It’s rare in politics to get a second chance, let alone a third, at making a first impression. But that is the opportunity presented to House Democrats in the week ahead, as they take their impeachment inquiry public, searching for a much sharper focus than previous oversight hearings that tended to backfire.
The House Intelligence Committee, in a pair of hearings with career diplomats, hopes to do what other panels have failed to do in their previous attempts at high-profile investigations of President Trump: deliver a dramatic rendering of the facts that is easily understood by the average voter and make clear how those actions represent abuses of power that are considered high crimes and misdemeanors.
Having learned lessons about those previous mistakes, Democrats fashioned the resolution formalizing the impeachment inquiry to address several procedural hiccups that they think will make these new hearings more dramatic. And, more broadly, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has recently begun to hold weekly huddles with the Democrats who are most often on TV news shows talking about the investigation. The purpose is to work on message and drive home the importance of keeping the focus on Trump’s actions and not getting distracted by side characters, such as the president’s personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani.
So far, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), chairman of the Intelligence Committee, has won accolades from Democrats for an approach that is getting three bites of the media apple with each witness. First, Schiff and two other committees conducting the investigations brought them behind closed doors for depositions — some portions of which got leaked. Then, over the past week, the committees publicly released the transcripts of key witnesses, confirming what had already leaked and revealing new damaging information. And now every committee member will be fully prepped for televised hearings in the weeks ahead.
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“I think the pace is good: slow enough to prepare responsibly but fast enough to stay in harmony with the public’s interest in the subject,” said Loch K. Johnson, an oversight expert who once served on the Senate’s Church Committee in the 1970s that investigated CIA abuses.
Johnson has previously urged congressional committees to slow down so that they do not miss key details. But this investigation is exploring actions taking place in almost real time regarding Trump’s summertime bid to pressure Ukraine officials into investigating his domestic political rivals while withholding nearly $400 million in security aid to the longtime U.S. ally.
These new hearings will look and feel different from other hearings, first and foremost because there are just 13 Democrats and nine Republicans on Schiff’s committee.
In recent months, the Judiciary Committee, with more than 40 members, has held the highest-profile hearings, performances that soured fellow Democrats on that panel’s ability to lead investigations into the president.
In September, Judiciary Democrats called Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s first 2016 campaign manager and still a presidential confidant, to answer questions about his role in the president’s push to get someone to fire the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, in the early days of his investigation. With so many committee members trying to rush their questions into a small time frame, Lewandowski filibustered and verbally danced around most of the hearing.
That came after the same panel’s late-July hearing with Mueller, a much-hyped affair four months after he filed his report on Russia’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 campaign to Trump’s benefit. Democrats told reporters Mueller would “bring to life” his complicated 400-plus-page report, hoping the whispers were wrong that, about to turn 75, he would not be the same witness he was last decade when he was FBI director.
Mueller’s performance was uneven. A majority of House Democrats backed moving toward impeachment proceedings on the Russia case, but Pelosi remained defiant against such a move — until the Ukraine controversy broke into the open and allowed Pelosi to push that probe into the more manageable Intelligence Committee.
Each member of that panel is handpicked by Pelosi, providing a smaller group that includes who she thinks are her sharpest Democrats.
Republicans have mocked the process as a “Soviet-style” investigation, in the words of House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (La.), because so much happened in an underground secure room in the Capitol Visitor Center. But they have also tacitly admitted that Schiff’s team has been effective by their effort to reshuffle their committee membership ahead of Wednesday’s kickoff hearing with William B. Taylor Jr., the top U.S. diplomat in Kyiv.
Rep. Devin Nunes (Calif.), in five years as the Intelligence Committee’s top Republican, has been uneven at public hearings. So GOP leaders shifted Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and his top staff onto the panel to be one of their lead questioners, because he is viewed as a more forceful interrogator of witnesses.
Democrats, however, think they have fixed a few wrinkles governing the impeachment inquiry, which they believe will mitigate any impact of Jordan’s aggressive style. First, as they reviewed the Mueller hearing, Republicans overwhelmed Democrats with a bunch of procedural complaints and demanded votes at the outset, turning the opening into a spectacle.
Now, if Nunes and Jordan try that Wednesday, those points of order will be piled up and voted on at the end of the hearing, allowing the witnesses to get started sooner.
Also, the first 90 minutes of the hearing are given over to Schiff and then Nunes, equally divided, for questions, without interruption, rather than just the five-minute rounds that other committees use. This will give Schiff time to draw out Taylor and his predecessor, Marie Yovanovitch, who was ousted from Kyiv after complaints from Trump and Giuliani.
Also, Schiff’s counsel will be allowed to ask questions at the front end of the hearing, correcting a mistake from the Lewandowski hearing, when the Judiciary counsel was allowed to ask questions only at the end. That portion of the hearing revealed new facts from Lewandowski, but because it came at the end of a marathon session, it drew little notice.
Johnson, who is now a professor emeritus at the University of Georgia’s School of Public and International Affairs, said Schiff has set up the process to lay out the case.
“The American viewing public will be left to decide on the merits of the impeachment case, filtered through media analyses and the conclusions reached by various opinion leaders — nationally, locally and within families, which is how democracy is supposed to work,” Johnson said.
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