Dems ratchet up im­peach­ment se­crecy

The Saline Courier - - OPINION -

Not long ago, House Re­pub­li­cans com­plained that Democrats im­posed ex­ces­sive se­crecy on in­ter­views con­ducted as part of the drive to im­peach Pres­i­dent Trump. Now, the sit­u­a­tion ap­pears to have got­ten worse.

The re­cent in­ter­view of Marie Yo­vanovitch, the for­mer U.S. am­bas­sador to Ukraine, marked a new point -- a low point, as Re­pub­li­cans see it

-- in Demo­cratic ef­forts to keep im­peach­ment in­for­ma­tion out of pub­lic view.

In this way: The two pre­vi­ous im­peach­ment in­ter­views -- with for­mer am­bas­sador to the Eu­ro­pean Union Kurt Volker and in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity in­spec­tor gen­eral Michael Atkin­son -- were con­ducted in the for­mat of what is known as a tran­scribed in­ter­view. Rep. Adam Schiff, who is run­ning the Demo­cratic im­peach­ment ef­fort, de­creed that tran­scripts not be re­leased to the pub­lic. At the same time, there were no heav­ily re­stric­tive rules on what would hap­pen should any mem­ber of Congress, acting from mem­ory, re­veal things that were said in the in­ter­view.

The Yo­vanovitch ses­sion was dif­fer­ent. Democrats con­ducted the in­ter­view in the for­mat of a de­po­si­tion, which is dif­fer­ent from a tran­scribed in­ter­view. One key dif­fer­ence is that there are se­ri­ous penal­ties for law­mak­ers who re­veal the con­tents of a de­po­si­tion. Do­ing so would al­most surely sub­ject the of­fend­ing mem­ber to a House ethics in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

All Re­pub­li­cans re­mem­ber the price paid by Rep. Devin Nunes, who, in 2017, as chair­man of the In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee, faced an ethics in­ves­ti­ga­tion based on a com­plaint from a Demo­cratic-al­lied out­side group al­leg­ing he leaked clas­si­fied in­for­ma­tion. Nunes was later cleared of all the charges, but he had to dis­tance him­self from some com­mit­tee ac­tiv­i­ties as the probe slowly pro­ceeded.

Now, some Repub­li­can law­mak­ers ex­press fear of Democrats sic­c­ing an ethics in­ves­ti­ga­tion on them if they re­veal what took place in the Yo­vanovitch in­ter­view, even though none of what was dis­cussed was clas­si­fied. Look at what hap­pened to Devin, they say.

So Re­pub­li­cans feel tight re­stric­tions on what they can say. What was Yo­vanovitch asked? What did she an­swer? Were her an­swers con­sis­tent with what is known about the case? Re­pub­li­cans can’t say, fear­ful that Schiff and the Democrats will come af­ter them.

Here is the clever part, from the Demo­cratic per­spec­tive. As the Yo­vanovitch in­ter­view be­gan, her 10-page open­ing state­ment quickly leaked. In it, Yo­vanovitch made her case for all the press to read. Headline af­ter headline ap­peared, all based on the state­ment:

•Wash­ing­ton Post: “Ousted am­bas­sador Marie Yo­vanovitch tells Congress Trump pres­sured State Dept. to re­move her.”

•Politico: “Marie Yo­vanovitch says Trump ousted her over ‘un­founded and false claims.’”

•CNN: “For­mer U.S. am­bas­sador to Ukraine says Trump wanted her re­moved and blames ‘un­founded and false claims.’”

•New York Times: “Ukraine En­voy Says She Was Told Trump Wanted Her Out Over Lack of Trust.”

•Wall Street Jour­nal: “Trump Pressed for Ukraine En­voy’s Re­moval, She Tells Law­mak­ers.”

Democrats and Yo­vanovitch got their side of the story out with­out any re­but­tal from Re­pub­li­cans. Be­yond the leaked writ­ten state­ment, what did she ac­tu­ally say in the de­po­si­tion? Did Re­pub­li­cans ques­tion her about her claims? Did the ques­tion­ing re­veal any facts not in­cluded in Yo­vanovitch’s open­ing state­ment? Were there any con­tra­dic­tions?

None of that was known. Yo­vanovitch’s open­ing state­ment in­stantly be­came the ac­cepted ver­sion of the story. Mean­while, Re­pub­li­cans said noth­ing.

Take, for ex­am­ple, Rep. Scott Perry, one of the four GOP House mem­bers in the room. Ap­pear­ing on Fox News, Perry was asked what was said at the de­po­si­tion. “Un­for­tu­nately, in the ever-chang­ing rules sit­u­a­tion here, I can’t tell you what hap­pened in that room,” Perry an­swered.

In pri­vate con­ver­sa­tion, other sources were equally ret­i­cent. All were si­lenced by the Democrats’ strate­gic use of House pro­ce­dures.

“De­po­si­tions are gov­erned by very spe­cific House reg­u­la­tions,” said a House staffer in a text ex­change. “Only one lawyer can ask ques­tions per round, agency coun­sel is barred from at­tend­ing, and the tes­ti­mony is close hold. Tran­scribed in­ter­views, in com­par­i­son, re­ally don’t have any hard rules.” The only ex­cep­tion, the staffer said, is a closed ses­sion of the In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee, which is not what the Yo­vanovitch de­po­si­tion was.

Fi­nally, the con­tents of the in­ter­view are be­ing kept se­cret, not only from the pub­lic, but from other law­mak­ers. Per­haps a dozen mem­bers have heard any of the tes­ti­mony in the im­peach­ment hear­ings so far. The other 420 or so don’t know what went on.

In his much-crit­i­cized let­ter to Congress, White House coun­sel Pat Cipol­lone said Demo­cratic han­dling of the im­peach­ment in­ves­ti­ga­tion “vi­o­lates fun­da­men­tal fair­ness.” He meant fair­ness to­ward the tar­get of the pro­ceed­ing, Pres­i­dent Trump. But there is also the ques­tion of fair­ness to­ward the Amer­i­can peo­ple try­ing to fol­low an im­peach­ment process shrouded in se­crecy. Don’t they have the right to know what the pres­i­dent’s ac­cusers say?


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