The irony the Democratic impeachers are courting in the latest phase of their drive to remove Donald Trump from the White House is that their efforts may have the effect of helping him win a second term in the White House.
The inaugural hearing in the Judiciary Committee included political maneuvers worthy of the Cirque du Soleil. But while the Montreal troupe was based on the artistry of street performers, the Washington hearings put on display the tactics of street fighters.
Each side -- the Democrats eager to impeach Donald J. Trump, the Republicans just as eager to defend him -- followed its prescribed choreography. No improvisation, no deviation from the scripts established by the ballet masters of each side -- in fact, no new facts.
That is because of the danger the Democrats implanted in the Judiciary Committee proceedings: The first hearing -- a legal seminar spiced up with the pas de deux of politics -- was designed as a predicate to impeachment. But the way the Democrats are proceeding could not have been better suited to rally -- indeed, to inflame -- the Trump base.
There are, to be sure, huge legal, political, logical and strategic flaws in both sides’ positions.
The Democrats are trying to remove Trump from office on the basis of one troubling episode among many, the congressional equivalent of charging Al Capone with tax evasion when his record included bribery, gang warfare, conspiracy and probably murder. By proceeding this way, the Democrats may be nudging future historians to concentrate on the president’s actions involving Ukraine rather than on a multitude of other actions they find distasteful, if not unlawful.
For their part, the Republicans are willfully turning a blind eye to Trump’s activities, in Ukraine and elsewhere, and doing so in direct contravention of GOP comments about the offenses of Bill Clinton as an earlier House Judiciary Committee prepared articles of impeachment 21 years ago.
The greater vulnerability may lie with the Democrats, no matter how ardently they feel their course is justified.
In the run-up to the 2020 election, as in their work on Capitol Hill, they are battling the perception that they have evolved beyond their blue-collar New Deal roots and have become a party of elitists, or at least do the bidding of their party elites. In that context, in the most consequential confrontation of their political lives, they then summoned a panel of experts with two Harvard degrees, four Yale degrees and degrees from the London School of Economics and Oxford.
Their chairman, Rep. Jerrold Nader of New York, began his audition for history by setting out a persuasive case for impeachment, but followed that with a statement that the hearings were an examination of whether there was a case at all against the president. The contradiction was too obvious to ignore.
The Republicans repeatedly interrupted the proceedings; this was no GOP display of the good manners that marked generations of 20th-century Republicans, even partisans such as Sen. Bob Dole, who as the 1976 vice presidential nominee committed the sin of describing American 20th-century military conflicts as "Democrat wars" but who was uber-courtly in the Capitol.
But it may be the way these unruly and often unreasonable Republicans were shut down -- rather than the merits of their interruptions -- that will be remembered by the Trump base. The first interruption came within Nadler’s first sentence. The chairman’s dismissal of the GOP inquiry came just as swiftly.
And if the Trump base were looking for evidence that this was a partisan undertaking, the series of partisan procedural votes, each one shutting down the Republicans, provided ample evidence.
Of course, those partisan votes did the Republicans no favor, either. In the effort to impeach President Richard M. Nixon, six of the 17 Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee joined all 21 Democrats in voting to send the matter to a Senate trial. GOP Rep. William Cohen of Maine criticized Nixon for withholding information. No Republican member of the Judiciary Committee 45 years later made a similar remark, despite the Trump administration’s refusal to appear before the committee.
That vacuum left the GOP vulnerable to the argument of Michael Gerhardt of the University of North Carolina Law School, who said Trump’s comportment qualified for all three of the articles of impeachment the Judiciary Committee approved for Nixon, including the failure to comply with congressional subpoenas.
Facing certain conviction in the Senate, Nixon resigned following appeals to leave office from Republican stalwarts such as Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, who preceded Nixon as the party’s presidential nominee, and Sen. Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania, the Senate minority leader and as such the most powerful member of the president’s party in the chamber.
Overall, ironies abound in the current episode. The richest may have been the spectacle of the Democrats portraying Nixon as a respecter of the Constitution and of congressional prerogatives.
And one of those ironies was that perhaps the shrewdest move came from the side of the aisle with the least power. It was giving a microphone to George Washington Law School’s Jonathan Turley, who argued that he was "concerned about lowering impeachment’s standards to fit a paucity of evidence and an abundance of anger."
But that wasn’t the most powerful sentence of his testimony. It was his statement that he voted against Trump and his assertion he deplored many of his actions, including those in the Ukraine matter.
Each side found much to like in its pugilists. Nadler was forceful and contemptuous of the Republicans his supporters consider political lemmings. Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the top Republican on the panel, nurtured the notion that impeachment was simply the Democrats’ effort to overturn an election won by a figure they loathe.
This was, he said, "the same sad story," an effort to repel Trump from office "because you just don’t like the guy." He called the hearing "a waste of time."
But it wasn’t entirely a waste of time.
Careful viewers learned a lot about the historical antecedents of impeachment, and about what the founders thought were impeachable crimes. They were reminded that Washington, Jefferson and Hamilton were fearful of tyranny and rebelled against it in the form of the British crown. They were told about the triumph of the rule of law. Both sides agree that that is what is at stake this month.
EDITORS: For editorial questions, please contact Lisa Tarry, firstname.lastname@example.org.