Friday, November 08, 2019

This Week in Impeachment: The End of the Beginning and the Beginning of the End

This week was the quietest, politically speaking, since Nancy Pelosi's announcement on September 24 that the House of Representatives was moving toward impeachment of the president. The most notable development was Adam Schiff's disclosure on Wednesday that the House was moving from private interviews to public hearings beginning next week, scheduling American ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor and former ambassador Marie Yovanovitch to testify in open session.

This announcement signals that the fact-finding component of the House investigation is mostly completed. Taylor and Yovanovitch have already met with the committees leading the inquiry in closed session, and these depositions were recently released to the public. Their repeat appearances next week in the presence of reporters and television cameras will generate media publicity, but the public hearings attended by witnesses who already met with the committees are unlikely to uncover any major new facts that were not already brought to light by the skilled professional staff who led the questioning in private. There are other figures who might have further information about the Ukraine matter who are ignoring House subpoenas to testify, from John Bolton to Mick Mulvaney, but Pelosi and Schiff seem to have decided that they are unwilling to wait for the federal judiciary to sort out the validity of these refusals before proceeding.

It may seem premature for the House to already move into the next phase of the impeachment process. But despite the charged partisan conflict over impeachment, most of the factual record upon which it is based is not really in serious dispute. Democrats seem convinced that they've already seen enough to impeach the president. Republicans continue to oppose impeachment, but the defense is starting to shift under the weight of the evidence already presented from a blanket denial that there was a quid pro quo with the Ukrainian government to a position that said quid pro quo was either an acceptable and unremarkable tool of American foreign policy, or that it was possibly troubling but not an impeachment-level offense. The Washington Post reported on Thursday that some congressional Republicans may attempt to defend Trump from impeachment by acknowledging that improper acts occurred, but that they were committed by underlings without the president's direction or knowledge.

The impeachment process may not have yet reached its halfway point in terms of the congressional calendar; especially given the upcoming holiday recesses, it's tough to see how it won't spill over into 2020 if the Senate has to conduct a trial. But the broad political outlines have become clear. Except for a handful of scattered critics, Republicans remain publicly loyal to the president (even if they are frequently critical, even furious, when off the record). Democratic support for impeachment appears at least equally solid; nothing in the results of Tuesday's off-year elections will cause Democratic leaders to worry about an emerging popular backlash. The upcoming public hearings and debates will be full of partisan fireworks, but few minds are likely to change from now on unless a new bombshell revelation appears from an unexpected source. It seems that we've already reached the end of the beginning—and the beginning of the end.