The most important day of the impeachment inquiry

You wouldn’t know it from the commentary, but Wednesday could be the most important day of the impeachment inquiry for Democrats. The action will move to the House Judiciary Committee, which will call four constitutional experts to testify beginning at 10 a.m. EST. It might be the Democrats’ only chance to directly make the case for impeachment and removal under the rules and proceedings that they control. And it could be their final opportunity to convince a significant number of voters that President Trump’s many abuses of power should be enough to throw him out of office and that more is at stake here than standard-issue partisan wrangling.

There’s no way around it: The impeachment hearings have thus far not meaningfully changed public opinion about whether or not Trump should be impeached and removed from office. When public hearings began on Nov. 13, the Real Clear Politics average showed the public favored impeaching and removing the president by 2.8 points. Today that number is 2.5 points. It is still remarkable, of course, that nearly half the country believes the sitting president should be removed from office forthwith. Even GOP hacks are silent here because no president since Nixon has invited majority support for his removal. And it’s also important to note that most Americans, even many who oppose the Senate yanking Trump from his post, believe he did something wrong in the Ukraine imbroglio.

There are some factors in the polling stasis that were out of the hands of House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and his Democratic allies. The Republican strategy to endlessly grandstand in a parallel universe about Ukraine and the Bidens certainly paid dividends by giving the right-wing disinformation machine a long supply of clips to play on Fox News and share on Facebook. Reps. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), and Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) in particular did some of the best faking this side of an NBA player trying to draw a foul late in a game. Most normal people were working during the hearings and therefore saw only the media’s takes (or nothing at all), and half the country missed key moments that happened at 9 a.m. EST before the West Coast was even awake.

But one crucial element was missing from the first two weeks, and that was someone aside from Schiff making an extended case that the president’s voluminous misdeeds warrant impeachment. Even the best of the lot — former National Security Council adviser Fiona Hill and acting Ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor — often gave the impression that the U.S. had unwittingly enrolled in an extended foreign policy seminar. And while it is important for citizens to know that Trump’s actions undermined his own administration’s policies on Ukraine, and to understand how the extensive international relations apparatus in the executive branch is supposed to work, it would have been easy for non-experts to lose the plot and conclude that the president’s shenanigans weren’t so terrible. Are we impeaching the dude because he called Gordon Sondland on an insecure phone in Kiev? Because he didn’t want some aid money released?

That the foreign policy professionals on stage in mid-November were there to give the facts and not interpret them gave Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee license to badger them. One by one, they were all forced to admit they were “fact witnesses” and not judges or juries and that it was not up to them to decide whether the president should be impeached. It didn’t help that the disjointed nature of the proceedings often allowed Republicans to leave zany claims lying on the table like graphite from an exploded nuclear reactor, and that Democrats frequently refused to respond to GOP haranguing and conspiracy-mongering, instead plowing right into their allotted question time like nothing at all had just transpired. Improvise, people!

The amazing thing is that public opinion has remained static even though the president’s allies in the House offered only the most tepid affirmative defense of his conduct. By trying to legitimize hallucinatory conspiracy theories about Ukraine’s fictitious 2016 election interference and to give credence to unsubstantiated theories about Hunter Biden’s time on the board of Ukrainian energy firm Burisma, Republicans admitted that Trump wanted these issues investigated. They offered no plausible explanation for why nearly $400 million in military aid was put on hold at the same time that the president was proposing his little extortion racket over the phone, or why the president’s febrile Giuliani-led Scheme Team was trying to strong-arm Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into making announcements about the investigations on CNN before Trump would agree to a White House visit.

It was all lies and yelling and indignation, the hallmark strategy of the Trump era. When you’re caught dead to rights, scream louder and lie harder. Deny but also make excuses. Turn the victimizers into the victimized.

Democrats have one last chance to cut through this noise before they vote on articles of impeachment. That’s where the experts come in. Noah Feldman, Pamela Karlan, Michael Gerhardt, and Jonathan Turley are all professors and experts on constitutional law, and their task will be straightforward. They will hold up the president’s extortion and bribery scheme — again, a narrative barely contested at all by leading Republicans — against the plain language of the Constitution. They will discuss what the architects of our founding document had in mind when they envisioned Congress invoking its powers of impeachment and removal, as well as what they saw as impeachable crimes. Expect an extended discussion about the meaning of “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) appears to have made a concession to GOP members by calling Turley, a critic of the process who has accused Democrats of compiling “the thinnest evidentiary record” in favor of impeachment and argued that it “seems designed to fail in the Senate.” While Turley has said the president’s conduct is “contemptible,” it does not sound like he will argue in favor of impeachment and removal from office. Feldman, Karlan, and Gerhardt, on the other hand, are all likely to be friendly witnesses for Democrats. Hopefully they have been chosen for their ability to calmly and convincingly present facts and evidence. Not to put any pressure on them or anything, but it could be up to these scholars to turn enough voters against the president and put enough pressure on Republicans to at least consider removal in the Senate trial.

If, on the other hand, public opinion remains unchanged through the new year, President Trump is likely to survive this ordeal and live to face his Democratic challenger in November.

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