Facts be damned is Trump’s approach, and it’s working.
After five days, twelve witnesses, lots of shouting, and dozens of angry tweets from the President, the House Intelligence Committee’s public impeachment hearings into Donald Trump’s Ukraine affair ended on Thursday with one unequivocal result: a Republican stonewall so complete that it cannot and will not be breached. The G.O.P. defense, in essence, is that facts are irrelevant, no matter how damning or inconvenient, and that Trump has the power to do whatever he wants, even if it seems inappropriate, improper, or simply wrong. Recognizing this, Democrats on Thursday evening signalled that they will move ahead with impeachment by the full House anyway, and soon. It was a grim choice, made with the knowledge that the case against Trump will likely proceed without any Republican votes, or even testimony from key Administration witnesses who have obeyed the President’s command not to appear.
A couple of weeks ago, before Dr. Fiona Hill, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, and Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch showed Americans what it means to speak unapologetically wonkish truth to Trumpian power, before the Republican donor turned diplomat Gordon Sondland gave a bad name to rich-guy dilettantes everywhere and tried to redeem himself by throwing Trump and his senior advisers under the bus, I wondered whether President Trump was already winning. From the start of the inquiry into his scheme to pressure Ukraine to launch investigations for his personal political benefit, the President has defined winning as making sure that impeachment remained an entirely partisan issue, with Democrats pushing it and Republicans standing with him to oppose it. By that standard, he was winning before the hearings—and he is still winning after them. If anything, his political hand is now even stronger as Republicans, presented with incontrovertible facts, have chosen not to accept them—and to become even more vociferous in Trump’s defense.
On Thursday morning, in what was meant to be the powerful culminating moment of the hearings, Hill gave a searing statement to Republican members of the panel about the big lie behind Trump’s demand that Ukraine investigate its own alleged intervention in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, an obsession of the President’s because he hoped to disprove the massive Russian interference on his behalf in that campaign. Trump and his defenders, she made clear, are simply trafficking in Russian-fuelled conspiracy theories. It is a “fictional narrative,” Hill told the committee calmly and authoritatively, a hoax “perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves.” What’s more, Russia’s sweeping effort has been confirmed by the U.S. intelligence community, as well as by Congress and the very Intelligence Committee holding the hearing. “The unfortunate truth is that Russia was the foreign power that systematically attacked our democratic institutions in 2016,” Hill, who served as Trump’s top National Security Council expert on Russia until she announced her resignation, in July, said. “It is beyond dispute.”
Republicans, though, chose to dispute it. They had accepted this fact in the past, but now it was politically inconvenient for the President. Trump did not want to believe it, and so Republicans wouldn’t, either. If anyone thought that Hill’s stirring insistence on the facts would have any effect, that notion was quickly dispelled. By 11:23 A.M., the Trump campaign had sent out a “rapid response” to its e-mail list, with the subject heading “Ukrainian election interference.” It was a two-sentence missive, introducing a new conspiracy linking the House Intelligence Committee’s chairman, Adam Schiff, to the one that Hill had just so eloquently debunked. “There’s a simple reason Adam Schiff wants to deny Ukraine interfered in U.S. politics,” the e-mail said. “He was willing to collude with them.”
For hours afterward, Republicans on the panel dismissed Hill. Some of them yelled at her. Some of them refused to ask her any direct questions. Some made false equivalences between Russia’s massive state-sanctioned campaign in 2016 and Ukrainian expressions of dismay that Trump publicly backed the country with which they are at war and employed as his campaign chair a man who had worked for their ousted corrupt, Russian-backed leader. Confronted after the hearing with Hill’s unequivocal statement that Ukraine had not interfered in the U.S. election, the House Minority Leader, Kevin McCarthy, a man who once mocked Trump for being in the pocket of Vladimir Putin, simply refused to accept it. “I think they did,” he told reporters. On Friday morning, Trump called in to “Fox & Friends” and repeated the Russian conspiracy theory about Ukraine all over again on live TV.
The denial was telling. If Republicans were now willing to disavow a fact they had previously acknowledged, it seemed more and more apparent that they could not be swayed by any of the actual evidence against Trump. On Wednesday, Sondland told the committee that Trump had personally directed him to work with his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, to force Ukraine’s hand on the investigations, leveraging a White House meeting sought by Ukraine’s new President. “Was there a quid pro quo?” Sondland testified. “The answer is yes.” But many committee Republicans simply twisted that statement around, repeating Trump’s misleading words to Sondland that there had been “no quid pro,” as if the President’s denial were the only proof needed of his innocence. As Thursday’s hearing wound down, Will Hurd, a retiring Texas representative who was once seen as a possible Republican vote for impeachment, used his questioning time not to engage with Hill but to announce that he saw “no evidence” of impeachable offenses. There was no one left to persuade, at least in the House of Representatives. It was a surprisingly definitive moment.
