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Impeachment, Day 1: mind-numbing Kabuki theater

The Democrats’ plan may have had some parliamentary purpose but was also, apparently, intended to demonstrate that Republicans had no interest in finding out the truth.

Rep. Adam Schiff
Rep. Adam Schiff summarized the charges against Trump and said the president had committed "constitutional misconduct justifying impeachment."
U.S. Senate TV/Handout via Reuters

I’m sure to its connoisseurs Kabuki theater is a complex and lovely art form. As a metaphor in American usage it often refers to an activity that is highly stylized and predictable, but insincere and perhaps lacking in substance or honest emotion.

Day 1 of the impeachment trial of Donald John Trump in the U.S. Senate veered toward the American usage of Kabuki. Not much of a plot, a lot of repetition, a lot of actors playing stock characters in a stiff style that was heavier on formality and repetition than on plot or substance. A story, if you can call it a story, that barely moved.

The end of the endless day was particularly Kabuki-like, as Democrats forced a series of roll-call votes on motions calling for witnesses to be added to the plan of the trial. After a voice vote, with all Democrats shouting “aye” and Republicans shouting “nay,” Democratic trial leader Adam Schiff would call for a roll call, the roll would be called (this takes a while; the Senate doesn’t vote by machine the way the House does), and the motion would be defeated. In fact, each and every such motion, and there were many, failed by 53-47, with every Democrat aye-ing and every Republican nay-ing.

The Schiff-led plan may have had some parliamentary purpose but was also, apparently, intended to demonstrate that Republicans had no interest in finding out the truth about President Trump’s by-now-obvious plan to extort a Biden investigation out of the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

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It worked. 

Republicans held see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, say-no-evil ranks behind their president. Democrats succeeded in demonstrating that the search for truth was a sham on the Republican side. Even the few Republicans who are considered to be swing votes on other matters, who may even break see-no-evil ranks on the big final votes on impeachment, apparently accepted that party loyalty required them to vote the Mitch McConnell line on the witness list.

I trust Adam Schiff that this accomplished something, but I’m not sure what. To anyone watching without something to read it was mind-bogglingly boring. But it’s not the job of the impeachment show to be entertaining. And it wasn’t.

My favorite moment from earlier in the day dealt with a related pattern, namely the pattern that developed over earlier months when Trump ordered his minions to disregard/defy/deep-six all efforts by House Democrats to subpoena evidence that might have strengthened the case for his impeachment.

U.S. Rep. Val Demings, Democrat of Florida and one of the managers chosen for the impeachment team, took the floor to move that the Senate issue subpoenas for various documents that might shed light on certain matters not necessarily helpful to the Trumpian argument that he had done nothing wrong. The Democratically controlled House had already sought these documents, and Trump had ordered all of the agencies receiving them to defy these subpoenas.

Rep. Val Butler Demings questioning constitutional scholars during a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Dec. 4.
Drew Angerer/Pool via REUTERS
Rep. Val Butler Demings questioning constitutional scholars during a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Dec. 4.
The thing that made it my favorite moment was when Demings — a former police officer who, before running for Congress was Orlando, Florida’s, chief of police — described her best guess as to Trump’s reason for ordering all those agencies to defy all those subpoenas. It went like this:

“President Trump did not take these extreme steps to hide evidence of his innocence, or to protect the institution of the presidency.

“As a career law enforcement officer, I have never seen anyone take such steps to hide evidence proving his innocence. And I do not find that here today. The president is engaged in this cover-up because he is guilty, and he knows it.”