Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Frat Boy Thermopylae

Stunt led by cocky Gaetz shows that House GOP not taking impeachment seriously enough
Screen Shot 2019-10-23 at 8.16.50 PM

GOP Rep. Matt Gaetz compared the House Republicans storming the Intelligence Committee today to the Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae. Well, that’s one way to look at it.

I think the optics were terrible. It looked more like a reverse version of the Otter-led Deltas storming out of Dean Wormer’s kangaroo court:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=38ETQ1RYa_Q]

Yes, it’s fair to object to the Democrats holding these depositions behind closed doors. I wish they were happening in the open. Kevin Williamson writes:

The Democrats have offered no plausible and persuasive rationale for holding these proceedings in secret and keeping the evidence and testimony behind closed doors. Given the character of the people in question, it is safe to assume that their reasons for doing so are corrupt and motivated by narrowly calculated political self-interest. If Trump is to be impeached for corruption, it must not happen through a process that is itself corrupt. If corruption must be corruptly rooted out, better to leave it in place and let the voters decide, relying on whatever mysterious criterion guides those baffling wonderments, for themselves.

However, Democrats say these House Intelligence Committee procedures aren’t official hearings, but rather the equivalent of depositions, meant to gather facts that will later be examined and argued over in public hearings. Republicans are fully present and able to question witnesses in these closed-door sessions. If there are going to be impeachment hearings, I assume that they will be done in public, and all these witnesses will be brought back to face open grilling.

Russell Berman writes that Democrats have opened themselves to criticism by conducting these hearings behind closed doors, but their reasons for doing so are rational (that is, not arbitrary). I don’t fully trust Committee Chairman Adam Schiff either, but if the Democrats can get a mass of evidence via testimony they’ve gathered in collaboration with committee Republicans, and then that evidence is examined in public hearings, with these witnesses available for bipartisan questioning, then the secrecy of this phase of the investigation would have been justified, or at least it would cease to be an issue for most people.

However, as Jim Geraghty writes today:

The most common justification is that this is like a grand jury portion of a criminal hearing, and the committee majority and their staff, acting as the equivalent of prosecutors, don’t want the witnesses and potential witnesses to coordinate their testimony. This answer would be a little more compelling if we weren’t getting considerable leaks of information, which would seem to undermine that objective. Bill Taylor’s detailed, 16-page opening statement was first in the Washington Post but eventually posted everywhere – Time magazine, CBS News, CNN, PBS.

He’s right about this. There should not be leaks. As a political decision, the Democrats keeping the hearings closed is risky. But unlike barging into a secure room to disrupt a Congressional procedure, it is legal. Again, the leaks ought not be happening, but that’s not a justification for opening up the hearings at this phase in the impeachment inquiry. Do not forget that the House Republicans, when they were in the majority, conducted most of the Benghazi hearings behind closed doors — and for good reason. In fact, after Hillary Clinton’s 2015 public testimony, Chairman Trey Gowdy decided to return to closed-door hearings. From an Atlantic piece in 2015:

Don’t look for the House Select Committee on Benghazi to do business in public again anytime soon.

On the heels of Hillary Clinton’s 11-hour appearance before the panel last week, the committee is heading back behind closed doors for what’s likely to be the rest of the roughly two dozen interviews that Republicans envision.

Closed-door, transcribed interviews have been the GOP’s standard practice throughout the long-running probe, which has included just four public hearings (and Clinton’s was the first since January).

That preference likely reinforced by the hearing with Clinton, which was widely viewed as a political win for the Democratic front-runner and also featured some bitter exchanges between Republicans and Democrats.

Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy, appearing on Meet The Press on Sunday, said private sessions don’t include “bickering” among members. Host Chuck Todd asked Gowdy whether TV cameras add to “grandstanding” on both sides of the aisle.

“What do you think, Chuck? You have been following Congress for a long time. I can just tell you the private interviews, there is never any of what you saw Thursday,” Gowdy said. He said the next two dozen interviews would be behind closed doors. “The private ones always produce better results,” he said.

“The private ones always produce better results,” according to the Republican Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, in 2015.

Well, yes. After yesterday’s stunt, I don’t blame Democrats for holding the fact-finding part of the investigation behind closed doors, to make it impossible for Republican members of the committee to grandstand for the cameras. The assault on the secure room by the mob of GOP members vindicates that decision. I wasn’t sure what to think about it until I saw the clip of Matt Gaetz, swaggering and cocky, like he had just successfully pulled off a panty raid. Yesterday’s frat-boy Thermopylae shows that the House Republicans aren’t taking this seriously enough.

Writing on the Fox News website, Howard Kurtz explains why even though you might think this impeachment process is bad, you can’t just dismiss the testimony of Acting US Ambassador Bill Taylor, a decorated Vietnam veteran who came out of retirement at Sec. Pompeo’s request to serve in Ukraine. The man has credibility. He is no left-winger. And yesterday, in an important column, Jim Geraghty of National Review wrote, about Bill Taylor’s testimony:

Perhaps the most mind-boggling sentence in his prepared statement is this one, describing concern at the highest levels of government about aid not getting to Ukraine in July of this year: “My understanding was that the Secretaries of Defense and State, the CIA Director, and the National Security Advisor sought a joint meeting with the president to convince him to release the hold, but such a meeting was hard to schedule and the hold lasted well into September.”

Read that again. Are we honestly to believe that four of the highest-ranking cabinet officials with duties relating to national security couldn’t get a meeting with the commander-in-chief? What, was the president avoiding them?

This should not be an eternal, impenetrable mystery. Either secretary of defense Mark Esper, secretary of state Mike Pompeo, CIA director Gina Haspell, and former national-security adviser John Bolton will corroborate this account or they won’t. If they contradict it, then Taylor is offering a version of events that exaggerates the level of concern about Trump’s blocking the Ukraine aid. If they confirm it — and the President of the United States simply wouldn’t talk to four of his top officials about a decision about aid to an ally against the Russian military — then we have a state of dysfunction at the highest level of our government that is positively nightmarish and that must be remedied immediately, by whatever constitutional methods are available. [Emphasis mine — RD]

The president can think aiding Ukraine is a bad idea all he wants. He could have tried to legally and constitutionally withhold the aid under the Impoundment Control Act, which gives Congress 45 days to effectively veto a president’s attempt to stop such an expenditure. But Trump didn’t do that. Based upon what we know now, it appears the president and his top staff tried to withhold the aid in secret, in defiance of Congress, and in defiance of the advice of his top national-security officials. Refusing to distribute funds that Congress had authorized and appropriated would be a violation of the separation of powers; the president cannot decide to simply refuse to carry out funding decisions of Congress and not tell anyone.

Beyond that, the administration’s repeated insistence that there was no quid pro quo is contradicted by government officials, including the president, stating that U.S. military assistance would only be sent if the Ukrainian president announced the Bidens were under investigation. That’s what a quid pro quo is.

Geraghty’s right. Schiff should subpoena those top four officials and question them about Bill Taylor’s claim under oath. We have to know if this is how the President of the United States is running the executive branch.

After watching the House Republicans, especially Matt Gaetz, carry on yesterday, I don’t have faith that they really want to know the truth here. They would rather obfuscate. Watch the Gaetz interview linked above — it’s short. He says, “I love the president so much I may never love another president again.” Gaetz is clearly having a good time with this. He has no sense of the gravity of what is happening. It’s just a big game for him. The rule of law is a pain in the butt.



Want to join the conversation?

Subscribe for as little as $5/mo to start commenting on Rod’s blog.

Join Now