The first public hearing by the House Intelligence Committee into the shamelessly underhanded Ukraine dealings of the Trump administration begins at 10:00 a.m. EST Wednesday morning. The hearing represents what will almost certainly be a series of long, bad days for Donald Trump and his congressional minions. “The American people will hear firsthand about the president’s misconduct,” said Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff of the forthcoming events.
Notwithstanding any deliberate mayhem unleashed by the committee’s Republican members — Devin Nunes and Jim Jordan will be in the room, so anything is possible — it should be a fairly sedate affair if Chairman Schiff takes a leaf from the Sam Ervin playbook on impeachment. There was absolutely nothing gaudy about the opening day of the Watergate hearings in May of 1973, and deliberately so.
“Unhurried in the presence of network television cameras or the certain knowledge that America was missing its soap operas,” reported Jules Witcover for The Washington Post after the first Watergate hearing, “Sen. Sam J. Ervin Jr. (D-N.C.) and his six Senate colleagues spent the first day resolutely making a single point. That point, persuasively drummed and droned home in five hours of mostly colorless and snail’s-pace testimony from four secondary witnesses, is that the investigation doesn’t intend to sacrifice thoroughness — or, when necessary, even boredom — for sensationalism, just to hold the TV audience.”
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Millions of Americans who were peeved at having their soaps and game shows preempted by the first Watergate hearing, however, soon found themselves absorbed in a political soap opera that left all others in deep shade. “I must get my Watergate fix every morning,” author Gore Vidal told Dick Cavett at the time. Chairman Schiff, I imagine, is hopeful that the content of his hearings will likewise captivate a modern audience.
Back then, the hearings were broadcast gavel-to-gavel on ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS and radio. Tomorrow’s hearing will also be featured in full on those networks and radio, along with CNN, MSNBC, C-SPAN and yes, even Fox News (I would have lost a bet on that last one). The proceedings will also be streamed online by dozens of outlets, and viral clips of especially significant testimony will begin flying around like belfry bats as soon as they can be dumped into YouTube.
It is possible in today’s atomized media landscape to go months, or even years, without hearing something that rubs against the grain of your political predispositions. The fact that Fox News is running this thing wall-to-wall is going to present some difficult television choices for the fingers-in-ears crew on the right. If only 10 percent of all viewers decide the evidence merits the impeachment and removal of Trump, that will equal 60 percent approval for impeachment and removal, a number even Mitch McConnell may find difficult to ignore.
The first witness before the Intelligence Committee on Wednesday will be William Taylor, a career diplomat and the top U.S. envoy in Ukraine under Trump. The release of an opening statement Taylor gave before his closed-door deposition on October 22 was a nine-day wonder, chock-full as it was with damning new revelations regarding the extortion scheme Trump and his allies ran against Ukraine’s government.
Reading it is one thing. On Wednesday, all across the network television spectrum, people will be able to hear Taylor himself lay it all out in plain, unvarnished language. Also testifying on Wednesday is George Kent, deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, whose own closed-door testimony in combination with Taylor’s puts Trump attorney and professional loose cannon Rudy Giuliani smack dab in the middle of this fiasco.
The prospect of all this is, of course, abjectly terrifying to House Republicans, who will attempt to throw a beachful of sand into Schiff’s gears. Axios got its hands on a GOP strategy memo for how to handle the hearings, and it is predictably pathetic. Among the excuses they intend to deploy: “The July 25 call summary — the best evidence of the conversation — shows no conditionality or evidence of pressure.”
This statement is wrong on its face, and furthermore, does nothing to offset weeks of contradictory testimony clearly showing a longstanding effort to strong-arm Ukraine into digging up dirt on Democrats to aid Trump’s re-election. The sauce, it is weak. It will still be there, though, and only a fool underestimates the GOP’s capacity for weaponized distraction.
Trump, for his part, is leaning into his standard “Nothing Is True But What I Say” defense. On Monday, he argued via Twitter that Chairman Schiff has deliberately doctored the deposition transcripts to favor impeachment. His most devout supporters will believe this, as usual, but the argument will go the way of all flesh the moment Taylor and Kent open their mouths … unless Trump tries to accuse Schiff of being a ventriloquist. If you tell me that’s impossible, you have not been paying attention.
The Watergate hearings and the Clinton impeachment are the obvious standards by which these proceedings will be judged, but a corner of my mind keeps harkening back to the 1987 Iran-Contra hearings chaired by Sen. Daniel Inouye and Rep. Lee H. Hamilton. Back then, I recall feeling distinctly confident that Ronald Reagan and his band of brigands would finally be called to account.
It did not work out that way. When the hearings collapsed into a blizzard of confusing gibberish, Reagan escaped unscathed, and Lt. Col. Oliver North emerged as a national hero, I lost a large portion of hope that Democrats could manage the recipe for boiled water. The matter before Schiff’s committee on Wednesday is far more straightforward than the Byzantine complexities of Iran-Contra, but any belief that these hearings will be like shooting fish in a barrel evinces a level of trust that has not been deserved in a long, long time.
All that being said, the balloon goes up at 10 a.m. tomorrow. My bet? People will watch. The ball is in Chairman Schiff’s hands now. If he fumbles it, there will be hell to pay. If he doesn’t, there will be hell to pay. One way or the other, this is history in the raw. Stay tuned.