On the substance, Democrats have won the first two weeks of the impeachment hearings by TKO.
Not that it’s required much exertion. The facts have been in their favor, especially considering the ground that congressional Republicans have tried to defend.
At the outset, Republicans created an impossible standard for themselves. Taking their cues from President Donald Trump, they chose to defend the idea that his call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy was “perfect,” and that there was “no quid pro quo,” when the record simply wouldn’t support it. This was obvious enough about the call from the very beginning, and became clear about the pressure campaign on the Ukrainians by the time the opening statement of acting ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor’s deposition was released.
The contention that the Zelenskiy call was the Platonic ideal of a communication with a foreign leader opened the way for Democrats to make a big deal of witnesses alarmed or unsettled by the conversation. Thus the brief star turn of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman to come and tell the committee that the call was “inappropriate.”
There really should be no debate about this characterization, except Republicans decided to try to have one.
Some kind of quid pro quo is at least loosely implied in the call, and evidence has been piling up for one since, both around a possible White House visit for Zelenskiy and the withheld security aid to Ukraine. Again, though, since Republicans have been so adamant in holding to a “no quid pro quo” line, they’ve elevated the importance of predictable testimony that there indeed was one.
A characteristic feature of these impeachment hearings is the “known bombshell,” when a witness says something everyone knows is true — for example, ambassador to the E.U. Gordon Sondland testifying Wednesday that the White House visit was being dangled to pressure the Ukrainians on investigations — and it plays like a game-changing revelation.
Republicans will now begin to emphasize that none of the witnesses so far has direct knowledge of Trump’s directives on Ukraine, and that even Sondland says the president formally denied a quid pro quo in a phone conversation (albeit late in the game, and at the same time as he said he wanted President Zelenskiy to do the right thing).
This does get to a weakness in the Democratic case, and a reason impeachment may well end up a bust despite the past two weeks.
Why should they be content to hear from the current batch of witnesses, people who were, mostly, out of the loop, rather than getting testimony from the true insiders? If they wanted to lock down their case, this wouldn’t be a close call. They’d take the time to fight to get the testimony of Rudy Giuliani, Mick Mulvaney and Mike Pompeo, among others.
Democrats are hesitant to do this for a simple reason — they want to get the articles of impeachment out of the House in time to not run into their own presidential nominating process. By the Iowa caucuses in February, we are in the election season in earnest, and it will seem particularly bizarre to try to remove the president on the cusp of his re-election campaign.
The gravity of impeachment is getting the hearings lots of attention, but it ultimately could be an anchor around the entire effort. If Democrats were only trying to get to the bottom of the Ukraine controversy and exact a political price in the form of exposure and damaging revelations, they’d have a slam dunk. Instead, they are trying to build a case for impeachment and removal — a very high bar requiring a national consensus to succeed — atop an episode that at the end of the day didn’t keep defense funding from Ukraine or result in any investigations or even statements about investigations.
This is firmer ground for Republicans to fight on, and they are beginning to retreat to it — after exhausting the alternatives.
Rich Lowry is editor of National Review, a leading conservative magazine founded by William F. Buckley.