It is not at all clear America will be treated to a repeat performance with Trump’s potential impeachment. Only seven weeks have passed since the partial transcript of Trump’s call to the Ukrainian president was released. And while that transcript serves as a sort of “smoking gun,” showing him abusing the powers of his office to blacken the reputation of a Democratic rival—and fits his pattern of inviting foreign interference in U.S. elections—seven weeks is not a long time to educate generations of busy, jaundiced Americans in the rules of impeachment or the turns of the alleged plot. Democratic Representative Adam Schiff, who chairs the Intelligence Committee, and his colleagues must, in the space of a few weeks or months, do what the Senate Watergate Committee, the federal courts, a special prosecutor and the House Judiciary Committee spent a year of private and public hearings to accomplish. They must investigate and educate, as well as argue.
Schiff’s efforts as educator will be further complicated by the format. The Judiciary panelists in 1974 interrogated witnesses in private and offered written, prepared remarks when the TV lights came on. When the nation is watching and a gaffe can lead to fatal ridicule, it’s safer for a politician to read a statement or engage in a planned colloquy. Even that collection of Judiciary lawyers in 1974 left the actual debating to a cohort of bright and nimble-minded members of Congress who excelled at rhetorical give and take.
The Intelligence Committee’s chore this week is a more complicated task. The committee similarly interviewed witnesses in private, but it now will repeat the exercise on-air. Its members can ask arch and demeaning questions, interrupt and voice outrage.