I feel like this Yovanovitch hearing didn’t go optimally for Democrats if the two biggest moments from it are (1) a tweet sent by someone who isn’t there and (2) Schiff and Stefanik bickering with each other over committee procedure.
Anyway, this is a stunt by Stefanik and the GOP but a sly one in that it gives Democrats a taste of their own medicine. My favorite headline about it comes from the Free Beacon: “Schiff Mansplains Committee Rules to GOP Rep. Elise Stefanik.”
That’s exactly the reaction it’s designed to get:
Who’s right on the rules? If I’m reading this correctly, Schiff is. There’s a period in each hearing where only Schiff and Nunes, as the ranking members, are allowed to question the witness. Each of them can delegate their time to others during that period — but only if they’re “employees” of the committee, i.e. lawyers. Stefanik’s a congresswoman, not a staffer, so she’s not allowed to ask questions during this phase.
Why did the Dems write the rules in such a way as to limit the ranking members’ power to let others do the questioning in the first part of the hearing? Probably because they were afraid of attack dogs like Jim Jordan using Nunes’s 45 minutes of time to pound the table and turn the hearing into a circus. They couldn’t stop Nunes from doing that since he’s the top Republican on the committee, but they could stop Jordan. And Stefanik, as it turns out.
Nunes and Stefanik surely knew what the rules were but the stunt was worth staging anyway for the optics. One of the things Republicans worried about in Yovanovitch testifying is that she’s a woman and might seem more sympathetic to viewers, especially if she got emotional about being threatened by Trump. (Sean Hannity wondered earlier this week whether Yovanovitch might “cry on cue.”) Trump stupidly made that risk greater this morning when he tweeted about her, handing Schiff a golden opportunity to chat with her about presidential intimidation. The obvious GOP play, if one could be arranged, would be to counter that by maneuvering some Democratic man into behaving imperiously towards a Republican woman, preferably a Republican woman much younger than him. Solution: Have Stefanik break the rules, wait for Schiff to shut her down, then ding him for “silencing” her.
It worked like a charm!
Oh, look at the top story on the Fox News homepage (hat tip to @IceManNYR). There is no debate here: only Schiff, Nunes and committee lawyers were allowed to speak at that point in the hearing. Stefanik was not “gagged”; her questioning time just came later in the proceedings. pic.twitter.com/YKCZjU6gLU
— Daniel Dale (@ddale8) November 15, 2019
A stunt, to be sure. But the “boorish congressman shuts down outspoken congresswoman” narrative isn’t the GOP’s narrative. That’s been borrowed from Democrats in this case, as John Noonan rightly notes. Schiff’s getting a taste of how his own party exploits examples of Republican men interrupting Democratic women:
It's not an unfair point, @AaronBlake. The Chairmen is empowered to enforce Committee rules, and that's true in both the House and the Senate.
But boy is it hard to ignore the difference in how these two things were covered. pic.twitter.com/qD466q9nSR
— John Noonan (@noonanjo) November 15, 2019
Noonan’s thinking back to when Kamala Harris was interrupted at a Senate hearing while questioning Jeff Sessions. A better example, I think, was when McConnell cut short an Elizabeth Warren floor speech because she broke a Senate rule against impugning someone’s character. Warren fans turned that incident into a rallying cry. Did Warren know the rule? Sure, probably. Was it in her political interest to break it and score points on Sessions with progressives ahead of a presidential run? Definitely.
I think Stefanik will do an outsized share of the questioning throughout the impeachment process going forward (at least in the second stage of each hearing, after it’s no longer just Schiff, Nunes, and the lawyers) and not just when the witness is a woman. The GOP has obvious political reasons to showcase a smart young Republican woman. And although Stefanik has been cracked up to be a moderate through her first few terms in Congress, she’s been squarely onboard lately with the party’s process criticisms of Schiff specifically and the impeachment inquiry generally. Every time she’s on camera sounding like Devin Nunes, anti-Trump righties on Twitter moan that a next-gen Republican whom they hoped would help lead the party in a new direction seems increasingly Trumpy. But look: She’s a politician, doubtless an ambitious one. She’s been handed a golden opportunity as a member of the Intel Committee to raise her national profile during this process. She already stands out from the GOP pack of middle-aged men by dint of her youth and gender. All she needs to do to come out a big winner from all this, possibly in line for an administration job if Trump wins a second term, is to aggressively prosecute Trump’s interests. She may even earn a little “MAGA folk hero” cred from Fox News primetime for it. The stunt with Schiff is perfectly engineered for that.
If anyone thought she’d be above that because she’s a Harvard grad and young and especially a woman — the polar opposite of Trump, basically — I don’t know what to tell them. Set your political expectations waaaaay lower, especially for the Republican Party circa 2019.
Here’s a bit of substantive questioning Stefanik did later, getting Yovanovitch to admit that she was prepped on potential questions about Hunter Biden and Burisma when she first faced Senate confirmation as ambassador to Ukraine. That proves that the Obama administration itself saw Biden’s Burisma role as sufficiently suspicious that they at least anticipated Republican inquiries about it. You know what Team O will say to that — we didn’t see any problem with it, and certainly we didn’t see any problem with Joe Biden’s diplomacy towards Ukraine, but we briefed her because we know how those paranoid GOPers can be, as they’re proving right here in this hearing. But it’s an effective point for Stefanik to make to support Trump’s basic defense, that there was good reason to want to investigate exactly what the two Bidens did in Ukraine.