In keeping with their desperate and ill-conceived defense of the indefensible president, Republicans have submitted a list of proposed witnesses they claim should be called to testify in next week’s public hearings on the impeachment of Donald Trump. Not surprisingly, the list includes the heretofore anonymous whistleblower who first revealed the president’s treachery in trying to leverage Ukraine’s president to publicize an investigation of Joe Biden by withholding Congressionally-approved aid. Republicans also want testimony from Biden’s son and random others.
Of particular interest, however, is the omission of most of the administration personnel with actual knowledge of the president’s demands, including, most notably, Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney and appointed “fixer” to replace the disgraced and jailed Michael Cohen.
How should Adam Schiff, who chairs the House investigation, respond to these requests?
The issue in the hearings – the only issue – is whether the president of the United States committed impeachable offenses. The witness list, therefore, should consist only of people who can present factual information about that question. The whistleblower is not such a person because his report of the president’s wrongdoing was obtained from others who almost certainly will testify about their firsthand knowledge of what transpired.
I think of the whistleblower as similar to a person who hears others shouting “fire” and calls 911 for the fire department to report what he heard. He can’t say there was actually a fire or any details because he didn’t see it. He heard from others who saw it and he took action to help. Therefore, in the ensuing investigation of the fire, his testimony would at most establish that someone shouted “fire,” but he could not testify about the details of the fire he didn’t see. His testimony would be essentially useless on the origin of the fire, how it spread, who fought it, etc. If he chose to be identified, he might be hailed as a hero but his information about the fire itself would be useless. An imperfect analogy, I suppose, as most analogies are, but sufficient to make the point.
The Republican demands for exposure of the whistleblower are an essential element of the only “defense” Trump has – distraction from the central and only real question: the president’s conduct in connection with aid to Ukraine and the 2020 election interference he sought from a foreign government. The same is true about the demand for Hunter Biden’s testimony. Republicans want to create a sideshow about alleged corruption in the Biden camp which, even if true (and it has not been shown by evidence from any credible source), is not relevant to the president’s attempt to obtain foreign interference in the election. It is the president’s conduct, and no one else’s, that is at issue in the impeachment process.
I well understand that, when push comes to shove, Trump’s defenders will argue it was a legitimate exercise of presidential foreign policy authority to try to ferret out corruption by a person who was Vice President at the time. However, the evidence is clear, and mounting with every passing witness, that the sole purpose of Trump’s Ukraine maneuver was to help him defeat a domestic political opponent in 2020. Absent Biden’s prominent standing among the top challengers in 2020, Trump would have had no interest whatsoever in Biden’s involvement in Ukraine.
The answer to the question posed, then, is straightforward: individuals with direct knowledge of Trump’s conduct should testify. This is the investigative phase of the impeachment process and the sole issue is the president’s conduct. If Republicans want to produce witnesses to testify about Trump’s character, in mitigation of the possible penalty, that testimony will only be relevant in the Senate trial where the issue is conviction (or not) based on the evidence adduced in the House process. It is laughable, of course, that Republicans would introduce character evidence in the Senate, as that would create the opportunity for full exploration of Trump’s personal conduct in a host of areas, including defrauding charities, cheating the military and many others. Such a development would not deter the Republican majority from finding Trump “not guilty” but it would add to the ammunition available to the Democratic nominee in the 2020 campaign. The Senate trial, managed by #MoscowMitch, will be a brief affair with a foregone conclusion.
An overarching question remains as to how broad the House articles of impeachment should be. There are reported indications that Democrats are planning to limit the articles to the Ukraine situation. I am speculating, but must assume the rationale for that is to anticipate and undermine the argument that the impeachment process is just political revenge and an attempt to undo the election of 2016.
That would be a huge mistake. It would allow Trump to escape the findings of the Mueller investigation that Trump committed at least 10 acts of obstruction of justice. Prior posts in this blog covered the details. If the issue is going to be presented of criminal acts by the president, and there is an entire bag full of evidence of at least 10 such crimes in addition to the Ukraine scenario, limiting the charges will be interpreted by Republicans, and possibly the electorate, as proof that the Mueller Report was wrong and that Trump is innocent. The evidence of Trump’s guilt is overwhelming and he has thus far produced nothing substantive and relevant that could defeat that evidence.
Of course, in anticipation of the public hearings next week, Trump has announced he “may” issue a “transcript” of another Ukraine call. When? Why, Tuesday, of course, the day before the hearings begin. Classic Trump deflection and distraction. The first release of the “notes” from the call with President Zelensky were a disaster for Trump as those notes established the very crime he had denied. The second release will be more suspect since Trump is now in more serious trouble than he ever imagined and he likely will use the second call notes to try to repair the damage. I have previously written about the problem of calling these reports “transcripts” and the concerns expressed there are even more serious in the promised second release. CNN, among others, continues to misuse the term “transcript” to describe these notes, the original source of which are locked away in an ultra-secure computer somewhere in the White House.
A final point – the refusal of the Trump administration to produce witnesses subpoenaed by the House committees has led to multiple legal proceedings designed to test the extent to which the Executive Branch can claim, as this administration has, “absolute immunity” from Congressional oversight. Those cases are generally being decided against the administration that will certainly want a final ruling from the Supreme Court before complying. Democrats, wisely, I think, have not taken that bait entirely. Schiff has said repeatedly that the House will simply assume that the evidence that would have been adduced from non-appearing witnesses would be adverse to the president.
Schiff’s position is entirely consistent with the way legal presumptions operate. A party who claims “Proposition A” to be true but refuses to produce evidence of the truth of “A” risks a finding that “A” is not true. Withholding evidence is, in effect, an admission. The House has every right to draw adverse conclusions from the refusal of administration witnesses to testify, especially since those who have done so have uniformly supported the conclusion that Trump did indeed try to leverage Ukraine as charged for the purpose of unlawfully securing foreign interference in the 2020 election.