Impeachment inquiry: serious subject demands decorum

Since becoming president Donald Trump has given members of Congress ample reasons to deem him unfit for office. Time and again his behavior has clearly met the Constitutional standard of high crimes and misdemeanors worthy of an impeachment trial. Only hard political calculations kept the House from taking action. Now, after revelations that President Trump may have jeopardized national security in conversations with other world leaders for his personal and political benefit, an impeachment inquiry has begun. Sides have been chosen. Even before more evidence is presented, there are probably enough members of Congress to vote articles of impeachment. And there are enough members of the Senate willing to acquit him, evidence be damned. As I’ve written before, doing this without a reasonable likelihood of Senate conviction and removal from office is a risky proposition.

A clear majority of voters now say Trump did something wrong during a July conversation with newly elected Ukrainian Pres. Volodymyr Zelensky. In it, Trump urged Zelensky to probe former VP Joe Biden and suggested not to do so would be unfavorably regarded by the United States, its most important ally, and could hold up delivery of critical military aid previously authorized by Congress on a bipartisan basis. But there is not a strong majority that now believes his behavior warrants removal from office. A clear majority of Republicans and a sizable number of independents stand by him. Without a major shift in attitude of the millions who support him – the enraged Trump base that so scares GOP officeholders—McConnell and his minions will hold firm.

Focus must now be placed on gathering the facts and presenting clear and convincing evidence not just to members of Congress but to the American people. The inquiry must be seen as a sober and serious exercise, not a partisan jamboree. The whistle blower’s complaint offers a roadmap. The awareness of White House staff of the President’s wrongdoing led them allegedly to cover it up by moving the transcript of the phone call to a top-secret intelligence server, not because it was national security sensitive material, but because it would be embarrassing to the President. Disclosure could lead to the smoking gun of the Trump administration. But we’re not there yet.

I haven’t given up hope of small amounts of courage arising on the Republican side of the aisle, but to cultivate that sensibility, Democrats must proceed judiciously, soberly building their case for indictment while not undermining it by sloppiness, excessive passion or, as Adam Schiff did, with his mafia parody introduction, inadvertently giving Trump and his acolytes the opportunity to take words out of context and defend the indefensible. The Democrats are going to have to do a much better job in this impeachment inquiry if they want to increase public support beyond its current level.

To limit partisan grandstanding on both sides of the aisle I recommend that staff counsel instead of members ask questions of witnesses. They should focus the inquiry and be more productive.  This was done during the Iran-Contra and Whitewater hearings.

Changing the hearts and minds of Trump true believers, which would give cover to Senate invertebrates, will be a more difficult task, akin to convincing children that there’s no Santa Claus and no Easter Bunny in the same year. As Doris Kearns Goodwin opined on Meet the Press Sunday, the challenge for making an impeachment case is keeping the debate simple and fair. What we need is “a giant civics lesson” that explains clearly why it’s so important that impeachment must be done now instead of waiting for the 2020 election. We need to tell a story, she said, with a beginning, middle and end that you could use to convince a stranger at a bar.

In a land where civics education is not taught and most people don’t understand the fundamentals of the Constitution beyond some cliché phrases, where opinions trump facts, truth is optional and deep fake videos present new realities, it’s a daunting challenge. But we must engage – and engage the right way.

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