The denouement of a week of public testimony in the US House of Representatives Impeachment Inquiry was Adam Schiff’s closing statement. He alternated between sneering at the Republicans and getting furious with their character assassinations and stonewalling. In contrast with Devin Nunes’ obscurantist approach, Schiff quoted the Republican Ranking Member of a different era, Howard Baker, during the Watergate Hearings saying, “What did the President know and when did he know it?”
It was a relatively arcane reference, and it does not reach the core difference between the Nixon Watergate Hearings and the current Trump Impeachment Hearings. The Republicans of both eras circled the wagons to try to defend “their” President. They resisted the calls for the hearings, they questioned the loyalty of those like White House Counsel John Dean or Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman who, in different eras, dared to testify “against” the President in service of the truth.
In the Watergate era, however, there was a shared understanding across the aisle in Congress that the President had to comply with Congressional subpoenas and that what was at stake was the Constitutional order itself. Congress has, in the past, jealously guarded powers invested in it by the Constitution. Republicans have been particularly vocal about this issue, but in recent years, only when a Democrat has occupied the White House.
Nixon reluctantly complied with some, though not all, of Congressional subpoenas. His resistance to others earned an article in the un-voted-upon articles of impeachment being prepared at the time he left office.
The Trump administration has resisted – in fact ignored – all the subpoenas issued by Congress in exercising its Constitutionally mandated oversight responsibility. Congressional Republicans see no foul, but echo the Administration’s spurious claims that the investigation is a “witch hunt” and “illegitimate.” The defense has been varied and scattershot, but can be summarized as the, “what about Hillary?” defense. They have been consistent only in trying to point out historical episodes where the Democrats have somehow gotten away with exactly the “crime” that they now self-righteously accuse a purportedly blameless Republican President of committing.
The core Constitutional issue here is not, in fact, whether Trump sought a personal favor in return for public funds and a politically valuable White House meeting. It is, rather, that the Constitution is under threat because the Republicans are, in effect, rewriting it to give the Executive sweeping powers that the founding fathers did not grant and explicitly feared.
Adam Schiff unfortunately missed the opportunity to sharpen the focus on this fundamental Constitutional issue. The Constitution is revered in the US and if he and the Democrats aim to garner maximum support for the current inquiry and process, they need to highlight that the Constitution itself is under siege. Fuming about how the President and all his willing henchmen and women in the White House and Congress gratuitously smeared Ambassador Yovanovitch may make good TV, but it misses the real point, and misses the opportunity to clear the fog so that citizens of all stripes can see the dangers of establishing new precedents of Executive power. Either Congress is a co-equal branch of government, or the US Constitution can be consigned to the history books.