WASHINGTON — Bookended by dry discussions of the legal definition of the word “urgent,” the country’s top intelligence officer made an admission Thursday that Democrats can carry like a banner into battle as they launch an impeachment inquiry in the coming weeks.
“I think the whistle-blower did the right thing,” acting director of national intelligence Joseph Maguire said under questioning during an occasionally tense House Intelligence Committee hearing.
The three-hour session provided the first glimpse into House Democrats’ freshly opened inquiry, which centers around President Trump’s request that Ukraine’s president investigate Trump’s political rival Joe Biden while his administration held up hundreds of millions of dollars of military aid to the country.
Maguire’s testimony provided fresh fodder for that investigation, while Republicans appeared to struggle to defend Trump’s behavior, with a few of them not even attempting to. But the often technical and process-focused hearing was a reminder that Democrats face an uphill climb in using their committees to paint a clear picture of wrongdoing for the American people as they fight a president who defends himself with an entertainer’s panache.
Since winning back the House majority last November, Democrats have at best a mixed record in their attempts to stage blockbuster hearings that uncover damaging new information about Trump.
The notable exception was the questioning of Trump’s former fixer Michael Cohen in February.
But after months of build-up, this summer’s testimony from Special Counsel Robert Mueller fizzled when he appeared as an unfocused and lackluster witness in testifying about the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and Trump’s potential obstruction of justice. And former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski stonewalled and insulted lawmakers when they hauled him in for questioning last week in a hearing that was widely panned.
“We’ve simply got to do a better job running these hearings in the future,” said Jim Manley, a former top aide to past Democratic Senate majority leader Harry Reid. “Members have a tendency to spend too much time talking and not enough time focusing on the questioning.”
On Thursday, Democrats were able to squeeze out key facts from Maguire that aid their inquiry, including that his decision to initially withhold the whistle-blower’s complaint from Congress was “unprecedented” and that he believed the whistle-blower acted in good faith by raising concerns through legal channels. That will help counter Trump’s claim that the anonymous intelligence officer who complained to the inspector general that Trump was abusing his office is a “spy” who should be punished for “treason,” as he said in New York Thursday afternoon.
But the slow-moving, often jargon-filled hearing also demonstrates the challenge Democrats face in the coming months to tell a clear and compelling story to the country explaining why the president should be impeached. In a Morning Consult/Politico poll released Thursday, 43 percent of voters said they supported an impeachment inquiry, up 6 points from a survey conducted the weekend before, when details of Trump’s call with the Ukrainian president had not yet been released.
The Democrats’ fate — in congressional races, as well as in the fight for the White House — rests on continuing to move up the percentage of voters who support impeachment. The televised hearings in wood-paneled congressional committee rooms are where that battle will be waged.
“Impeachment is not a legal proceeding or a single up or down vote,” explained Michael Steel, who was a spokesman for former GOP House speaker John Boehner. “It’s an ongoing political effort to convince the American people that the president has done this thing and this thing rises to the level of high crimes and misdemeanors.”
Democrats have appeared at times to lack a clear strategy or message around the myriad allegations of misconduct by the president, with the result that the committees’ work hasn’t broken through, he said. “It’s a very shotgun approach rather than rifle shots,” Steel said.
Even when House Democrats coordinate a strategy in advance, committee hearings are often by their very nature painstaking, slow, and technical, a challenge for Democrats who want to peel the nation’s eyeballs away from Trump long enough to paint a vivid picture of his wrongdoing. Democrats spent much of Thursday’s hearing establishing Maguire’s timeline and thought process around his decision not to initially turn over the whistle-blower’s complaint to Congress, requiring the use of countless acronyms to describe different corners of the federal government.
“It’s very complicated,” Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi, a Democrat from Illinois, conceded after the hearing with Maguire. “There’s a lot of legal jargon associated with the OLC opinion, the IC IG memo, there’s the law. So if we spend a lot of time talking about that — which we have to — you can lose people.”
The committee’s chairman, Adam Schiff, attempted to more cinematically tell the story of Trump’s actions by opening the hearing with his own parody interpretation of the call between the president and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. “I want you to make up dirt on my political opponent, understand?” Schiff said. “Lots of it.” Republicans on the committee slammed the move, saying he should stick to the facts.
Many Democrats argued the best way to proceed on impeachment is to play it straight and slowly gather and present the facts, even if that means occasionally losing the spotlight to Trump.
“We can’t compete with Trump and we shouldn’t when it comes to the showmanship,” said Representative Peter Welch of Vermont, a Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, “because a lot of his showmanship is predicated on total misstatements and lies.”
Representative Katherine Clark of Massachusetts, a member of the House Democratic leadership, said Trump will have trouble distracting the nation from this scandal.
“I think the story line is a clear one: That this president sought interference from a foreign government for his political gain and by doing that, that is an abuse of power,” she said. “The facts are there and he admitted them.”
But Democrats’ messaging efforts will go on hiatus just as they’re getting started: House leaders opted not to cancel a two-week recess that begins Friday, meaning that lawmakers will return to their districts and the Capitol will presumably quiet down. Democrats argue they need the time to make the impeachment case to their constituents, but they also will be effectively ceding the floor to Trump.
“I’d be very concerned about allowing the House to go into recess at this point in time,” Manley said.
Trump and his allies in Congress, however, have not yet hit upon a clear defense of the explosive allegations. The top Republican on the committee, Representative Devin Nunes of California, barely attempted to defend the president from the allegations in the complaint, instead focusing on the impropriety of Trump’s call with a foreign leader making its way into the public eye.
In the end, he could only warn Maguire not to disclose too much.
“Be careful what you say,” Nunes said, “because they’re going to use these words against you.”
Globe correspondent Ryan Wangman contributed to this report. Liz Goodwin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizcgoodwin. Laura Krantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.