Thursday, October 24, 2019

This Week in Impeachment: Republicans Want to Make Impeachment About Schiff, Not Trump

As it enters its second month, the impeachment inquiry is starting to strain the internal cohesion of the Republican Party. Damaging revelations about the Ukraine affair continued to trickle out this week from media reports and the House investigation, making congressional Republicans increasingly reluctant to defend the president's behavior on the merits.

On Tuesday, a reporter asked Mitch McConnell about Donald Trump's claim that McConnell had privately agreed that Trump's July 25 phone call with the Ukrainian president was "perfect." McConnell responded by denying any memory of his supposed praise of the president and notably passed on the opportunity provided by the question to confirm that he indeed approved of Trump's handling of the Ukraine issue. Public silence, often justified by claimed ignorance of the latest disclosures, has become Republican politicians' favored response to recent developments; as one reporter wryly remarked on Wednesday, "Once again a surprising number of Republicans are unfamiliar with the biggest story in DC." Many senators, perhaps with some relief, have fallen back on the excuse that, as potential "jurors" in an impeachment trial, it would be inappropriate for them to comment on the emerging factual record.

The Trump team has noticed. "Republicans have to get tougher and fight," Trump complained during his televised Cabinet meeting on Monday. The following day, Donald Trump Jr. criticized Lindsey Graham on Twitter for being insufficently visible in support of the president. A Daily Beast article published Tuesday night described a presidential administration and congressional party that had grown annoyed at each other, with a Senate aide suggesting that there was "very little appetite" among Republican senators for "defending the indefensible." The lack of a "war room" inside the White House for developing and disseminating a common set of talking points continues to frustrate many Republicans on the Hill; ex-John Boehner spokesman Michael Steel told the Washington Post that "in this situation, when only the president and his personal attorney seem to have all the facts, it's hard to have a coordinated defense."

But there are plenty of arguments against Trump's impeachment already in circulation; the president's own Twitter feed is an especially fertile source. The problem is that many congressional Republicans aren't comfortable staking their own credibility on any factual claim made by Trump, or committing to a specific line of defense that may later be abandoned without warning. When Republicans push for a counter-impeachment war room in the White House, they're really asking for a professional political shop in which strategy and communications are overseen by someone whom they trust to recognize their own political interest—in other words, someone other than the president.

Unsurprisingly, Republicans would rather discuss the behavior of the Democratic opposition. On Wednesday, a bloc of House conservatives led by Matt Gaetz of Florida disrupted the closed-door witness interviews organized by Democratic commitee chairs by crashing one of the meetings and occupying the hearing room for about five hours. This protest proceeded with the apparent approval of the president and the House Republican leadership; minority whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana was one of the participants. The following day, McConnell and Graham introduced a resolution co-sponsored by most Republican senators accusing House Democrats of violating Trump's due process rights and granting House Republicans insufficient procedural privileges.

Shifting the subject of debate from Donald Trump to Adam Schiff solves some problems for Republicans. Rather than struggling to justify Trump's Ukraine policy or to explain away the well-documented concerns of credible witnesses like Fiona Hill and Bill Taylor, Republican members can return to the safer ground of partisan grievance. It also promotes party unity: Republicans may differ considerably among themselves over what they think of Trump, but none of them is predisposed to sympathize with Schiff. And it's simply more fun to be on offense than on defense, to be firing charges at others rather than trying to swat them away.

Yet there are costs as well. Some of the most common current complaints about the Democrats' handling of impeachment might become moot as events move along. The two major lines of attack at the moment are that access to witness depositions is restricted to the membership of the relevant House committees and that the House has not voted to authorize an impeachment inquiry. But today's private sessions will be succeeded by tomorrow's public hearings, and the House may well vote eventually to formalize the inquiry. By the time that House members actually consider articles of impeachment weeks or months from now, these objections will have lost much of their potency.

And when Republicans focus their energies on making the procedural case against Schiff, they risk failing to invest in disputing the substantive case against Trump—which potentially surrenders a lot of valuable ground to the pro-impeachment side. As one Republican source told CNN, "We can't defend the substance [so] all we do is talk about process." But Americans usually don’t care much about process disputes, whatever the merits of these disputes might be. Trump is right to worry that if many of his fellow Republicans are unwilling to confidently assure the public of his innocence, the public may draw the natural conclusion that he must have done something seriously wrong.