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The Impeachment Inquiry Will Now Be Televised

Welcome to The Spin Cycle, a semi-regular look at how the impeachment inquiry is being sold to the American public by Washington-types — both those who are looking to oust the president and those looking to save him.


For most of the short life of the impeachment inquiry, House Democrats have played their hand in a quiet, restrained way. But this week their polite game of Bridge turned into a televised World Series of Poker as the House voted to formalize the impeachment inquiry. It marks a turning point in the way that Democrats are playing the impeachment game: They seem more confident than ever that as testimony becomes public the facts of the matter will convince the general public of their side as they move to draw articles of impeachment against President Trump. It’s not a play without risk, though. And at first, Democrats delayed the vote in part because of the nervousness of some members in moderate districts who didn’t want a on-the-record vote — but one that was bound to happen at some point, given the accumulating pile of evidence against Trump and public opinion favoring an inquiry. The die, as they say, is cast (yes, we’re playing dice now, not cards. Keep up.)

The Democrats announced they would vote to formalize the hearings following a week of bad-news testimony for Trump. As a brief reminder (you can read last week’s Spin Cycle for the whole shebang), William Taylor, the chief envoy to Ukraine testified to devastating effect that the official American policy on Ukraine was being undermined largely by a Rudy Giuliani-led misinformation campaign. On Tuesday, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the National Security Council’s top Ukraine expert won this week’s prize for biggest bombshell testimony. Vindman, who was on the line during that phone call between Trump and the president of Ukraine, testified that he found the conversation inappropriate and had registered internal concerns over how Ukraine policy was being conducted. Vindman also testified that he submitted edits to the official memorandum of the phone call, but that a couple were rejected, including one that called to include the president’s mention of Burisma, the company on whose board Joe Biden’s son Hunter sat. On Thursday, another member of Trump’s National Security Council, Tim Morrison, the council’s top Russia and Europe expert, testified. Morrison, who announced that he will be leaving his position, was also on the line for Trump’s phone call with the president of Ukraine. He backed up Taylor’s testimony from last week asserting that Trump sought a quid pro quo from the Ukrainians.

Testimony to keep your eyes peeled for? John Bolton, Trump’s former national security advisor has been summoned (although not subpoenaed). It remains to be seen whether Bolton will willingly cooperate with the investigation (he’s said he won’t appear voluntarily), though he reportedly was alarmed by the back door Ukraine policy, telling one of his aides, “I am not part of whatever drug deal Sondland and Mulvaney are cooking up,” referencing Trump’s ambassador to the E.U. and his acting chief of staff.

And how have Republicans been handling the move by Democrats to take things public? The words “kicking” and “screaming” come to mind. In response to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s announcement that the formalizing vote would take place, White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said in a statement, “Speaker Pelosi is finally admitting what the rest of America already knew — that Democrats were conducting an unauthorized impeachment proceeding, refusing to give the president due process, and their secret, shady, closed door depositions are completely and irreversibly illegitimate.”

During a floor speech on Thursday prior to the vote, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said that the Democratic-led Congress was “abusing its power to discredit democracy … Democrats are continuing their permanent campaign to undermine [Trump’s] legitimacy.” The speech was an extension of what the GOP line on impeachment has been — an attack on the legitimacy of the hearings, rather than a defense of the president’s actions. Still, not a single House Republican voted with Democrats to open a formal inquiry.

And how did Trump take the news of the vote? He tweeted “READ THE TRANSCRIPT!” and “The Impeachment Hoax is hurting our Stock Market” and “The Greatest Witch Hunt In American History!” (which, as always, the victims of the Salem Witch Trials might take some issue with.) He also pinned a new ad on his Twitter feed from his campaign that slams Democrats for the impeachment inquiry but lauds Trump for, among other things, ordering the assassination of ISIS’s top leader.

“He’s no Mr. Nice Guy,” the voiceover intones, “but sometimes it takes a Donald Trump to change Washington.”

Clare Malone is a senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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