Democrats, lawyer up before you question again. You don’t think Trump’s going to let lackeys like Devin Nunes or Rudy Giuliani defend him before Congress, do you?
To compete, Democratic committee chairs will have to bring in killer lawyers and give up much of what they treasure: time on TV, showing off for the folks at home, making use of a moldering law degree.
It’s a sacrifice that must be made to hold Trump accountable. It looks like the evidence is in hand to prove Trump tried to interfere with the 2020 election by convincing the Ukrainian president to find dirt on his main rival in exchange for the president releasing military aid.
But not so fast. Trump lies better than Democrats tell the truth, as do his defenders. Because of his evil superpowers, he’s shot many people on Fifth Avenue and gotten away with it. It’s going to take a phalanx of skilled lawyers to counteract that. And the harsh truth House members have to face is that almost any prosecutor in the country will be better at building a case for impeachment than any of them.
That last point hurts, since putting practicing lawyers center stage would sideline members who’ve been working towards this day for a long time. But if Democrats didn’t see the need before Trump’s performance on Wednesday, they must now. He commanded the stage with a narrative, furious, loud and repetitive. He lied at the speed of light about his beautiful encounter with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, reminiscent of his self-congratulation for his lovely summit with the North Korean dictator who’s setting off missiles to thank him for the privilege.
Trump doesn’t bother mounting a defense of the indefensible. He’s all offense. Everyone is after the stable genius and always has been. The whistleblower, whose account has been corroborated, is “vicious.” Ukraine is so corrupt it shouldn’t get already appropriated funds until it proves it’s not corrupt by investigating Joe Biden. He angrily refused to answer the question--what exactly did you want Zelensky to do--other than to call Biden a “stone, cold crook” for supposedly helping his son, without a flicker of irony. Trump scolded the reporter who asked, as if he were 6 years old, and wouldn’t answer any question that didn’t further his contention that he was being impeached “over a fraud committed by other people.”
Among other people, it just happens, is House Intel chair Adam Schiff, a foil for the president in his campaign to blame others. He claims Schiff completely fabricated the content of his “congratulatory” call with Zelensky. Schiff didn’t, but he did foolishly channel his inner Corleone to read a mobbish summary of Trump’s call, too cute by half. It gave the president remaining defenders something to harp on for days, with Trump himself talking darkly about “treason”.
That should be seen as a warning of what’s to come, and the wisdom of leaving the proceedings to grown-up finders of fact who can ignore the emotion and meaningless rantings and get to proving the actionable offenses. The best thing that could happen is that the hearings are so tediously legal, only C-Span covers them.
It’s the only way to try Trump, says Elizabeth Holtzmann, who served on the Watergate committee, which had more lawyers, at 42, than members, at 37. “Not to denigrate Schiff, but to have other than skilled courtroom veterans guiding the proceedings,” says Holtzman, is to “send a dermatologist to perform brain surgery.”
To that end, Democrats on her House Judiciary Committee retained the best lawyer they could find even though that meant hiring a Republican, John Doar, who’d brought the federal case against the killers of three civil rights workers in Mississippi, as chief counsel. Republicans had Al Jenner of a huge Chicago law firm, who wasn’t particularly partisan. Over in the Senate, Republican counsel Fred Thompson and Democrats Sam Dash did much of the painstaking questioning along with scripting questions for senators so that the train kept moving forward. Dash bit by bit wheedled the bombshell out of Alexander Butterfield that Nixon had installed a recording device in the Oval Office. Thompson was the simple country lawyer at the side of statesman Howard Baker, who would ultimately turn against Nixon. Thompson was so good at his job that he went on to a TV career as a lawyer playing a lawyer and was elected to the Senate himself.
The press conference added one item to Nancy Pelosi’s to-do list. Now that Trump’s revealed that it’s Rep. Adam Schiff he wants to make the face of impeachment, she needs to put a new face on impeachment and quickly appoint a spokesperson--impersonal, low-keyed, with no history, no animus. That would be no slight to Schiff, but a deprivation to Trump who can live without a friend but not without an enemy. And for the few months the inquiry lasts, she should discourage free-range TV appearances the way the White House metes out guests for the Sunday talk shows. Getting out the word on what happened during the day is too important to leave it to whomever a booker happens to call.
It’s not that Schiff is unserious, but like a toddler eating too much cake at a birthday party, he and his members got overstimulated by what Trump served up in the course of a few days: a guilty plea on live TV! The voluntary release of the call is what Watergate prosecutors had to go to the Supreme Court to get! One Cabinet secretary—Mike Pompeo—caught lying about not being in on the call! Another, Attorney General William Barr, discovered twisting the arms of our allies to help prove that our CIA and FBI—Barr’s FBI—went rogue to falsely blame Russia for meddling in the 2016 election! Giuliani waving his phone on TV saying it held files which would show that every crazy thing he did was at the request of Trump’s State Department!
It’s an embarrassment of riches but how Congress uses all this is crucial. Treat one person with a conscience who speaks up fairly and to important effect and it begets others with a conscience and who knows if finally the dam won’t break.
If instead Democrats lick their chops, show joy, freelance with five-minute sermons in the form of a question (Trump’s awful, isn’t he?), they should be impeached for squandering valuable time. Still, there’s no equivalence between what Schiff did and what Trump has. No one in public life has ever behaved so badly and gotten away with it. It’s as if politics is now conducted by NFL rules where grabbing a face mask can be cancelled out by the other side going offside. For two years, Trump’s tantrums have been so childish, he should be tried as a juvenile.
Look at what else the House is up against. On Tuesday, Pompeo tweeted about not tolerating the “tactics” of a committee which had sent him a polite letter: “I will use all means at my disposal to prevent and expose any attempts to intimidate, bully, & treat improperly the distinguished professionals of the Department of State.” That vitriol came in response to a simple appeal for five employees to come to the Hill for depositions which Pompeo rejected. Imagine how ugly he’ll be when subpoenaed to raise his right hand and swear to tell the whole truth about his boss.
However open-and-shut the case looks, it isn’t. Even a bank thief caught with a bag of marked bills has to be tried. Evidence doesn’t magically make its way onto the record, not all witnesses willingly spill their guts, and due process must be accorded. Trump has an endless supply of aides who will lie. Some have gone to prison for him—including Paul Manafort, whose lawyer, we learned Wednesday evening, Rudy Giuliani has been talking with in his bid to dirty up the president’s enemies by any means necessary.
It’s an enduring mystery the hold Trump has on people who led admirable lives until they got mixed up with him. Former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster was a sterling military man. John Kelly a decorated Marine general. Pompeo once abided by a Code of Honor as a West Point cadet. Now he can’t handle the truth.
It’s going to take a village, of lawyers, to hold Trump to account. Don’t kill them, as Shakespeare counseled. Hire as many as you can.