Donald Trump was given a hard deadline from judiciary committee chairman Jerrold Nadler: if you want to defend yourself against impeachment, you must do so by 6 December. It didn’t take Trump long to respond: over my dead body. But while Trump's bravado is not a surprise, his impeachment strategy is not without its risks.
White House counsel Pat Cipollone delivered a five-page letter to the senior Democratic lawmaker excoriating the process and taking issue with the entire inquiry. “Again, your letter provided no information whatsoever as to the dates these [impeachment] hearings will occur, what witnesses will be called, what the schedule will be, what the procedures will be, or what rights, if any, the Committee intends to afford the president,” Cipollone argued.
The president has long slammed the entire impeachment investigation as a sham and a transparent attempt by shameless partisans to overturn the 2016 presidential election. The White House response is straight out Trump’s playbook: resist, defy, fight like hell.
And yet one wonders whether it was the right decision.
Until now, House Democrats have prosecuted the case against Trump quite well. They’ve subpoenaed former and current administration officials from the state department, the defense department, and the White House budget office for private depositions about the president’s alleged linking of £307m ($400m) in security aid to Ukraine and Kiev’s opening of an investigation into the Bidens.
Democratic lawmakers have dragged those same officials into public hearings, where a picture was painted of Trump’s personal, political interests taking priority over US foreign policy. Throughout the proceedings, Trump, his lawyers, and Republicans on Capitol Hill have settled on a multifaceted defence strategy: discredit the witnesses; conjure up conspiracy theories; and provide alternative explanations for why Trump’s hold on the aid was legitimate (the aid was eventually released).
The GOP has already absolved Trump of any allegations of wrongdoing, writing in a 123-page report that:
“The evidence presented does not prove any of these Democrat allegations and none of the Democrats' witnesses testified to having evidence of bribery, extortion, or any high crime or misdemeanour.”
Republicans serving on the judiciary committee will re-run this theme before, during, and after the articles of impeachment are drafted. One could reasonably assume that having a representative from the White House on the witness stand would assist the GOP in that effort. Surely it beats having no White House witness at all?
Trump apparently sees things differently. In declining the opportunity to become a participant in this week’s impeachment hearing, he has gambled that continuing to ostracise and stonewall is a more advantageous position to be in than dispatching his lawyer and taking the investigation even semi-seriously. Indeed, for Trump to be proactive with the judiciary committee, he would undermine a central message since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi approved the inquiry in September—that this is nothing short of a waste of time on the taxpayer’s dime and a disgraceful coup-attempt driven in part by the Democratic party’s inability to accept their humiliating loss at the polls three years ago.
But Trump's strategy is not without risk. Declining to participate will give Democrats on the committee another chance to illustrate the administration’s obstructionism to wavering independent voters. Those same voters will have significant power as Americans prepare for an ugly presidential campaign season. The no-show will almost definitely be referenced in any articles of impeachment that will be debated and voted on in the weeks ahead. The decision will also challenge Trump’s claim of the Democrats managing an unfair process. Can the White House truly call the process unfair if they rejected an invitation to defend the boss?
Democrats have put Trump between a rock and a hard place. Cooperate with the inquiry and lend it a sliver of credibility. Or refuse to cooperate and be seen as obstinate. In weighing the alternatives, the man who survives by brawling with his opponents has unsurprisingly chosen to fight.