WASHINGTON — Earlier this week, former White House official Fiona Hill testified for 10 hours before Congress as part of the impeachment inquiry into President Trump’s conduct. Her testimony before three House panels was not open to the public. It was not broadcast on C-Span. And when it was finished, there was no transcript.
Details did leak, however, in publications like the New York Times and the Washington Post. They depicted Hill, who served until recently as a Ukraine expert on the National Security Council, as worried that Rudy Giuliani, a personal lawyer for Trump, was meddling in that country’s affairs.
The impeachment inquiry is based on what Democrats say is an improper and illegal attempt by Trump to have the Ukrainians investigate Joe Biden’s son Hunter, who had business dealings there. Trump and the White House have denied those claims.
That pattern of secrecy and strategic leaks has enraged congressional Republicans, who charge that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff are seeking to remove the president from office while circumventing the kind of public accounting that an impeachment should involve.
Republicans know that making their case will be difficult on constitutional grounds, and their strongest argument may be with appearances.
One Republican staffer involved in the impeachment process, and who could only speak to Yahoo News on the condition of anonymity, complained that Democrats were using “brute force” by not allowing the minority party to call its own witnesses behind closed doors, like Hill and Kurt Volker, the former special envoy to Ukraine.
At the same time, information detrimental to Trump has had no difficulty in making its way out of the congressional chambers. That has especially infuriated Republicans, who believe that selective leaks have inaccurately depicted the Trump administration as trying to exert political pressure on Ukraine, with career diplomats warning against doing so.
“Volker was devastating for the Democrats’ narrative,” the Republican staffer involved in impeachment asserted, though he was unable to provide any details. Because discussing his testimony is not permitted, the public knows only that Volker and other diplomats discussed the “crazy” plan to tether military aid to Trump’s political prospects. That discussion took place over text messages that Volker provided to Congress, and were subsequently leaked to the press. Conservative detractors blame Schiff for those leaks.
Schiff’s office did not respond to a request for comment. But on Tuesday, he defended his approach, comparing it to that of a special counsel. He also said that Attorney General William Barr is compromised because of his political allegiance to Trump. That, according to Schiff, “has forced the Congress to do the initial investigative work that normally a special counsel would do.”
Conservative media outlets have amplified the accusations of undue secrecy, with the Wall Street Journal’s influential editorial page wondering why Democrats “aren’t doing more to persuade Americans who don’t already agree with them.” The editorial argued that Democrats “won’t convince anyone else with their current method of irregular order, secret hearings and selective leaks to the pro-impeachment press.”
Impeachment experts say that Republican complaints ultimately have little merit, because the majority party in the House can set the rules of such an inquiry.
Laurence Tribe, the Harvard Law School constitutional scholar, said that Republican complaints about the impeachment process have “no merit at all.” Tribe, most recently the author of “To End a Presidency: The Power of Impeachment,” told Yahoo News that “witnesses are required to testify in closed-door sessions in order to prevent them from coordinating their stories — a standard technique for increasing the odds of getting truthful testimony. The transcripts of their testimony will be released shortly, so the complaint that Trump is being impeached on the basis of secret evidence is nonsense.”
Tribe added that “impeachment by the House is a prosecutorial process, one whose target has no right to participate in it. That right of confrontation, including the right to subpoena one’s own witnesses, comes during trial by the Senate.”
Schiff is, in fact, a former prosecutor.
The Senate is controlled by Republicans, and while some GOP senators have expressed dismay at Trump’s handling of the Ukraine matter, they are unlikely to conduct the proceedings in such a way as to lead to the president’s conviction. Even so, the House’s handling of impeachment has angered Republicans, who have found themselves fighting against what they see as the twin forces of secrecy and speed. And without Pelosi calling for a House floor vote to initiate a formal impeachment, Democrats were “running roughshod” over regular rules of order, said a second highly placed Republican staffer on Capitol Hill.
“They’re literally holding these hearings in a SCIF,” the second staffer said, using an acronym for the kind of secure room where classified matters are handled. “They’re entirely in control of what’s coming out.”
Republicans also wonder why the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence is handling impeachment, not the House Judiciary Committee, where articles of impeachment have historically originated. They suspect that by classifying the depositions as intelligence-related, Democrats can keep those depositions private.
Paul Rosenzweig, who worked on the impeachment of President Bill Clinton and is now a senior fellow at the R Street Institute, a Washington think tank, said that “constitutionally, the Republicans have no argument,” and that their appeals to precedent were also “unpersuasive,” since the impeachments of both Clinton and, before that, Richard Nixon took place behind closed doors to some degree, at least in the initial stages. (Democrats have promised to eventually release transcripts of witness interviews.)
Rosenzweig said that Republicans’ best argument was political: that keeping the impeachment process cloaked in secrecy “doesn’t look fair.”
Brenda Wineapple, a historian whose most recent book is “The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation,” agreed with that assessment. “I see where they’re coming from,” Wineapple said of Republicans. They naturally “want to fight more effectively,” but have largely been prevented from doing so by Pelosi and Schiff.
“There are no precedents, really,” Wineapple said, describing how the initial House Judiciary impeachment inquiry against Johnson was largely held out of public view.
A third Republican staffer, who has been working to coordinate anti-impeachment efforts, said that even if Democrats had the Constitution and congressional precedent on their side, their handling of impeachment was nevertheless politically unwise. “People don’t trust Washington,” the staffer said. He imagined how an ordinary American might conclude that “something shady’s happening.”
So far, polling has not reflected a rise in such suspicions, with impeachment now supported by the majority of respondents in a recent Gallup poll. It is far from clear, however, whether those numbers will hold as impeachment continues throughout the fall. They could rise with damning revelations about Trump, but they could also slip if impeachment fatigue sets in.
“I think Pelosi is nervous as hell right now,” said a fourth Republican congressional aide, who works for a Republican close to Trump. He and others believe that Pelosi was forced into impeachment by her party’s progressive wing, and that she is eager to move through the process as quickly, and with as little hindrance, as possible. The staffer said it was a “disservice to the American people to have it done in this rushed kind of way.”
Pelosi’s office did not respond to a request for comment. But speaking earlier in the week, she defended not having taken a floor vote to open a formal impeachment inquiry.
“There is no requirement that we have a vote,” Pelosi said on Tuesday. “So at this time, we will not be having a vote.”
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