Thursday, November 21, 2019

This Week in Impeachment: The Most Important Republican on the House Intelligence Committee Speaks

There are nine Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee, but only three of them have received extensive media attention during the public hearing phase of the committee's impeachment inquiry. The first is Devin Nunes, the ranking member and former chairman, who has led the Republican questioning of witnesses and complaints about the process. The second is Jim Jordan, temporarily added to the committee for the hearings, who has specialized in boisterous defenses of the president. And the third is Elise Stefanik, who attracted notice for claiming that she had been "silenced" by Adam Schiff for talking out of turn last week—an incident that both Stefanik and her Democratic opponent in next year's election immediately mined for fundraising success.

Yet the most important Republican participant wasn't any of these more visible, publicity-seeking members. Rep. Will Hurd of Texas conducted himself in a soft-spoken manner during the hearings and mostly avoided making extensive comments to the media. But because Hurd is himself a former intelligence officer, represents a normally Democratic-leaning district, has been critical of Trump in the past, and is retiring from Congress next year, he was always the most plausible candidate on the Republican side to endorse the position that the president may have committed an impeachable offense—and thus to lend an element of bipartisan support to the process as it proceeds.

At the conclusion of today's hearing, however, Hurd made it clear that he will not be voting to impeach Trump. He expressed dissatisfaction with the president's handling of Ukraine, but framed it as a case of "bumbling" rather than more serious impropriety and joined in his Republican colleagues' criticisms of the Democrat-led inquiry process. If Democrats can't succeed in winning Hurd's vote, it seems likely that the entire House GOP will remain united in opposition to future articles of impeachment.

Most mainstream media coverage has portrayed the past two weeks of hearings as very damaging for Trump and vindicating for his Democratic critics. Witnesses like Bill Taylor, Alexander Vindman, Marie Yovanovitch, and Fiona Hill have been treated as highly impressive and credible figures, and the evidence that they have laid out seems, to many journalists, to be both convincing and damning. House Republicans' inability to settle on a single line of defense, and their occasional lack of interest in even questioning witnesses, were also interpreted by media observers as signals that the facts are not on the side of the president.

But public opinion on impeachment has not moved beyond a near-even split between supporters and opponents, and, as Jonathan Bernstein notes, the procedural terrain for Democrats becomes less and less friendly from this point forward. The upcoming debate over articles of impeachment will undoubtedly become a highly partisan food fight both in the House Judiciary Committee and on the floor. Any Senate trial will be organized by the Republican leadership to include an aggressive focus on Joe Biden and his son while intentionally inconveniencing several of Biden's main Democratic rivals, who as sitting senators will be forced to choose to be absent either from the proceedings or from the campaign trail.

In many ways, the Ukraine affair is shaping up to follow the same pattern as innumerable other incidents over the past several years: an explosive, even unprecedented set of events and factual disclosures that yet change few minds on either side of a solidifying partisan divide. Some critics have suggested that Democrats are making a mistake by moving so quickly toward impeachment. But it seems clear that, whatever other benefits might have been gained from a slower process, a spontaneous emergence of bipartisanship would not have been among them. If Will Hurd isn't even wavering after the past two weeks of testimony, how many Republicans would ever have jumped?