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.
Secrecy. That’s the big debate these days in impeachment land. For the past few weeks, the Democrats have invited a stream of bureaucrats to come before the House Intelligence Committee for closed-door testimony. (The White House tried to prevent them from doing so, but State Department officials and others keep on strolling in.) Perhaps most dramatic was the appearance of the senior U.S. envoy in Ukraine, William Taylor, before the committee. His detailed opening statement leaked, outlining his concern “that our relationship with Ukraine was being fundamentally undermined by an irregular informal channel of U.S. policy-making and by the withholding of vital security assistance for domestic political reasons.” But that’s all that leaked, part of a House Democratic effort to run a relatively tight-lipped inquiry. The bureaucrats’ full testimonies are not yet public.
Providing stark contrast to the sorta-kinda closed-mouth Democrats are the lip-flapping Republicans, led by the commander in chief. President Trump likened the impeachment proceedings against him to “a lynching” in a tweet, a crass use of the term, given that thousands of black Americans were killed in lynchings throughout the country’s history. (In 1998, Joe Biden used the same term to describe impeachment efforts against President Bill Clinton.) The same Trump tweet repeated what has become a White House standard: that the president is being denied due process.
House Republicans, for their part, have tried to make an issue out of the Democrats’ closed-door policy. On Wednesday morning, a group of around 30 House Republicans, led by Rep. Matt Gaetz, tried to force their way into the House’s Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, aka, the SCIF, a facility purposely designed for dealing with protected information. Cell phones are not allowed into the facility, but the Republicans reportedly brought them in, taking pictures. Police were forced to do a sweep of the facility.
Despite the pressure, Democrats aren’t opening things up — yet. (One report indicated that a public phase to the inquiry could begin as soon as mid-November.) Rep. Adam Schiff, who is heading the inquiry, has said that one reason to keep testimony private for now is that it prevents witnesses from coordinating their statements. This measure seemed poised to bear some fruit this week: In the wake of Taylor’s testimony, some wondered whether Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland had perjured himself. Taylor said that Sondland told him that military aid and a White House meeting for the Ukrainians was contingent on their investigating Joe Biden’s son. Sondland, who has been trying to put some distance between himself and Rudy Giuliani’s back-channel foreign policy with Ukraine, said that he didn’t realize until later that Trump was looking for a quid pro quo.
Schiff has also promised that transcripts of the hearings will eventually be made public. But for now, the Democrats have the luxury of accumulating the various stories of the actors in L’affaire Ukrainienne. At some point, though, it might be to their advantage to release those stories to the public in a more manageable, defined narrative. The incremental release of information could potentially blunt the impact of the story on the public by allowing Republicans to pick apart pieces of information as they appear and obscure the central facts of the saga.
The way the public responds to the narration of the facts could have a real political impact on the presidential race and the popularity of congressional Democrats. While our impeachment tracker showed at publication time that 48.1 percent of Americans are in favor of impeaching the president, some recent polling nuggets could give Democrats pause. A Marquette University Law School Poll found that 44 percent of Wisconsin voters thought Trump should be impeached and removed from office, while 51 percent were opposed to that course of action. (Wisconsin was the so-called tipping point state in the 2016 election.) The New York Times and Siena College conducted a poll of six swing states and found that registered voters support the impeachment inquiry at a margin of 50 percent to 45 percent but oppose impeaching Trump and removing him from office, 53 percent to 43 percent. That paradoxical pair of numbers is some indication of the division over whether seeking impeachment is sound practice during a presidential election year. Voters in those swing states might be a bit more hesitant about the prospect. Nationally, though, our poll tracker sees more support for both starting the inquiry and impeaching Trump.
That said, the impeachment narrative has far to go: We’re only a month in, after all, and the full extent of the facts is still being kept under wraps. For now.
CORRECTION (Oct. 29, 2019, 4:05 p.m.): An earlier version of this article misstated the percentage of Wisconsin registered voters who, according to a recent Marquette University Law School poll, said that President Trump should not be impeached and removed from office. It is 51 percent, not 49 percent.