The Democrats of the House Judiciary Committee would like you to think of their work as a second coming of the Watergate investigation. But what we’ve seen so far looks more like those tedious panels of squabbling pundits you can catch on cable television pretty much any night of the week.
Whether all of this leads to impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump, Americans deserve a better caliber of oversight than the performance we saw on Monday.
The Judiciary Committee’s hearing, ostensibly into lessons learned from the report of special counsel Robert Mueller, featured as its star witness John Dean, who first gained fame nearly a half-century ago as President Richard Nixon’s whistleblowing White House counsel. Dean warned: “History is repeating itself, and with a vengeance.”
That he would say as much was not exactly new information. Dean has made that point with some regularity in his current gig as a paid commentator on CNN. And as he himself acknowledged, he was not a “fact witness” with any particular inside knowledge to offer about Trump’s doings.
Nor did anyone else who testified on Monday. Two of the other witnesses, former prosecutors Joyce White Vance and Barbara McQuade, reprised some of the points they have been making in their roles as MSNBC contributors. There to make an equally unsurprising argument for the other side was legal scholar John Malcolm of the conservative Heritage Foundation.
So, having no real new information to talk about, the proceedings quickly disintegrated into a familiar partisan firefight among the Democratic and Republican members of the committee. With the exception of C-SPAN3, all the cable-news channels turned to breaking coverage of a helicopter crash in Manhattan.
Perhaps the best thing that could be said about the hearing was that no one repeated a stunt quite like the one that Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., pulled last month in that same room, when he ate from a bucket of chicken to mock the fact that Attorney General William Barr had not shown up to testify as the committee had asked.
Really, is this the best they can do?
The first day of the Senate Watergate Committee hearings on May 17, 1973, was not exactly must-see television either. As columnist Jules Witcover wrote in The Washington Post: “If you like to watch grass grow, you would have loved the opening yesterday of the Senate select committee’s hearings on the Watergate and related campaign misdeeds.”
But the methodical way in which that panel operated should be instructive to today’s lawmakers.
The senators built their case from the bottom up. The leadoff witness that first day was Robert Odle — the 29-year-old office manager at the Committee to Re-Elect the President — who was there to outline the structure of the Nixon campaign’s 1972 fundraising operation.
More importantly, committee members kept the showboating to a minimum. The introductory questioning was handled not by the senators, but by chief counsel Samuel Dash, a Georgetown University law professor, and minority counsel Fred Thompson, a Tennessee prosecutor who would himself become a senator two decades later.
It is more difficult today to put together that kind of congressional fact-finding mission, given the intense partisanship — and the fact that nearly every Republican on Capitol Hill seems determined to defend the president, no matter where the evidence leads.
And House Democrats are right to be frustrated by the president’s stonewalling of their efforts to perform anything that resembles oversight. He has refused to turn over his tax returns, as well as information on how his administration issues security clearances.
But Congress does have powers it can use without resorting to pointless exercises such as the hearing on Monday. The administration tentatively agreed to give the Judiciary Committee access to underlying documentation of the Mueller inquiry after the panel threatened the attorney general with criminal contempt. And Hope Hicks, a former top aide to Trump, has now struck a deal to testify.
Meanwhile, a new battlefront opened on Wednesday, when the president asserted executive privilege to prevent the House Oversight Committee from obtaining subpoenaed documents that might illuminate the real reasons behind the administration’s decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census. The committee then voted to hold Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt over the census matter.
We still have a court system in which all of these issues can be sorted out in the months to come. This is a critical exercise in a deeply divided country — where a majority of people still say more evidence is needed to justify setting impeachment proceedings in motion.
The Democrats who run the House have a chance to not only do their job but also to help restore Americans’ faith in this country’s tattered institutions. That takes patience and focus. Or as Sen. Sam Ervin, the North Carolina Democrat who chaired the Watergate Committee, put it when he gaveled his panel to order, “an atmosphere of the utmost gravity.”