Quo Vadis, Democrati?

Committee chairman Rep. Adam Schiff confers with staff during testimony in the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, November 15, 2019. (Alex Wong/Pool via Reuters)Absent new, damning evidence, the impeachment script may not play out as Democrats wish.

Where are the Democrats going next?

Prior to this past week, for days Adam Schiff had concocted a pretty effective fix. He conducted secret impeachment inquiries in the House basement. Schiff kept quiet about his rigged rules. He orchestrated selective media leaks from the opening statements of favorable witnesses and then more or less threatened with ethical violations any Republican member who copied his tactics and leaked their own often effective cross-examinations.

The result was that the public heard only from Schiff about Schiff’s damning slam-dunk hearings. A drip-by-drip melting of both Trump’s polls and resistance to impeachment followed.

Schiff emerged for brief soundbites, bit his lip, and for a minute or two regretted the tragedy of having to hear damaging testimony about his own president.

But then I suppose Schiff’s Hubris finally lured in Nemesis.

Schiff’s overweening ambition and ego drove him into a full-fledged, prime-daytime soap opera. Previously washed and rinsed witnesses returned for televised cross-examinations with Schiff in the star inquisitor role. He apparently thought he could outperform his own Republican colleagues on camera — people he had blatantly misrepresented for weeks.

But television allowed the country to conclude that seeing and hearing Schiff all day long was a different experience from catching minute- or two-minute glimpses of him. The TV version was entirely toxic.

In person, some of the House civil-servant witnesses were haughty. They were certainly obsessed with their positions, titles, and résumés, and eager to talk down to others while talking themselves up. But mostly they sounded incoherent in decrying a brief hold on military assistance to Ukraine by a president who in fact has armed Ukrainians in a way his predecessor never dared. Most of the public came away with several general takeaways — all harmful to the Democrats.

One, the more viewers learned of the corrupt, wily Ukrainians (who were constantly shifting alliances to bet on the anticipated 2016 front-runner), the more they thought that Trump might have been circumspect to have held up, if only for a few weeks, U.S. military assistance in the first place, at least until he learned the nature of the new Ukrainian president. The more one learned about the baffling array of freelancing and often duplicitous Ukrainian ambassadors, prosecutors, foreign ministers, presidents, and gas directors, the more one concluded it might be better to let them get their house in order first.

Two, why blast a president who armed the Ukrainians while staying silent about a prior president who refused military aid and even used non-military aid as a lever to adjudicate Ukraine prosecutions?

Three, the House Republican interrogators, previously mostly unknown, turned out to be far more effective cross-examiners than their Democratic counterparts, in part because the latter were trying to remove a president on the basis of hearsay.

While Democrats talked of Fiona Hill’s pigtails as an eleven-year-old and raincoat metaphors, Republicans Conaway, Jordan, Nunes, Ratcliffe, Stefanik, Stewart, Turner, and Wenstrup drew out contradictions, hearsay, fuzzy memories, and mostly anemic “I suppose,” “I heard,” “I assumed,” and “I presumed,” rather than documents, tapes, and proofs from the witnesses.

Schiff had no White House tape of Trump channeling Richard Nixon’s obscenity-ridden machinations, a Ken Starr or a Leon Jaworski report, or Monica’s stained dress.

By Thursday night, a pale Schiff was reduced to mock outrage and lecturing a purportedly dense nation — on the admissibility of hearsay. When the last remarks of the chairman were to rail into the microphone, one knew he had lost control of his star chamber.

So, after that boondoggle, where do the Democrats go now? Remember, Adam Schiff hijacked the impeachment inquiry from its proper place in Gerald Nadler’s House Judiciary Committee. Speaker Pelosi’s apparent gamble was that the off-putting Schiff would be nonetheless more telegenic and charismatic than the buffoonish Nadler. The latter had disastrously introduced in person and at length an embarrassingly addled Robert Mueller. If Nadler now copies Schiff’s methods, the pro-impeachment polls will collapse altogether. Nadler is as duplicitous as Schiff but lacks the Californian’s cunning. We should expect Nadler to get the inquiry over as fast as possible on the theory that he will have higher negatives even than Schiff.

All this is the mere microlevel of impeachment.

At the macrolevel over the next six months, it is difficult to see how impeachment might become a winning Democratic strategy. The Democrats’ witness list is mostly shot; the Republicans’ is still full of new narratives: Who is the whistleblower, and what is his background? What were the geneses and nature of the whistleblower-Schiff connection, and the Vindman-whistleblower relationship? Who, probably illegally, leaked classified transcripts of multiple presidential conversations? What is the full story of Joe Biden’s interventions into Ukrainian jurisprudence, the role of Ukrainians in past U.S. electoral affairs, or the tenure of Hunter Biden in Ukraine? Would Hunter Biden be able to clear up misimpressions? Mitch McConnell is not likely to repay Nancy Pelosi’s strong-arm tactics by turning the other cheek.

We are already seeing a few embarrassing leaks from Michael Horowitz’s IG report about an FBI lawyer who is alleged to have criminally altered documents — apparently the same Peter Strzok subordinate Kevin Clinesmith who was kicked off the Mueller team for texting lots of anti-Trump antipathy, including “Viva le [sic] Resistance!” Some additional leaks may follow in the next two weeks. John Durham’s looming conclusions may at some point become a force multiplier of the IG’s findings. Impeachment, not Trump, may bleed out from a thousand cuts.