There is, of course, another narrative of the hearings, a nobler one, a patriotic and inspiring and surprisingly feminist one. This is the version of impeachment in which, whatever the result, America and the body politic are better off for the process and the chance it afforded to observe the personal courage of Yovanovitch, who was smeared by the President but not intimidated by him, and the unyielding conviction of Hill, as she dismantled the conspiracy theorists arrayed before her and did not back down when they hectored her. Hill and Yovanovitch were fierce, smart, and uncompromising in their insistence on facts. They came to the center of political attention as genuinely apolitical experts who have remained nonpartisan over their long careers, which was almost inconceivable to the partisan warriors who dismissed their sworn testimonies because accepting their nonpartisanship would mean having to accept that there is a world beyond the you’re-with-me-or-against-me one that Trump has imposed upon the Republican Party.
The journalist in me longs to write about this other version of the hearings: the one that is all about the evidence and the unfolding investigation, about who was a strong witness and who was not, about where there are holes in the case and what new information was gleaned. This is the version that those who listened closely came away with, the one that led Julie Pace, the Washington bureau chief of the Associated Press, no bastion of editorializing, to conclude the “mountain of impeachment evidence is beyond dispute.”
In the course of a marathon few weeks, the panel heard from seventeen witnesses, a dozen of them in public sessions. Not one of them disputed the essential facts of the case. There were many new details, including the revelation of a profanity-laced phone call between Sondland and the President from an outdoor restaurant in Kyiv, in which Trump sought assurance that the Ukrainians would follow through on his demand for political investigations.
Many mysteries, of course, remain. What was Giuliani really doing, and with whom? Will we hear from his shadowy associates, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, who have been arrested on charges of illegally contributing to pro-Trump groups?
How should we assess the credibility of Ambassadors Kurt Volker and Gordon Sondland—two of the “three amigos” designated by Trump to work with Giuliani on Ukraine—when they had to revise or “refresh” their testimonies after other witnesses contradicted them? Sondland said that “everybody was in the loop” about Trump’s Ukraine scheme, and specifically mentioned the Vice-President, the Secretary of State, and the White House chief of staff. What did they know, and when did they know it? And what about John Bolton, who was Trump’s national-security adviser during the events at issue in the impeachment case, and who told Hill that he did not want to be part of whatever “drug deal” Sondland and the others were cooking up? Hill testified that Bolton told her that Giuliani was a “hand grenade” who would blow them all up, and that Bolton was so alarmed that he sent her to report his concerns to the National Security Council lawyers immediately. Why won’t Bolton testify when Hill and Vindman, his two former subordinates, have made clear that he had serious doubts about the President’s dubious Ukraine plan?
In the version of the impeachment that is about what actually happened, Bolton’s lack of coöperation is significant, a reminder that, while much of the public testimony was powerful, dramatic, compelling, and undisputed, the hearings felt incomplete. The officials who testified were nearly all career diplomats and nonpartisan experts, professionals who decided, at genuine risk, to fulfill what Hill called their “legal and moral obligation” to appear before Congress. But Trump is blocking key witnesses, such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the acting White House chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, and many others from testifying or producing documents requested by the House. Bolton has said that he will not testify unless ordered to do so by a court, and there are no immediate prospects of that happening. While refusing to testify about what appear to be serious concerns regarding the President, Bolton has executed a book deal worth a reported two million dollars and has dished at paid speaking gigs about his disagreements with Trump.
House Democratic leaders, for political reasons, have chosen not to pursue Bolton and others like him. The decision is to proceed with articles of impeachment—and simply to include Trump’s successful stonewall as an obstruction count against him. “We can’t wait for that,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters Thursday, “because, again, it’s a technique. It’s obstruction of justice, obstruction of Congress. . . . We cannot be at the mercy of the courts.”
What it all means is that the impeachment investigation is a movie that seems to cut short in the middle of the story. That’s because we know the ending. This is not Watergate, and the movie we are watching is not “All the President’s Men.” The other narrative of impeachment, the political one, is what will shape the conclusion, no matter that there are important plotlines still unresolved. Both Republicans and Democrats know this to be the case. Listen to the viral clip of Adam Schiff’s powerful closing statement on Thursday. His voice cracking at times with emotion, Schiff spoke more intensely and with more passion than I have ever heard from him. He demolished the fact-free defenses of Trump offered by the Republicans as “absurd,” before saying that Trump’s offenses are far worse than the Watergate crimes of Richard Nixon. But the real difference between now and the Nixon era, he said, is that Republican leaders eventually went to Nixon and persuaded him to resign for the good of the country, whereas the Republicans on Schiff’s panel showed definitively over these past few weeks that they will protect Trump no matter what he does. “The difference between then and now is not the difference between Nixon and Trump. It’s the difference between that Congress and this one. And so, we are asking, where is Howard Baker? Where are the people who are willing to go beyond their party to look to their duty?” Schiff knows the answer to his question. That he persisted in asking it anyway is the reality of impeachment in 2019.