December 5, 2019 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
How Four Scholars Moved Democrats to Act on Articles Impeachment
Truth alone can't prevail. Only truth plus power can.
The House Judiciary Committee had its first impeachment hearing Wednesday. It heard testimony from four authorities on American constitutional history and law. The Democrats called three. The Republicans called one. That, for me, was the day’s news.
The numbers, I mean. Three to one.
All three witnesses for the Democrats said the case against Trump is clear. All three said the framers of the Constitution would have recognized the danger. All three said impeachment was the correct remedy. All three said Donald Trump abused his power to enlist foreign interference to deprive Americans of their right to self-determination.
Nancy Pelosi made the announcement early today.
Jonathan Turley, the GOP’s witness, didn’t necessarily disagree. That’s the first thing you should know. He argued instead that we can’t know yet if the president is guilty of impeachable offenses. There’s not enough evidence, Turley said, and proceedings are moving too fast. He didn’t say his colleagues were incorrect. He said hold your horses.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a constitutional law scholar. But neither are most of the Americans who watched the hearing. That’s why I’m pointing out the numbers. Three to one is something everyone can understand—three to one when even the one doesn’t really disagree; he’s just cautious, which is reasonable. Everyone gets three to one.
Think about it.
Most people most of the time have something else to do than pay close attention to politics. Nearly everyone has something else to do than take the time to read, study and make a career in constitutional law. If three scholars—from Harvard, Stanford and UNC—say the case against Trump is clear, well then, it must be clear. If one scholar says you’re going too fast, well then, maybe we should slow things down. This, I think, is a conclusion most people will draw. They don’t know law. They know three to one.
Some have wondered why the Democrats decided to schedule yesterday’s hearing. This question typically came from reporters and pundits who spend all of their waking hours talking about politics. For them, there’s little point to having scholars debate constitutional history and law on live television. To a Washington press corps desiring conflict and novelty above all else, the hearing wasn’t the spectacle they’d prefer.
But that was the point. The Democrats understand well that impeachment must be rooted in deep reverence for American history, American ideals, the rule of law and, most importantly, patriotism. It must be grounded in their sworn and solemn duty to defend and protect the US Constitution. They must give the lasting impression that they don’t want to do this, but must, because law and morality demand it. That’s the impression you get when three to one constitutional scholars give their blessing.
The Republicans understand yesterday’s impact. They have long stopped defending the president of the strength or weakness of the available evidence against him. For many of these Republicans, the authority of truth matters less than the authority of the individual speaking the truth. If they can erode or destroy that authority, they win.
This is why you saw so much effort to cast doubt on the trio’s motivations, their political preferences, their opinions past and present, their hoity-toity Harvard degrees, and their manicured hair and nails. They succeeded in getting the press to jump on some fabricated outrages and trivialities. They failed to make most stick.
The Republicans know that most Americans most of the time have something better to do than pay close attention to politics. They know that most Americans are going to say to themselves: Well, if three to one experts say Trump did it, I guess he did it. The Republicans used their best weapon, which is the very worst weapon. It didn’t work.
This is not to say the truth prevailed. The truth will never prevail on its own. The Republican Party and its media allies are right now lying to millions of Americans who mistakenly believe that one of the witnesses for the Democrats, Stanford’s Pamela Karlan, insulted the president’s youngest child, Barron Trump. She didn’t. She was making a point about the Constitution forbidding a president from acting like a king.
Contrary to what President Trump has said, Article 2 does not give him the power to do anything he wants. The Constitution says there can be no titles of nobility, so while the president can name his son Barron, he can’t make him a baron.
That this is not, in any way, an insult doesn’t detract from the utility of saying it is. By whipping up fake outrage over a fake insult, the Republicans and their media allies can move public opinion in the president’s favor. They can create a picture of a Democratic Party so hell-bent on overturning an election they’re willing to attack an innocent boy.
This is why truth alone won’t prevail. Only when truth is coupled with power can we defeat disinformation, propaganda and vicious lie after lie after lie. And lo, that’s what we saw this morning. Nancy Pelosi, in a solemn speech at the Capitol, called on the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee to draw up articles of impeachment. Her bet is simple and clear. How many Americans will believe the truth more than lies?
Probably about three to one.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.