House drip-bombing of witness testimony softens landing zone for public support
© Greg Nash

The House Democratic plan to give the Select Committee on Intelligence the lead on both publicly releasing transcripts of depositions taken in private and then calling many of the same witnesses for public testimony on the Ukraine controversy is a carefully-crafted strategy to slowly win over public support for a full-fledged impeachment proceeding before the House Judiciary Committee.

One of House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiSanders urges impeachment trial 'quickly' in the Senate Tech legal shield included in USMCA despite late Pelosi push GOP senator warns quick vote on new NAFTA would be 'huge mistake' MORE’s (D-Calif.) original conditions for moving on impeachment was evidence of bipartisan support for impeachment, both in the Congress and from the general public. She fell far short of that condition when she nevertheless declared the authorization of a formal impeachment inquiry back on Sept. 24 after the whistleblower’s complaint and backup President TrumpDonald John TrumpSanders urges impeachment trial 'quickly' in the Senate US sending 20,000 troops to Europe for largest exercises since Cold War Barr criticizes FBI, says it's possible agents acted in 'bad faith' in Trump probe MORE-Volodymyr Zelensky phone transcript were made public. Internal Democratic caucus and national party pressures to launch an inquiry had already built to such high levels that things were bound to blow if the Speaker did not open that safety valve.

The three-committee series of privately taken depositions, under the overall auspices of the Intelligence Committee, with both parties fully participating, paved the way for the alternative strategy of building toward an internal and public consensus, even if not yet qualifying as meeting the bipartisan support standard.

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The idea is to soften up the landing zone of public opinion by drip bombing it with the public release of witness depositions followed by public testimony from many of those witnesses. The trick is to carefully time and target the drip bombs in a way that is easy for the public to understand and follow without engulfing the landing zone in clouds of confounding smoke. To paraphrase a political slogan from another era, “Keep the narrative simple, stupid.”

That is why the Speaker singled-out the Intelligence Committee in the authorizing resolution the House adopted on Oct. 31 as the centerpiece of the primary investigation going forward on the Ukraine security-political trade-offs. The other five committees referenced in the resolution are still authorized to move forward with their investigations of other matters, and then weigh-in with the Judiciary Committee regarding any potentially impeachable offenses.

Perhaps the most that can be expected is that the other committees will provide ample evidence of administration stonewalling of their requests for witnesses and documents that could be combined into a separate obstruction of Congress impeachment article. That’s because the committees’ oversight investigations have met with such unprecedented administration resistance that it is difficult for them to draw any conclusive findings.   

As evidence mounts that there was a clear quid quo pro between the administration and Ukraine over releasing critical military aid in return for investigating the president’s political rival and his son, the new threshold question becomes whether this “favor” rises to the level of an impeachable offense.

Some Republicans in the Senate are already suggesting that it doesn’t. On the other hand, to allow a president off scot-free for such behavior would signal a new low in acceptable presidential conduct --an unsavory precedent that can only pave the way for worse misdeeds in the future. Back in 1998-99, many House and Senate Democrats were actively pushing for censure as a more reasonable alternative to impeaching President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonChris Wallace: Allegations against Trump 'far broader than the Clinton impeachment' DOJ argues Congress can't take non-legislative steps against Trump on emoluments White House spokesperson: Pelosi, Democrats 'hate Trump's success' MORE. The censure approach was turned back as non-germane to an impeachment resolution. But such a resolution could still be adopted separately by either or both houses.

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The upside to that approach for Democrats would be that the president could not claim exoneration, as he likely will if the Senate cannot muster a two-thirds vote to convict him on impeachment charges. Moreover, it would give some troubled Republicans a way to register their disapproval of the president’s actions without completely repudiating him.

However, it should be understood that censuring a president has no recognizable legal status either under the Constitution or the rules of either body. It is a mere “sense of the Congress” resolution –a virtual slap on the wrist to embarrass a president at most.

In 1834, the Republican-controlled Senate censured Democratic President Andrew Jackson for refusing to turn over documents regarding his dismantlement of the Bank of the United States.  In 1837, when Democrats regained control of the Senate, they had the Jackson censure expunged from the record.

Speaker Pelosi is fond of quoting Lincoln that “with public sentiment, everything is possible.” The downside that Lincoln recognized is that without public sentiment, nothing is possible. Congress is entering uncharted waters as it navigates the turbulence of a presidential impeachment process, with no clear idea of which way the political winds will be blowing. Not only do political fortunes hang in the balance, but the nation’s fate is closely tied to it as well.

Don Wolfensberger is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center and Bipartisan Policy Center, former staff director of the House Rules Committee, and author of “Changing Cultures in Congress: From Fair Play to Power Plays.” The views expressed are solely his own.