My rolling takeaways from the ongoing hearing — which is expected to consume the entirety of Monday — are below.
Within the first hour of the hearing, Democratic House Judiciary Chairman Rep. Jerry Nadler, Republican ranking member Rep. Doug Collins and, among others, Florida Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz and Louisiana Republican Rep. Mike Johnson, repeatedly clashed over a) the very idea that the hearing was being held b) whether House minority rights were being violated and c) other legislative arcana that literally no one outside that committee room even understood.
Gaetz, a major Trump supporter who has shown a knack for the spotlight, was, at one point, simply shouting at Nadler for holding the hearing at all — and blasting the fact that staffers for both sides would be doing a lot of the talking during it. Nadler was clearly flustered on more than one occasion by the delay and stalling tactics used by Collins and others.
The whole thing — even for someone like me who gets paid to watch this stuff — was, well, unwatchable. A bunch of adults yelling at one another over matters that almost no one watching understood or cares about. It’s hard to see how either side benefits from any of this display. And here’s the thing folks: All of this ugliness happened within the first hour of the hearings. Buckle up.
Democrat portrays Trump as an active threat to democracy
Nadler used his opening statement to justify the tight time frame in which these impeachment hearings are being held. (Votes could come on the articles of impeachment as soon as later this week.) The New York Democrat’s argument — as he also argued in the first Judiciary Committee hearing on impeachment — is that the country can’t afford to wait until after the next election to look into what Trump did in regard to Ukraine, because his track record suggests that he may well continue to seek foreign influence in the coming 2020 election.
Nadler pointed out that while the Trump campaign did not collude with the Russians, the campaign was aware of the efforts and didn’t discourage them. He also noted that Trump’s efforts in Ukraine — pushing for an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden — amounted to Trump seeking to put his thumb on the scale against his best-polling Democratic opponent in 2020.
“The integrity of our elections is at stake,” Nadler said.
Republicans asked “Where’s Adam?”
In keeping with their broader attacks on the process and their rights in the minority, Republicans — led by Collins of Georgia — focused heavily on the fact that House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Schiff refused to appear as a witness. Sitting in front of a “Where’s Adam?” sign, Collins dedicated a large chunk of his opening statement to cast Schiff as a coward — afraid to appear before his colleagues and defend the report that will be the basis of the articles of impeachment that are in the process of being written by the Judiciary Committee now.
The goal here is simple: Use Schiff’s absence as a telling sign that Democrats don’t even really believe in what they are going to impeach the President on. Schiff won’t even appear to defend himself!
Schiff told CNN last month that there was “nothing” for him to testify about, adding that the Republican calls for him to do so mean “they are not serious about what they are doing.”
GOP goal looks to be to make people turn off the TV
With the morning session of the hearings complete, it appears to be that a goal — if not the goal — for Judiciary Committee Republicans is to get people to turn off the TV in disgust. As mentioned above, the level of high school cafeteria food fight is off the charts, with Republicans seeking to contest absolutely every element of the hearing — up to and including Nadler’s request for a 15-minute recess just before noon eastern time.
Republicans clearly believe that the more disgust and frustration is sewn with the proceedings among the average voter, the better for them. The underlying theory of that belief goes like this: Trump was elected to disrupt Washington. The more people believe Congress — especially the Democratic-controlled House — is broken, dysfunctional and partisan, the easier the case is made that all of this impeachment stuff is just the establishment running scared.
I will say this: If the goal is to make people turn off the TV in disgust, the first three hours of the hearing did a very good job of creating that feeling. So, good job — or something.
The false equivalency over who interfered in the 2016 election continues
House Republican counsel Steve Castor used his testimony to again call into question who actually meddled in the 2016 election and why. Castor argued that both Russia and Ukraine could have sought to interfere in the 2016 election — citing as evidence the fact that some Ukrainian officials made clear in op-eds, personal Facebook posts and the like — that they a) didn’t like Trump and b) wanted Hillary Clinton to win.
The problem for Castor is that the comparison collapses under even the smallest amount of scrutiny. What Russia did — and we know all of this because of the findings of the intelligence community and the Mueller report — was run a broad, coordinated effort of misinformation and persuasion to help Trump and hurt Clinton because they believed the billionaire businessman would be better for their long-term interests. A dozen Russian nationals were indicted by Mueller for their role in this scheme.
To compare the sweeping efforts by the Russians to the writings of a handful of Ukrainian officials is simply disingenuous. What the two countries did is not even in the same universe.
A witness turns into a questioner — and Republicans lose it
But then, when the afternoon session opened, Berke was on the dais — asking questions of Castor, who he had testified alongside of just hours earlier. And Republicans went crazy. Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert said it was beyond the pale. Wisconsin Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a former chairman of the House Judiciary Committee himself, registered considerable umbrage at a witness turning questioner.
Nadler insisted he was within his rights, which I don’t question. But there’s also little question it was a very weird look that a guy who had testified alongside Castor in the morning was questioning Castor in the afternoon.
Republicans turn on Gordon Sondland
If all you knew about the Ukraine controversy was what you learned by watching Monday’s hearing, you would think that Gordon Sondland, the US Ambassador to the European Union, was some liberal Democrat. Everyone from Republican Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan to Republican counsel Steve Castor ran down Sondland and the testimony he offered under oath that there had been a quid pro quo between the White House and the Ukrainians. They said that he was unreliable and that Democrats’ report out of the House Intelligence Committee relied too heavily on Sondland’s testimony.
But here’s the thing: Sondland is not only a Republican and a major donor to Trump’s inaugural committee but also someone who was hand-picked for the job as ambassador by Trump himself! So what changed about Sondland that led Republicans to turn on him? His testimony was not what Republicans wanted. Simple.