WASHINGTON — Nothing kills a global political scandal like a debate about process, and that’s exactly what Republicans are betting on.
Democrats are pushing a relatively simple narrative — that President Donald Trump demanded a political quid pro quo from a foreign leader, dirt on his political opponents in exchange for military aid.
Republicans are burying that under a mountain of process objections. These include that the impeachment inquiry is behind closed doors, that the whistleblower remains anonymous, that the House didn’t formally vote to kick off an impeachment inquiry, that administration lawyers are not allowed in the hearings, that the scope of the inquiry is not defined, that House members outside of certain committees cannot see evidence, that the White House cannot challenge evidence, and that the committees’ Republicans were not granted subpoena powers.
Republicans frequently respond to questions about Trump’s Ukraine dealings with answers about how the House is conducting its impeachment inquiry. During a press conference with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell Tuesday, Fox News reporter Chad Pergram said that every time journalists ask about Trump, senior Republicans deflect to talking about process.
“Are you willing to defend the president in this matter?” asked Pergram. McConnell responded: “I’m willing to talk about the process in the House.”
On Wednesday, dozens of House Republicans made headlines by storming the House’s secure hearing room in a protest over secrecy. They ended up shutting down the inquiry for five hours. On Thursday Sen. Lindsey Graham and 35 other Senate Republicans signed a resolution denouncing the House’s impeachment inquiry. Graham called the process “at its core un-American.”
It appears not so much that the parties are fighting, but that they’re on different planets altogether. Democrats spent the week focusing on testimony from former ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor that he was told Trump did demand that Ukrainian officials publicly announce they were investigating the Biden family before the president would approve hundreds of millions of dollars in aid.
Republicans spent the week denouncing House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff for running a “Soviet-style inquiry,” in either a “dungeon” or a “secret impeachment chamber,” or a “secret, Soviet-style, Stalinist chamber.”
“It’s all just a bunch of bullshit,” Republican Rep. Mike Simpson said of the impeachment inquiry Wednesday. Asked if he read Taylor’s opening remarks to the committee, which had come out the day before, he said he hadn’t had the chance.
Republican Rep. Ted Yoho, who is actually on one of the committees overseeing the impeachment inquiry, said he hasn’t been showing up because the inquiry has no credibility. “It’s 100% political,” said Yoho. “That’s why I haven’t gone down to any of the hearings. I’m truly convinced in three weeks this won’t even be talked about.”
Asked about Taylor’s testimony, he said “that’s just hearsay. That’s somebody’s opinion.” (Taylor did not personally witness Trump demanding a quid pro quo; he was told by European Union Ambassador Gordon Sondland that the president was withholding the military aid until Ukraine agreed to investigate Democrats.)
Democrats have said that the closed-door hearings are only phase one of their investigation, and eventually there will be public testimony and a full airing of evidence. But the process attacks force Democrats to make a choice: Do they continue to charge ahead, or do they make changes to blunt the complaints, such as voting to authorize a formal inquiry?
So far they’ve taken the first option. Democrats are trying to focus the attention on Trump, rather than get pulled into a process debate that will make most Americans’ eyes glaze over.
“They’re loyal soldiers to the President of the United States,” said Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy said of the Republicans who entered the inquiry room en masse. “They’re losing every day more and more on the substance, so they’re going to resort to much more desperate tactics.”
Trump tweeted that inquiry allows Republicans “Zero Representation, Zero due process, and Zero Transparency.” He also called on Republicans to “get tougher and fight” against the inquiry. He reportedly encouraged Republicans to crash into the impeachment hearing room on Wednesday.
Some Democrats say they’re not worried about the process attacks having a long-term effect. Intelligence Committee member André Carson said he thinks the Republicans who stormed the inquiry Wednesday were playing to an audience of one.
“Look, Donald Trump is taking lunch money from these guys,” said Carson. “They were so busy trying to pose and posture and create this spectacle for the cameras to show him ‘don’t come after us in 2020, we’re with you.’”