Watching the impeachment hearings at home in Los Angeles, I’d been trying to figure out what those oversized posters stationed behind Republican committee members were all about.
Thursday, I had a front-row seat to the House of Representatives’ fifth day of hearings in this sad but necessary national trauma. The hearing room on the first floor of the Longworth House Office Building was chilly; the lights were bright. Camera-laden photographers milled around the front of the room waiting for the orchestrated arrival of witnesses, who were escorted in through a side door.
I could finally see what the posters were for; they were a trio of puerile attacks on Democratic Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff.
Like so much of the Republican rhetoric we’ve heard over the last two weeks, they didn’t even make sense: “101 days since Adam Schiff learned the identity of the whistleblower.” “8 days since Adam Schiff claimed he didn’t know the identity of the whistleblower.” And the nonsensical “0 days since Adam Schiff followed House rules.”
At this point, gratuitous attacks on Schiff are all the Republicans have.
The vaunted deep state of Trump’s and Steve Bannon’s fever dreams turns out to be a brigade of incredibly smart, dedicated and patriotic Americans who serve their country regardless of which party is in power. The diplomats testified about what they knew or believed to be true: When it came to Ukraine, Trump and all the president’s men either engaged in or knew about a scheme to force Ukraine to meddle in U.S. domestic politics by threatening to withhold critically needed military aid for its war against Russian aggression.
What you don’t see if you’re watching on TV is how the players behave when they are not on camera. Most members were attentive to witnesses or read along as National Security Council staffer Fiona Hill and diplomat David Holmes made their opening statements. I was especially fascinated by the behavior of Republican Rep. Devin Nunes, the ranking member of the Intelligence Committee, who sits to Schiff’s left. When he wasn’t talking sarcastically about “bizarre hearings,” “this carousel of accusations,” the president’s “nefarious thought crime,” he was often absent from the dais or behaving like a sullen teenager.
Nunes slumped back in his seat, grimaced, whispered to his colleagues. At the most dramatic moment of Hill’s opening statement, in which she chastised Republicans for promoting “politically driven falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interests,” he took a long pull from his white cup, then seemed to be chewing on ice. Nunes could not be less impressed.
This was a remarkable contrast to Schiff, who sat ramrod straight, attentive, and paid close attention to every moment of testimony.
Each time Nunes spoke, I thought of the joke Joe Biden used to make about Rudy Giuliani: “There’s only three things he needs to make a sentence: a noun, a verb and 9/11.”
In Nunes’ case, it’s a noun, a verb and a Chalupa. (This is a reference to Alexandra Chalupa, a one-time Democratic National Committee consultant and Ukrainian America. She has been accused by Republicans of helping Ukrainians expose Paul Manafort’s connections to Ukraine’s pro-Russian corrupt former President Viktor Yanukovich. It’s another GOP conspiracy theory.)
Nunes, who seems to think it’s perfectly OK for an American president to withhold security assistance to a foreign ally in exchange for political dirt on his opponent, has got to be among the least self-aware politicians on the planet. Referring to debunked theories about Ukraine interfering on the side of Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, he demanded to know from Hill whether she thinks “it’s appropriate for political parties to run operatives in foreign countries to dig up dirt on their opponents?” (Only if they are Republican, I guess.)
I heard a ripple of amused laughter behind me, where a few dozen members of the public had seats in the vast, high-ceilinged hearing room. They had caught Nunes’ unintended irony.
By the afternoon session on Thursday, Republicans had changed out their most nonsensical poster for a new one: “Witnesses Schiff has refused to call.” At the top of the list: “The ‘Whistleblower.’”
Disregarding for the moment that the Democrats are in the majority and have the right to determine the witness list, does anyone really think learning the identity of the whistleblower will change the trajectory of Trump’s likely impeachment?
For argument’s sake, let’s say the whistleblower is a pro-Bernie-never-Trumper-Medicare-for-All-loving Democrat.
Does that change the fact that the partial transcript of Trump’s call to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky reflected the quid-pro-quo alleged by the whistleblower?
Or the fact that acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney practically yelled in the White House press room that yes, we do quid-pro-quo, get over it?
Or the fact that of the dozen witnesses the public has heard from over the last two weeks, not one has contradicted the serious, potentially impeachable allegations that the president withheld desperately needed military aid from Ukraine for 55 days to squeeze the Ukrainians into announcing corruption investigations that would taint former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter? Trump was asking Ukraine for what Hill so memorably described as “a domestic political errand.”
Or that the president’s personal lawyer, Giuliani, was running around the world spreading trash theories about American diplomats, the Bidens and Ukraine meddling in the 2016 presidential election?
Former national security advisor John Bolton, Hill testified, told her that Giuliani was a “hand grenade that’s going to blow everyone up.”
“And,” she said Thursday, “here we are.”
Props and all.