Impeachment in Secret

Kurt Volker, a former special envoy to Ukraine, leaves a closed-door interview with House investigators at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., Oct 3. Photo: Jose Luis Magana/Associated Press

Democrats are moving fast toward what looks like an inevitable vote to impeach President Trump, so why aren’t they doing more to persuade Americans who don’t already agree with them? They won’t convince anyone else with their current method of irregular order, secret hearings and selective leaks to the pro-impeachment press.

Start with the news that Democrats may attempt to keep secret the identity of the intelligence whistleblower whose complaint started the impeachment drive. The Washington Post reports that Chairman Adam Schiff’s House Intelligence Committee may have the official testify away from Capitol Hill, or allow only staff to attend, or obscure his image and voice as in a mafia trial.

This is astonishing. The key witness in an attempt to depose an elected President would testify without the American public getting a clue about who he is or what his motivations might be. Impeachment isn’t a criminal proceeding, so the right of Mr. Trump to face his accuser doesn’t apply. But you’d think that annulling the 2016 vote of 63 million Americans would be significant enough to demand witness transparency and a chance for both parties to test his knowledge and credibility.

One excuse for secrecy is witness safety, but the government can provide marshals to protect him. The whistleblower statute is intended to protect individuals against reprisal at work. It isn’t supposed to provide immunity from public scrutiny about claims aimed at ousting a President. We wonder if the goal here is to protect the whistleblower or prevent the American people from learning something that might cast doubt on his accusations.

This hide-the-witness strategy fits the way Democrats are handling impeachment more broadly. Speaker Nancy Pelosi has handed the heavy lifting to Mr. Schiff’s committee, probably because it can hide behind the appearance of protecting intelligence secrets. Mr. Schiff is taking full advantage by having witnesses testify in closed session, which makes it easier to leak selectively about the evidence.

Last week former special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker testified before the Intel Committee in closed session. Democrats released text messages that Mr. Volker provided without releasing the context of his opening statement. The press corps ran with the Democratic spin of a “quid pro quo” smoking gun. Republicans said Mr. Volker offered no such claims himself, but only later did his statement leak.

Mr. Schiff also had the intelligence-community inspector general testify in closed session last week. There were no notable leaks, but the public also wasn’t able to hear what the IG said about the whistleblower’s complaint, or the process that was followed to analyze it.

Mrs. Pelosi also still hasn’t followed the traditional protocol of holding a vote on the House floor to authorize an impeachment inquiry. She merely held a press conference to declare that an “official” inquiry had begun and unleashed Mr. Schiff and other committee chairs to start a subpoena blizzard.

This breaks from the House precedents in the Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton impeachments by Democrats and Republicans. Those authorizations put the Judiciary Committee in charge of impeachment and set the rules for investigation and subpoenas. Bipartisan votes lent credibility to the process. Contrast that with the secret, scattershot, rush-to-judgment impeachment process of today’s House Democrats.

The mystery is why Democrats think this process will help their cause. Mr. Trump was reckless and wrong to ask Ukraine’s president to investigate Joe Biden as part of a corruption probe. No President should invite foreign digging into a political opponent, or use someone like Rudy Giuliani as the equivalent of a presidential private investigator. But the issue is whether this is reason to vote against him next year or to impeach him now.

If Democrats are confident this merits impeachment, then why not make the case in public, step by regular step, for all to see? An authorized inquiry would also put them on firmer constitutional ground as they seek documents and testimony from the Administration. It’s certainly the best hope they’ll have of persuading Republicans across the country that any of this warrants nullifying the 2016 election only a year before the next one.

Their resort to secrecy and irregular order will instead feed public suspicion that this isn’t a proper inquiry out to persuade. It will look instead like a railroad job with the goal of branding Mr. Trump “impeached” to please the Democratic and media left.

Main Street: Three years ago Hillary Clinton told supporters at a New York fundraiser, “you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables.” And today's impeachment effort suggests many Democrats feel the same way. Image: AP Photo/Evan Vucci

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