “United States of America” at the top, it seemed at times as if they worked in different industries. During 5 ½ hours of testimony, the diplomats offered a rolling civics lesson on why an obscure country on the other side of the world matters to Americans.
“Ukraine is important for our national security and we should support it — not to provide that would be folly,” said acting ambassador William B. Taylor Jr., who, the nation learned, was No. 5 in his class at West Point.
By contrast, the Republican questioners deployed the president’s brand of sensational rhetoric, speaking of “shams” and “star chambers” and “the corrupt media.”
The stylistic contrast between witnesses and questioners spoke volumes about the changes Trump has brought to Washington. The president promised to disrupt American government just as he had American politics, and here were woolly men with many decades of diplomatic experience talking about policy and principle in long, elegant sentences, explaining how Ukraine fits in with nearly 250 years of American cooperation with foreign allies.
“Support of Ukraine’s success . . . fits squarely into our strategy for central and Eastern Europe since the fall of the Wall 30 years ago this past week,” said Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent.
The contrast could be characterized as serious policy discussion vs. lurid tabloid talk — or “deep state” defensiveness vs. plainspeaking. Which lens voters choose may guide their decision about whom to vote for next year as president.
Public opinion hasn’t settled into any consensus about whether Trump’s call with his Ukrainian counterpart was a big deal. When a CBS News poll asked Americans this month whether Trump’s dealings with Ukraine were typical of how presidents work with foreign countries, 42 percent said Trump’s acts were “the kind of thing most presidents probably do,” while 58 percent said he acted in a way that “few or no other presidents have.”
While in Washington impeachment groupies held viewing parties and wore their “Schiff Happens” T-shirts, much of the rest of the nation seemed to be mulling whether sneaking peeks at the doings in a Capitol Hill hearing room was essential to their lives.
On Google, searches for “impeachment” topped the trending charts for much of the day, but the volume didn’t come close to the previous day’s leader: a nationwide quest for information regarding Sonic the Hedgehog, the video game character that is getting its own adventure movie next year.
When Nixon and Clinton faced impeachment debates, the investigations into their behavior played a vital role in shifting or solidifying public opinion.
Many voters were unmoved by the Watergate scandal until a parade of witnesses laid out in numbing detail the sordid and cynical schemes cooked up by Nixon and his aides. Just before the hearings began, first lady Pat Nixon said she still had “complete faith that everything’s going to be all right.”
Even as the Senate select committee on Watergate launched its hearings, it was not clear where the proceedings were heading. “If you like to watch grass grow, you would have loved the opening yesterday,” The Washington Post’s Jules Witcover wrote on Page One of this newspaper on May 18, 1973.
But the first day of hearings convinced some that an endgame was in sight. The Post’s Sally Quinn wrote that “it seemed more like a public hanging.” Spectators in the hearing room traded examples of the gallows humor that already surrounded Nixon: “Did you hear the new song, ‘Bail to the Chief?’ ”
During the Clinton impeachment, there were no public committee hearings. But the full House began considering the matter in December 1998 amid a flurry of revelations about extramarital affairs among members of Congress — so many that quipsters talked about creating a congressional Adulterers Caucus.
That debate took place as much of the country’s attention was focused on Operation Desert Fox, the four-day bombing of Iraq. Neon-green night photography of falling bombs dominated home TV screens. By the time the House voted to impeach Clinton, a huge majority of Americans had concluded that however sordid the president’s behavior had been, the case was about his personal shortcomings, not his management of U.S. policy.
In both the Nixon and Clinton cases, the nation was working through cultural divisions that first emerged in the 1960s as American society cleaved over basic questions: Who counts as an American? What’s right in love and sex? What authorities deserve trust in a fast-changing world?
“The effort to exorcise the demons of the 1960s has been going on for 30 years,” the historian Jackson Lears said in 1998. “The impeachment is the latest act of the psychodrama.”
Two more decades into the American story, there’s little sign that the exorcism has been completed. The battles continue about power and sex and identity and whose values shall govern.
In the impeachment saga of 2019 and the election faceoff of 2020, the issues that lie at the root of American division have shifted somewhat — the nature of truth and the future of work have joined the mix — but the essential questions remain.
As does the divide: Not one Republican entertained a whisper of a doubt about the behavior of the president on Wednesday. And not one Democrat signaled that Trump’s actions had been anything other than an unacceptable breach of trust.
One day more before the storm, the barometer remained stuck.