The Two Irreconcilable Realities of the Trump Impeachment Hearings
Two Americas began watching two very different sets of hearings on Wednesday. In one, President Donald Trump is guilty of abusing power in many ways and on many occasions, and one such occasion is being dissected and laid out in great detail on national television. In the other America and the other set of hearings, Democrats are out to get Trump at any cost, have latched onto a muddled and inconsequential incident, and are laying it out in great detail on national television in the hopes of convincing the public that the President has done something wrong. These two realities do not overlap.
The first reality is summed up in the opening statement by Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, who said, “The questions presented by this impeachment inquiry are whether President Trump sought to exploit that ally’s [Ukraine’s] vulnerability and invite Ukraine’s interference in our elections. Whether President Trump sought to condition official acts, such as a White House meeting or U.S. military assistance, on Ukraine’s willingness to assist with two political investigations that would help his reëlection campaign. And if President Trump did either, whether such an abuse of his power is compatible with the office of the Presidency.”
The second reality is presented in an eighteen-page memo prepared for House Republicans in advance of the hearings. Viewed from the vantage point of the first reality, the defense that this memo seems to propose is full of holes, as my colleague John Cassidy has written. But for the second reality the memo paints a coherent picture. It says that the Ukraine story is confusing. It notes that Ukraine is a corrupt country, that Trump was weary of shouldering the burden of supporting it, and that there is no direct evidence that aid was held up pending the investigation—after all, in the end, the aid was released. According to the memo, Democrats have made a mountain out of the Ukraine molehill in order to get to Trump. In their zeal, they have been blind to Ukraine’s corruption and probable attempts to meddle in the U.S. election; they care only about Russian meddling, and that only because they are out to undermine Trump.
In Reality One, the testimony of William B. Taylor, Jr., the acting Ambassador to Ukraine, contained a bombshell: information that the day after the infamous phone conversation between Trump and the Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky, a member of Taylor’s staff overheard a phone call between Trump and his Ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, in which Trump demanded dirt from Ukraine on the Bidens. In Reality One, every detail matters, and together the details line up to create a chronology of “regular” foreign policy, as Taylor put it, doing protracted losing battle against “highly irregular” foreign policy. But in Reality Two Taylor’s testimony is itself further proof of the conspiracy against Trump.
Each reality is impenetrable to the other. If you hold to Reality One, no amount of evidence that the Democrats are out to get Trump will change your mind—on the contrary, you believe that the Democrats should use anything they can get their hands on to try to expose the President’s malfeasance and get him removed from office. If you hold to Reality Two, all the evidence summoned by the Democrats will make you only more convinced that they are out to get the President, and the more evidence there is, the more obscure the Ukraine story will seem. The gap between these realities makes it difficult even to analyze the impeachment proceedings. In the framework of Reality One, Republicans appear to be mounting silly and shaky defenses or throwing up smoke screens by demanding an investigation of Joe and Hunter Biden. But Republicans are not actually defending the President against accusations of abuse of power; instead, they are mounting an offense against the Democrats, whose very enterprise they consider illegitimate.
Of course, these realities do not have equal validity—although, unlike other Trump-era conflicts, this argument is not primarily one between facts and lies. This is an argument about what political power means. In Reality One, political power is governed by values, norms, history, procedure, and law. In Reality Two, political power aims to be absolute—its limit is what the President can get away with. Neither side is explicitly stating its position in this argument. Schiff came close when he said, at the beginning of his opening statement, that the outcome of the hearings will “affect not only the future of this Presidency but the future of the Presidency itself, and what kind of conduct or misconduct the American people may come to expect from their Commander-in-Chief.” But then he turned to laying out the Ukraine case. The side of Reality One is acting as though this were a legal prosecution. The side of Reality Two is denying the prosecution’s legitimacy. The differences between these realities are less factual than they are moral and political (in the deep, rather than partisan, sense of the word “politics”).
The realities are not equivalent, but they are in a sort of equilibrium. An equilibrium always favors the status quo. To upset the equilibrium, the Democrats would have to devise a strategy that would penetrate the Republicans’ reality bubble. That is likely impossible. But, if it’s possible at all, it probably requires an approach that is less like a narrow prosecution and more like an attack on all fronts: on the President’s self-dealing; the profits he has extracted, using the office of the Presidency, from his hotels and resorts; the profits and roles in the Administration of the President’s daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner; the family’s relationship with Saudi Arabia; the malfeasance of issuing and revoking security clearances; the accusations of sexual assault; the cheating of charities; the still-unseen tax returns; and much, much more. No matter the approach, the outcome appears predictable: the House indicts and the Senate acquits. But at least the impeachment hearings ought to lay down a record of abuses that will make future historians blush, rather than a protocol of the time that the Democrats tried to get Trump on the one obscure smoking gun they had—and failed.