It’s too early to judge the impeachment hearings based on the first day of testimony. A few things seem pretty obvious. The witnesses were exemplary in their professionalism and their commitment to the facts. The Democrats, led by Adam Schiff, were extremely judicious in their use of the hearings to “lay the foundations” — “brick by brick,” the commentators say — of a case for Trump’s impeachment based on his effort to extort the Ukrainian government. And the Republicans, led by Devin Nunes and Special Guest Star Jim Jordan, were vicious, unprincipled, and mainly stupid.
The lowest point of the Republican questioning came when efforts were made, by Jordan and others, to suggest that Trump’s insistence on Ukrainian investigations into Biden, Bursima, and Crowd Strike was based on his deep and sincere commitment to fighting corruption in a corrupt country.
This suggestion is risible. And yet it is unfortunate that the best that the Democrats could do to challenge this suggestion was to repeatedly point out that while Trump mentioned the Bidens and Bursima in his phone call with Zelesnky, he never mentioned “corruption.” That is true and significant, especially in a narrow legal sense. But staying at this level represented an enormous lost opportunity.
For at the very moment that these proceedings were taking place, Trump was holding a joint press conference with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the corrupt dictator of Turkey who is one of Trump’s favorite people, in the White House.
Turkey ranks between 70th and 80th on Transparency International’s corruption ranking of 180 countries. As one Turkish commentary put it in 2018, summing up recent Transparency reports: “Turkey corruption worsening for years — Transparency.” According to GAN, a corporate risk and corruption analyst:
Corruption is widespread in Turkey’s public and private sectors. Public procurement and construction projects are particularly prone to corruption, and bribes are often demanded. Turkey’s Criminal Code criminalizes various forms of corrupt activity, including active and passive bribery, attempted corruption, extortion, bribing a foreign official, money laundering, and abuse of office. Anti-corruption laws are inconsistently enforced, and anti-corruption authorities are ineffective. Punishment for bribery may include imprisonment of up to 12 years, and companies may face seizure of assets and revocation of state-issued operating licenses. Companies should note that despite facilitation payments and gifts being illegal, they are frequently encountered.
Indeed, and just yesterday, the New York Times ran an important story on the close personal and business ties between Trump, Jared Kushner, and members of Erdogan’s family: “Behind Trump’s Dealings With Turkey: Sons-in-Law Married to Power:Informal relationships between family members help explain the course of diplomacy between the White House and Turkey’s leader.”
The discrepancy between Trump’s extortion of Ukraine (a transitioning democracy) and his feting of Mr. and Mrs. Erdogan (corrupt autocrats if ever there were any) in the White House could not be more glaring.
That Trump does this is a sign of his cynical contempt for truthfulness and democracy. That his House Republican hatchet-men offer crocodile tears about Trump’s altruism at the very moment he is celebrating a corrupt autocrat is a sign of their cynical contempt for truthfulness and democracy.
And was this even noted by a single House Democrat during the day-long hearings? Not as far as I could tell.
At one point, a Democrat was asking George Kent general questions about what a “real” commitment to anti-corruption would entail. It would have been the perfect moment to point out the discrepancy, or to ask some questions about Transparency International that easily could have segued into a long list of the very corrupt countries that Trump loves to do business with — corrupt political business and corrupt personal business. But nothing was said.
I understand the importance of “decorum.” So do Republicans — who understand very well how disrupting “decorum” can mobilize their base. But it would have been possible to expose the rank Republican hypocrisies in a way that was both decorous and vivid and powerful. Such exposure might be irrelevant to “laying the foundations of the impeachment case.” But it is essential to the public politics of the impeachment process.
If the Democrats are going to succeed politically, that is.
For this to happen, the Democrats must fully reckon with the fact that their audience is not Republican legislators, the Trump base, MSNBC viewers, or college professors. It is the broad swath of the American public whose mobilization alone can help to bring down the dictator who has put the republic at risk.
Jeffrey C. Isaac is the James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington