Columnist Jay Fleitman: Playing to lose

  • House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., gives final remarks during a hearing where former White House national security aide Fiona Hill, and David Holmes, a U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, testified before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Nov. 21. AP

Published: 12/2/2019 8:00:44 PM

The congressional impeachment hearings into President Donald Trump have made no sense. None of the panoply of witnesses trotted before the public hearings by congressional Democrats offered any evidence even nearly worthy of considering an overthrow of the 2016 presidential election by removing the sitting president.

The Democrats, led by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-California, knew this well before coming into open session. They had previously taken depositions from all of these witnesses behind closed doors. The Democrats of the committee had a thorough preview of the contents of the upcoming testimony before putting it all out on national TV and exposing these witnesses to cross-examination by the Republicans.

After questioning and cross-examination, the witnesses in the end had little to say that revealed serious wrongdoing on the part of a sitting president. One of the “prosecution’s” star witnesses was Marie Yovanovitch, the former ambassador to Ukraine. Her daylong testimony can be distilled down to her grievance that she felt disrespected by being fired by President Trump after all of her years and service as a diplomat in the U.S. Department of State.

Another of the major witnesses was Fiona Hill, the prior senior director of Europe and Russia on the National Security Council. She testified that it was her belief and the belief of some other members of the Security Council that Ukraine’s critical value to the security of the U.S. is as a bulwark in Eastern Europe to constrain Vladimir Putin’s aggression. She was appalled that the president did not seem to hold that same heightened level of alarm as did she.

Several other witnesses indicated that they thought they may have known something, but it was made clear that they were making assumptions and presumptions about the president’s behavior with no definite firsthand knowledge. There was hearsay evidence, and half of a phone call heard across a restaurant in Kiev.

Gordon Sondland, the American ambassador to the European Union, was to be the one witness who was to drop the bombshell of the hearings. He opened his testimony by stating definitively that Trump had established a quid pro quo with the Ukrainian president by withholding its arms shipment in exchange for “dirt” on Joseph Biden.

Not long afterward, on cross-examination, he did reveal that he had no definitive information to that effect, and in fact his only direct communication with the president on this issue was a statement by Trump, “I want nothing. I want nothing, I want no quid pro quo. Tell Zelensky (president of Ukraine) — President Zelensky to do the right thing.”

There are some other witnesses closer to the center of power the Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee wanted to testify, particularly Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and prior National Security Adviser John Bolton, who have resisted testimony in these hearings. The Democrats did not wait for court proceedings to determine if they would be called into these hearings before the hearings proceeded.

The Democrats had to know they had nothing and yet the Democratic House leadership moved forward with these public hearings. So what is going on?

The editorial page of this newspaper has routinely been replete with conspiracy theories, and now I get to have one; the leadership of congressional Democrats know they have nothing substantive and know they have no chance of being successful in a removal trial in the Senate. They claim to be proceeding from a place of patriotic duty, but in truth, the only conclusion that makes any sense is that they are playing to lose.

The Democratic leadership has much to gain from this strategy. The vocal left wing of the Democrats has been calling for Trump’s impeachment since the day of his inauguration. With the upcoming 2020 elections, leadership can mollify that part of the party by proceeding with these impeachment proceedings.

On the other hand, the leadership of House Democrats, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, has a body of more than 30 moderate Democrat House members elected in the last midterms from districts that Donald Trump carried in 2016. They gave the Democrats the majority in the House and would be vulnerable to loss if they voted for the impeachment of the president.

Knowing that they need to be protected, I expect to see the Democratic House leadership turn them loose to vote against the impeachment and let them return to their district voters with a patina of integrity.

Going through the charade of this impeachment allows the Democrats to spread some dirt and some doubt about Trump leading up to the 2020 elections. It helps distract from potential findings of the imminent Inspector General’s report that may be embarrassing to Democrats. It will also allow Democrats to portray themselves as doing the necessary work of an investigation, but being fair in governance by having some of the Democrat membership vote it down.

This is my fevered conspiracy fantasy. We’ll see what happens. I certainly may be giving the Democrat leadership too much credit for being too clever by one half. Perhaps they really aren’t very smart and have painted themselves into a political corner from which they will not easily extricate themselves. Or perhaps they simply hate this president so much that they can’t help themselves try to throw him out.

Jay Fleitman, MD, of Northampton writes a monthly column. He can be reach ed at

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