The lede of last Wednesday’s New York Times report on Trump’s Ukraine scandal says it all: “A former top White House foreign policy adviser told House impeachment investigators this week that she viewed Gordon D. Sondland, the United States ambassador to the European Union, as a potential national security risk because he was so unprepared for his job, according to two people familiar with her private testimony.”
The story reports on the information shared with the House Intelligence Committee by Fiona Hill. But why did the New York Times not question the fact that Hill was testifying in private?
Hill is only the most recent current or former national security official to be deposed by the House Intelligence Committee about this latest, and perhaps most devastating, Trump scandal. Others include Michael Atkinson, Inspector General of the Intelligence Community; former special envoy to Ukraine, Kurt Volker; former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, the career foreign service officer summarily fired by Trump at Rudy Giuliani’s urging; Michael McKinley, a career foreign service officer who had served as Mike Pompeo’s assistant; George Kent, a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State; and Sondland himself.
All of these individuals have presented damning evidence of Trump’s impeachable offenses. And all of them have done so behind closed doors.
Now, each of these individuals may well have furnished House members with classified information that required a closed hearing. But each of them also provided general testimony of the kind that could just as easily have been offered in public.
I understand why the witnesses are being questioned by trained Congressional litigators rather than by grandstanding and inept legislators each looking for their five minutes of televised fame. And I understand why it is important to depose witnesses before letting them grandstand in public.
But can’t at least some of this testimony be presented in public, before television cameras, so that the testimony of witnesses can be seen, heard, and experienced by citizens via the media? So that their words can speak for themselves, in ways that are hard for Trump administration and Fox propagandists to deny? Let’s face it: most people will never read transcripts, whether they are redacted or not, and whether they are released within days or weeks. But this isn’t about who does, or does not, read. It’s about the appearance, in public, of the witness and the evidence.
I understand that the House committee and its staff are interested in establishing firm documentary evidence of Constitutionally-defined “high crimes and misdemeanors.” (At least the Democrats are; the Republicans are interested in obstruction, now and forever.) They are proceeding in a careful and deliberate manner in anticipation of a filing of impeachment charges.
But this is not a civil or criminal proceeding. It is a constitutional and thus a political process. It needs to be treated like one.
Thinking about it politically leads us to two clear observations.
While a formal House impeachment seems increasingly likely, it remains extremely unlikely that the 67 votes required for a Senate conviction can be mustered against Trump. And while Mitch McConnell has started talking about the possibility of a month-long Senate trial, nothing McConnell says can be trusted. If Senate Republicans can rig the trial proceeding to the benefit of Trump, or attenuate the presentation of evidence, they will do so. This means that Democrats can count only on House-run proceedings to effectively make the case for Trump’s assault on the Constitution.
Second: precisely because it is not likely that an impeachment will result in a conviction, the most important function of everything going on now—the “inquiry,” and whatever more formal impeachment processes follow it–is public and political. It is about exposing the wrongdoing of Trump, his family and his other enablers, in all of its depth and breadth. It is about exposing the hypocrisy of the Republicans for enabling and excusing Trump’s wrongdoing. In this way, it is about making the public case for the need for a change, almost certainly through the ballot box.
For these reasons, it is not sufficient for witnesses to be deposed in private so that their testimony, presented selectively and through op-ed columns, can furnish the basis of a legally proper filing. This is not the Mueller investigation—and House Democrats should not allow it to be obstructed and then publicly diminished in the way the Mueller investigation was.
What is necessary to making the case against Trump in a way that is politically meaningful, and gives citizens an honest choice, is effective public exposure now. At the very least, the witness opening statements, which are now being made available to the public in written form, should be presented in public by the flesh and blood human beings willing to testify in defiance of the administration, so they that they can be seen and heard by all Americans.
But there is more. It is now well understood that our politics occur in an arena where both mass media and social media play crucial roles. Were this not the case, Trump would not be president. Trump is a master of media manipulation, and with the bully pulpit at his disposal, his media skills present a grave danger to us all. Even though his team seems to be faltering, he remains dangerous. Cornered, he may be more dangerous than ever.
This means that it is essential for the Democratic leadership not simply to make sure that there is public testimony now, but that this public testimony and exposure is amplified and disseminated and framed in the most powerful ways possible. Live television coverage is thus important. But it could also involve short, daily briefings by Adam Schiff, where he points to a witness quotation or even plays a short clip of testimony, and then concisely explains its significance, in simple bullet points rather than in expert legalistic fashion. It could involve well-produced ads by liberal Hollywood stars or athletes who are widely respected across the Red/Blue divide—Beyoncé, Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Bruce Springsteen, Lebron James, Steph Curry, J-Lo, Taylor Swift, Cardi B, Hank Aaron, Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, you get the point—making very simple statements, quoting some damning testimony, and saying something simple, like “whatever our political party, we are all Americans, and we should all care about the Constitution, and we should all be worried about the ways the Trump administration threatens our Constitution. That’s why I support this impeachment inquiry.”
Random press briefings by Nancy Pelosi do not constitute a sophisticated media strategy, and
elevating the Democrats’ media game will become even more important when the impeachment moves from the deposition stage to actual public impeachment hearings. We can only hope that major figures associated with the Trump administration will be called to testify: disaffected former officials such as Dan Coats, Jim Mattis, John Bolton, and perhaps even Rex Tillerson, and members of Trump’s current criminal inner circle, such as Mike Pence, Mike Pompeo, Mick Mulvaney, and William Barr.
As much genuine information as possible, about Trump malfeasance needs to obtained by all relevant witnesses, and these witnesses must go on the record publicly, in front of the American people. Once they are on the record, their testimony needs to framed and publicized as effectively as possible.
At that point the evidence will be crystal clear for all who are willing to consider it, and even for many who would prefer not to consider it. The path will be cleared, by legitimate constitutional means, for a powerful Democratic campaign to win at the ballot box in November 2020.
And nothing is politically more important than that.
Jeffrey C. Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. He is a Senior Editor at Public Seminar.