About 2 percent of the population watched the recent and latest Democratic debate. Anyone on Wednesday evening who was not comatose after ten hours of impeachment hearings was euthanized by the most boring of the mostly heretofore flat debates.

Usually senators are proverbial narcissistic media hogs who would welcome a televised impeachment trial in the Senate. But Warren, Sanders, Harris, Booker, Klobuchar, and Bennet will likely see such as trial as a lose-lose proposition, at least if impeachment is still negatively polling, and if the Republican senators are as sharp in repartee as their House Republican counterparts. If Adam Schiff were running for president, would last week’s televised performance have helped him? Would presidential candidate Joe Biden profit from being cross-examined in a Senate impeachment inquiry?

Fair or not, the word “impeachment” now conjures up two things: Donald Trump’s call to a newly elected Ukrainian president, and the fact that the incompetent son of leading Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden became rich by leveraging his dad’s name and office to gain favor and funding from corrupt Ukrainians.

When all the legalistic analytics are done with, impeachment boils down to a thought crime. The American people are now asked to abort a presidency on the basis of a supposed quid pro quo. That is, Trump temporarily delayed lethal military aid to a corrupt government, supposedly only on grounds that his legitimate suspicions about Ukrainian corruption also extended to the likely corruption of the Biden family — whose patriarch, though acting unethically in the past as vice president, is only targeted now because he is running against Trump for president.

To believe such an actionable high crime, the public will also be asked to believe that temporarily delaying lethal military aid to Ukraine is worse than never giving it at all; that Joe Biden’s current status as a presidential candidate exempts him from investigation into his unethical prior behavior as vice president; that a corrupt fixture like Hunter Biden was not used to extract U.S. aid; that quid pro quos are criminal, so past presidents like Barack Obama avoided them at all costs; that Nancy Pelosi, Adam Schiff, Gerald Nadler, MSNBC, CNN, and the major media are now pursuing principled charges against Trump that have nothing to do with political agendas or past, failed efforts to remove Trump from office; that the whistleblower, Lt. Col. Vindman, Adam Schiff, and Adam Schiff’s staff will not be found to have worked in concert to orchestrate a new effort to remove Trump after the failed Mueller probe; and that Democratic congressional prosecutors will be more sober, judicious, and skilled in making the above charges than their Republican counterparts will be in refuting them.

Speaker Pelosi in theory has a redline “Stop!” number in her head — past which she would call off impeachment and settle for the humiliation (likely hers, not Trump’s) of “censure.” Perhaps that moment is reached when the national polls for impeachment and removal tank below 40 percent and Trump’s favorability rises to 47 or 48 percent. We are inching toward both.

Nonetheless Democrats remain in their own self-created box canyon: Going forward risks losing the House (and Pelosi’s speakership), ending the brief careers of 35 to 40 vulnerable first-term members in Trump districts, damaging the Democrats’ brand, and shorting Democrats’ presidential candidates. Tarring Trump with Ukraine might cripple the candidacy of Democratic front-runner and Ukraine-tarred Joe Biden.

Backing out is no more inviting, given all the past cable-news hysteria about a successful impeachment and a drama looming in the Senate. How to square the circle?

For now, there are only two possible ways ahead to abort Trump — other than a massive recession in 2020 or some war on the order of Iraq or Vietnam.

One is some new damning piece of anti-Trump evidence. But after Stormy, the 25th Amendment, the Logan Act, the emoluments clause, the Mueller nightmare, and a host of other psychodramas, there is almost nothing of Trump’s life before the White House or in it that the public does not know. He is immunized.

Democrats’ other resort is some marquee Republican witness who “flips,” perhaps the recently fired national-security adviser, John Bolton. In theory, Bolton could attest that Trump was crazy, criminally minded, incompetent, or dangerous — or all that and more.

But while a John Dean/Bolton witness would be temporarily canonized by the Left, he would also be seen as a vindictive ingrate (no conservative president other than Trump would have ever brought him back into the White House) — reduced to permanent Bill Kristol irrelevance. Skeptics would believe that getting fired is a reason to get even.

It is also hard to imagine what Bolton or witnesses like him might say. A Trump quid pro quo? Been there, done that. Trump is crass, crude, mercurial, and sloppy? Duh? Obstruction? Trump is guilty of the thought crime of dreaming about not giving the lethal aid that he in fact gave to Ukraine? Bribery? Trumped gets 2020 electoral help by thinking about demanding Ukrainian help in hurting Biden, in exchange for aid to Ukraine — in Hillary Clinton 2016 fashion, or in the way that Barack Obama in his 2012 reelection asked for “space” from Putin?

A sane House Speaker would impose “Censure!” on her confused ranks. But the idea of a spike-the-ball Trump shouting “Exoneration!” as he goes on the stump about Joe and Hunter Biden would be too much for 2020 progressives to stomach. So we will probably see the Holiday Impeachment script play out for the next few weeks (or months), thereby, in all likelihood, ensuring the reelection of Donald Trump. Only an Elizabeth Warren candidacy could conceivably be a greater gift to Trump than a Schiff-and-Nadler-engineered impeachment.

In the present unhinged climate, Trump could get both.

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NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Case for Trump.

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