Meeting under the eye of history in a rare evening session Wednesday, Democratic and Republican lawmakers spoke past one another, unable to coalesce even on a common set of facts.
In a hearing that was more surreal than somber despite its grave intent, they might as well have been talking about a different President, a different Constitution and a different nation.
Democrats at least operated from the evidence unearthed by the impeachment inquiry as individual members took advantage of a prime time spotlight to claim their moment for posterity and to accuse Trump of violating his oath of office in Ukraine.
“How would you be remembered?” Democratic Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, a New York Democrat, asked his colleagues, beseeching them to examine their consciences and the record.
History may record that while both sides were playing to the political gallery, only the Democrats appeared willing to go into any details on Trump’s alleged conduct and its consequences.
Republicans mostly disregarded the mountain of evidence offered by former Trump appointees and foreign policy and military officials of the President’s political motivations in Ukraine.
“The biggest lie isn’t that the President committed an impeachable offense,” said Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the top Republican on the committee.
“The biggest, most dangerous lie is that the President, as an American citizen, is guilty until proven innocent.”
The founders might have imagined the wrenching business of impeaching a President would at least spark a debate — even among rivals — on whether his behavior reached such a bar. After all, although two previous presidents were impeached — and Richard Nixon resigned before absorbing that blow — Congress has never thrown a commander-in-chief out of office.
But from the Republican side there were few defenses of Trump on the merits of the case that Democrats have brought against him. There was sparse discussion of whether what he did was impeachable. Like their President, few Republicans are willing to admit there was any wrongdoing whatsoever — mirroring a sharp divide over almost every aspect of Trump’s conduct in the nation as a whole.
Most GOP members did not indulge in the kind of unhinged circus acts that some had expected and that Trump might have tuned in hoping to see. But they did embrace the President’s stunning new argument that envisages an executive immune from limits on his authority — that abusing power is not an impeachable offense.
The hearing was the start of a grueling two-day process expected to end with lawmakers voting on party lines to send articles of impeachment to the House for a full vote next week.
On Thursday, Republicans are expected to offer many amendments to the texts, all of which are expected to be shot down by the Democratic majority on the panel.
The impeachment of a President is one of the most stately and serious moments in the nation’s history. Yet given the all but inevitable outcome — an acquittal of Trump in a Senate trial — the hearing often failed to rise above the bitter politics.
The case against Trump
Nadler posed three questions at the hearing Wednesday. Does the evidence support the case that Trump pressured Ukraine to intervene in the 2020 election? Is such action impeachable? And what are the consequences for US national security and democratic integrity?
“The highest of high crimes is abuse of power. It occurs when a President uses his official powers to serve his own personal, selfish interests at the expense of the public good.” Nadler said.
The New York Democrat argued, as if oblivious to Trump’s disinformation machine that has fogged public understanding of the case, that the facts were clear and undeniable and warned: “if elections are corrupt, everything is corrupt.”
“The threat is urgent. If we do not act — now—what happens next will be our responsibility as well as his,” Nadler said.
Democrats have tabled just two articles of impeachment. The first charges the President with abusing his power in withholding military aid and recognition for Ukraine and demanding political favors.
They also accuse Trump of obstructing Congress in its constitutional purpose of overseeing the executive, with his claim of “absolute immunity” to withhold witnesses and evidence.
“Anything we don’t know about what Donald Trump did is because Donald Trump continues to this moment to block us,” said California Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell, urging his colleagues to show courage to check a “constitutional crime spree.”
The many comparisons made by lawmakers with Watergate scandal nearly 50 years ago only served to show how fierce polarization that has gridlocked American democracy since then has made the perception of justice run along party lines.
Who is actually being impeached?
Anyone tuning into the hearing to hear GOP arguments and who was unfamiliar with the case, would have thought the Democratic Congress and not Trump is about to be impeached.
Trump’s troops on the committee were quick to embrace the President’s latest office-expanding defense: that abuse of power is not an impeachable offense.
They claimed that Democrats so despised Trump that they had been bent on impeaching him since he won in 2016. Republicans are correct that many Democrats issued calls for Trump’s impeachment months before Ukraine was an issue. But they ignore the fact that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s declined to embark on such a politically risky track before the current scandal and on the basis of former special counsel Robert Mueller’s implication that Trump obstructed justice.
Republicans also completely ignored the entire record of Trump’s conduct in Ukraine, the backdoor diplomatic track to fulfill his political demands led by Rudy Giuliani and Trump’s own words. For the GOP, the transcript of a call that shows Trump pressuring Ukraine and asking for an investigation of his potential 2020 rival Joe Biden is clear evidence of his innocence of such an offense.
Collins leveled the remarkable charge that Democrats and not Trump, who tried to leverage his disproportionate power over a weaker foreign leader, were “tearing down” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
The most substantive Republican arguments came not in the conspiracy theories raised by some members to distract from the evidence but on the speed of the process.
Democrats have elected not to challenge many of Trump’s claims of immunity in court but to fold his blocking tactics into the obstruction of Congress article of impeachment.
House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff of California has explained the decision follows lengthy delays already encountered by Democratic cases already before the courts.
But Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a retiring Wisconsin Republican who was in town when Bill Clinton was impeached two decades ago, remembered how Supreme Court judgments against Richard Nixon on the turning over of evidence eventually brought him down.
Another Republican, Rep. Martha Roby of Alabama, made an impassioned intervention, warning: “Tomorrow we write history.”
“I implore my colleagues to take a hard look at the course of this investigation,” she said, claiming violations of due process and warning that it has been politicized.
Yet politics is in the eye of the beholder. Republicans were unwilling to commit a single second of the hearing to offer even the most tepid criticism of Trump, a force who dominates their party with iron rule.
Still, her contribution did raise questions about whether Democrats are driving the impeachment process too quickly — perhaps to hand it to the Senate for a trial before their presidential primary race kicks off in February.
A show for prime time
Other Republicans lacked Roby’s gravity. Some seemed mostly interested in creating moments for the Fox News opinion shows that are their regular evening stomping ground.
GOP Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas, warning of a “dangerous time in America” used his five minutes of live television to possibly out an intelligence official Republicans say is the Ukraine whistleblower as part of a list of names people he wanted to have testify.
Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan accused Democrats of despising Trump and his voters.
“They don’t like the 63 million people who voted for this President. All of us in flyover country, all of us from Ohio, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Texas. They don’t like us,” Jordan said.
His Florida colleague Rep. Matt Gaetz underscored what this line of attack was really about.
“We’ll see you on the field in 2020,” he fumed at the Democratic side of the room.