WASHINGTON — House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) began the new phase of the impeachment inquiry with a solemn declaration.
“Today we will begin our conversation where we should: with the text of the Constitution,” he intoned, sounding much like one of the professors he’d summoned to help lay out his impeachment argument.
That might not have been his best move.
The three constitutional professors Nadler called on may have made some compelling legal arguments about why Trump’s offenses were impeachable. But they didn’t exactly make for must-see TV. After hours of earnestly analyzing the points raised by those professors, even MSNBC’s panelists were losing interest.
“If I had a classroom of students right now, they’d be asleep,” Morgan State University professor Jason Johnson said on MSNBC Wednesday afternoon.
As shallow as it might seem, optics are now the most important part of the impeachment fight. Democrats have gotten about as much as they think they can at the moment with their fact-finding investigation. Now they have one overriding goal: to convince the public they’re right.
If they can’t turn GOP lawmakers and impeach Trump, at least they can make the troubling behavior of his administration a factor in the 2020 election. That means uncovering big new facts that persuade the sliver of persuadable voters that Trump should be kicked out of office. It means finding compelling witnesses like Fiona Hill and Bill Taylor. It means generating explosive hearing moments that can be weaponized on social media and lead news broadcasts.
Wednesday’s snoozefest yielded little of that.
That’s not necessarily Nadler’s fault. The House Intelligence Committee got to have all the fun with its fact-finding mission. And even their explosive pre-Thanksgiving hearings didn’t do much to sway voters on whether Trump should be removed. Nadler and Judiciary are left to recap and contextualize why that matters, like a congressional version of “The Talking Dead,” trying its best to follow up another cliff-hanging “Walking Dead” gorefest.
And he didn’t even get much to work with: The House Intelligence Committee didn’t release its report until Tuesday afternoon, giving Nadler little time to use it to push further into the hearings. Unsurprisingly, the Judiciary Committee’s hearing ended up feeling much like a placeholder.
It wasn’t a total waste, however. Democrats did get three professors to testify that they thought what Trump did was impeachable (unsurprisingly, the GOP’s sole witness disagreed).
“If what we’re talking about is not impeachable, then nothing is impeachable,” University of North Carolina Professor Michael Gerhardt warned. “This is precisely the misconduct that the framers created the Constitution, including impeachment, to protect against.”
And they got some flashes of righteous anger from their witnesses that are already getting replayed on cable news.
“I read transcripts of every one of the witnesses who appeared in the live hearing because I would not speak about these things without reviewing the facts,” Stanford professor Pamela Karlan thundered in her opening statement, firing back at Republicans’ dismissive attitude toward the proceedings. “So I’m insulted by the suggestion that as a law professor I don’t care about those facts.”
But the GOP’s witness, George Washington University Professor Jonathan Turley, was arguably the most compelling witness of the four.
Turley fired back repeatedly at Democrats, accusing them of rushing the process rather than carefully collecting all the evidence possible to find an airtight case against Trump.
“Fast is not good for impeachment,” Turley said.
“You need to stick the landing on the quid pro quo. You need to get the evidence that supports it,” he continued.
Much of the rest of the day was filled with plodding testimony about debates among the Founding Fathers, discussion of the finer points of President Andrew Johnson’s 1865 impeachment, and careful recitation of the definition of “high misdemeanors” from Samuel Johnson’s 1755 A Dictionary of the English Language. If you had necromancy, golden-doodles, or the Secret Treaty of Dover of 1670 on your card, it’s time to call “Bingo!”
It’s doubtful that this hearing will move voters in either direction — it’s not like the GOP suddenly found the magic bullet to exonerate Trump. Polls still show that a plurality of voters think Trump should be removed from office. And there’s a lot of time between now and the Senate trial to remove Trump that will occur if the House votes to impeach him.
But Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Doug Collins (R-Ga.) wasn’t wrong when he snarked at the top of the hearing, “We got law professors here — what a start of a party!”
If Democrats want to actually remove Trump from office — or cause Republicans to suffer politically for defending him — they’re going to need to up their game going forward.
Cover: House Judiciary Ranking Member Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., , right, speaks alongside Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., during a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the impeachment of President Donald Trump on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019. (Saul Loeb/Pool photo via AP)