Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) is a former prosecutor, but it would be difficult to tell from his opening statement at the first public hearing in the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump.
Schiff began by talking about foreign policy — the area in which the president has the most constitutional latitude, and which is not the primary focus of his committee. He proceeded to lose himself in conspiratorial details while failing to state a cause of impeachment.
One would have expected Schiff to begin by citing the offenses listed by Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution as grounds for impeachment — “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” He did not. Instead, he launched into an argument about why support for Ukraine in its conflict with Russia was a fundamental American interest. That it may be — and Trump, unlike his predecessor, has given Ukraine weapons — but it is irrelevant.
The questions presented by this impeachment inquiry are whether President Trump sought to exploit that ally’s [Ukraine’s] vulnerability and invite Ukraine’s interference in our elections, whether President Trump sought to condition the official acts such as a White House meeting or U.S. military assistance on Ukraine’s willingness to assist with two political investigations that would help his reelection campaign. And if President Trump did either whether such an abuse of his power is compatible with the office of the presidency.
The key phrase there is: “two political investigations that would help his reelection campaign.” The investigations were not “political” if they related to a matter of general public interest (such as election interference and public corruption). And the president never mentioned “his reelection campaign.” He referred to the 2016 election.
Schiff did mention “abuse of power,” but as former Obama administration official Cass Sunstein argued recently, that is not sufficient grounds for impeachment, since, he argued, all presidents at times overstep their authority.
Schiff then began telling a story about how President Trump was led to fire the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. It is an odd story — and perhaps a tragic one, since she may not have done anything wrong. But ambassadors serve at the pleasure of the president — and she had apparently lost the confidence of both the president and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. At no point did Schiff ever even try to suggest Trump had actually broken the law.
Lost in all the detail was Democrats’ fundamental claim — that Trump asked the Ukrainian president to do him a “favor” by investigating a political rival, and coerced or extorted him to do so by withholding aid. Schiff admitted that the aid was ultimately delivered, but said that was only after Congress began its inquiry. That is not a case for impeachment; it is evidence that the checks and balances provided by the Constitution seem to be working well.
Schiff concluded, not by explaining the need for an impeachment inquiry, but by providing a rhetorical flourish also favored lately by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) — a quote from Benjamin Franklin: “A republic, if you can keep it.” Schiff declared: “The fundamental issue raised by the impeachment inquiry into Donald J. Trump is: can we keep it?”
That’s it? One might also ask the same of a Congress engaged in abusing its constitutional power.
Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News. He earned an A.B. in Social Studies and Environmental Science and Public Policy from Harvard College, and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. He is a winner of the 2018 Robert Novak Journalism Alumni Fellowship. He is also the co-author of How Trump Won: The Inside Story of a Revolution, which is available from Regnery. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.
This post has been updated with a long quote from Rep. Schiff.