Sunday, November 17, 2019

This Week in Impeachment: Why Can't Republicans Agree on What Happened with Ukraine?

According to a durable truism of American politics, Republicans find it much easier than Democrats to unite around a single political message. Not all nuggets of conventional wisdom are reliably accurate, but this one has substantial truth behind it: the collective self-definition of the Republican Party as the agent of an ideological movement makes it easier for Republicans to employ a common set of rhetorical themes, while the more coalitional Democrats are routinely speaking to multiple audiences at once. As one satirical headline from The Onion put it, "Democrats Unveil 324 Million New Slogans to Appeal to Each U.S. Resident Individually."

When it comes to the current impeachment inquiry, however, it's the Democrats who are collectively presenting a single theory of the case and the Republicans who are trying, so far unsuccessfully, to find consensus on an alternative argument. The events of this week illustrate the extent of this challenge, and the main sources from which Republican difficulties spring.

Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee came to Friday's public testimony of former ambassador Marie Yovanovitch with a clear message for the day's session: that Adam Schiff was a liar running an unfairly partisan inquiry. To this end, they took turns reading into the record previous public statements by Schiff that he would seek testimony from the whistleblower whose actions alerted Congress to the Ukraine affair. (Democrats have been abandoning these promises lately as they have found other witnesses willing to corroborate many of the claims in the whistleblower's original complaint.) Republicans also executed a procedural set piece—one of those almost-clever public stunts of which both parties are excessively fond when relegated to the minority—in which Rep. Elise Stefanik began speaking out of order, provoking Schiff to interrupt and deny her recognition; Stefanik and her colleagues then claimed that Schiff was abusing his authority in order to silence the only Republican woman on the committee.

The assumption behind this particular exercise was that Yovanovitch's testimony would not in itself be deemed particularly newsworthy by the press (she had no direct contact with the president, and her deposition in closed session had already been released), leaving partisan sparks on the committee to represent reporters' biggest takeaway from the day's proceedings. But President Trump foiled this strategy almost immediately by launching personal Twitter attacks on Yovanovitch that were soon echoed by his son Donald Trump Jr., stepping all over congressional Republicans' decision to treat her as a well-meaning but ephemeral public servant who was being misused by the real villains, the Democrats. Once Schiff read the president's words to Yovanovitch and invited her to reply, it was clear what the day's biggest media story would be. Republicans, normally reluctant to criticize Trump in public, didn't bother in this case to hide their frustration with his behavior.

Is impeachment a partisan witch hunt using career bureaucrats as dupes, or is it a deep state conspiracy in which they too are implicated? Is Ukraine a loyal ally deserving of the American military assistance that the Trump administration ultimately authorized in September, or did it treacherously intervene in the 2016 election on behalf of Hillary Clinton? Did the temporary withholding of aid have nothing whatsoever to do with Joe and Hunter Biden, or was it a proper point of leverage to force Ukraine to crack down on the kind of corruption that the Bidens supposedly personify? Were Rudy Giuliani and Gordon Sondland freelancing without Trump's knowledge or approval, or were they carrying out a plan masterminded by the president? Are the executive's constitutional powers so vast in the realm of foreign policy that no presidential act involving another nation could possibly be an impeachable offense?

It's increasingly clear that there is no common set of answers to these questions that both the White House and the congressional GOP can agree on—and stick to. Part of the problem is that Trump is willing to give up a lot of valuable factual ground as long as the normative defense of his actions remains absolute: celebrate him for committing murder and he'll thank you, but woe to the person who mildly criticizes him for jaywalking. Trump's inability to identify strategically counterproductive arguments on his own behalf has already caused him damage on the Ukraine affair. After all, the precipitating event that gave House Democrats a numerical majority supporting the pursuit of impeachment was Trump freely acknowledging to reporters that he had mentioned the Bidens in his July phone call with the Ukranian president.

Republicans' inability to settle on a single overaching defense that fits the uncontested facts of the case isn't likely to shake the loyalties of Trump supporters in the conservative media universe and the mass electorate. But it still makes a difference. Attentive elites in government and in the mainstream media are paying close attention to the impeachment process, and are sensitive to the quality of evidence and debate on both sides. So far, the prevailing view holds that Trump was, at least, up to something fishy with respect to Ukraine that justifies serious congressional examination. This judgment has noticeably colored press coverage and commentary; several journalists opined that the past week was one of the worst of Trump's entire presidency in part because of the effectiveness of the public hearings that began on Wednesday.

The media's reaction to Elise Stefanik's behavior on Friday was especially telling. Up until now, Stefanik has enjoyed a status as a bit of a press darling; as one of the few young Republican women in high-level political office and as a relative ideological moderate, she has regularly received positive coverage as the media-anointed face of a more "modern" Republican Party of the future (a role previously filled by figures like Bobby Jindal, Marco Rubio, and Nikki Haley). If the Washington community saw the Democrats' march toward impeachment as a stretch on the merits or a loser on the politics, journalists would have treated Stefanik's gamed-out attack on Schiff as a savvy maneuver or the raising of a fair procedural point, rather than as an attempted distraction by an ambitious Republican merely trying to ingratiate herself with a Trump-dominated party.

There are plenty of understandable reasons why the White House has prevented many potential witnesses from participating in the congressional investigation, and—given what we know—it may well be that Trump's political interests would not, on the whole, be served by honest testimony under oath by his subordinates. Yet one cost to this blockade policy is that there will be few witnesses in these open hearings with the motivation to mount a defense of the president built on their own authority as members of his administration and firsthand participants in the development of Ukraine policy. This unfilled space places even more weight on congressional Republicans, who must advance exculpatory arguments themselves rather than allow them to arise from the testimony of sympathetic executive branch officials. Perhaps it shouldn't be surprising, then, that the pro-Trump case so far is lacking the ideal amount of internal coherence.