If there’s one thing Americans understand, it’s TV cop shows. So here’s the deal: Donald J. Trump isn’t on trial, he’s under investigation. And the first thing that happens during any serious probe is that detectives question witnesses separately so they can’t cook their testimony.
If Witness A can’t be sure exactly Witness B is saying, there’s a better chance of getting a straight story.
Just about everybody with a TV set understands these things.
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So it’s hard to imagine who that flash-mob of Republican congressmen thought they were kidding on Oct. 23, by storming the U.S. Capitol secure room where witnesses were being questioned in the House impeachment inquiry. According to them, confidential congressional hearings constitute an unprecedented Star Chamber proceeding. Supposedly, only Democrats were allowed to participate, and Trump was being denied his constitutional right to an attorney, to cross-examine witnesses or to examine the evidence against him.
In a word, Trump was being railroaded.
In reality, none of that is true. Indeed, about half the indignant GOP congressmen were playing hooky from their duties as members of the very committees — Intelligence, Judiciary, Foreign Affairs, etc. — conducting the inquiry. They could have been in the hearing room questioning witnesses, if they had any questions to ask. Instead, they staged a publicity stunt for TV cameras.
Do they take their constituents for fools?
Meanwhile, on Fox News, Sean Hannity promised to expose “something corrupt and dangerous to this democratic republic that we love. We will expose on this program the Democrats’ top-secret, their Soviet-style impeachment coup attempt … an unprecedented unconstitutional attempt to nullify the will of the American people.”
This is all but delusional. The U.S. Constitution gives the House of Representatives sole authority over impeaching the president, and says very little about exactly how. Hannity never did say what was unconstitutional about it, except as the word means “something I really, really don’t like.”
House Republicans, of course, held hundreds of hours of confidential Benghazi hearings during the Obama administration, without finding much to illuminate the tragedy beyond what was already known.
On “Meet the Press” back in 2015, GOP Rep. Trey Gowdy explained the advantage of closed-door hearings. Largely because there’s less grandstanding and bickering among politicians, he said, “the private ones always produce better results.”
Democrats thought Republicans were mainly blowing smoke, but never challenged their constitutional authority to do so.
Remember when Hillary Clinton appeared under oath before Gowdy’s committee for 11 straight hours all by her lonesome? Assuming that the House votes to impeach Trump, he’ll have the benefit of his full constitutional rights — an opportunity to contest all the evidence against him, to have all the lawyers he wants, and to cross-examine witnesses.
Just like any defendant on “Law and Order.”
For that matter, remember when Bill Clinton testified before Kenneth Starr’s grand jury regarding his naughty activities with Monica Lewinsky? They broadcast the thing on national TV, inadvertently increasing sympathy for the big dope and pretty much dooming their chances to remove him. Not that it was Clinton’s finest moment.
But that won’t be an issue for President Trump, who — you read it here first — will never testify under oath, come hell or high water. He has the constitutional right to take the Fifth Amendment, and surely he will.
What, then, will Trump’s defense consist of?
So far, of maligning the honor and patriotism of witnesses, career public servants and combat veterans alike, who have blown the whistle on his Ukraine extortion plot. That’s essentially all he’s got. Along with teaching adepts of the Trump cult to detest domestic political opponents he calls “human scum.”
Over the weekend, Trump explained why he notified his great friend, Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, about the impending raid against ISIS mass-murderer Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi while keeping Nancy Pelosi in the dark.
The speaker of the House, third in line for the presidency, who has participated in more top-secret hearings than almost any living American, was deemed untrustworthy by this blowhard, who — were he not president — could no more earn a security clearance than he could dunk a basketball.
Americans have grown so accustomed to Trump’s contumelious behavior that this isn’t even surprising. He’s essentially a WWE professional wrestling shill in a baggy blue suit. Clue: Any Trump statement that begins with “people are saying” or that relates someone calling him “sir” will be sheer, malicious fiction. He’s got a substantial proportion of Americans at one another’s throats.
Jonathan Rauch puts it this way in National Affairs: “Trump’s appeals to ethnic and racial resentment, his portrayals of a country and culture under siege, and his populist demonization of multiple enemies offered Republicans something more appealing than any particular list of policies: They offered solidarity against a threat.”
It was left to a Washington, D.C., World Series crowd to respond in kind: “Lock him up!” they chanted.
You see, the feeling’s mutual.
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Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President.” Email him firstname.lastname@example.org