The Morning Dispatch: The Fight Over Impeachment Witnesses Goes On

Plus, some hateful fringe figures are turning up in places they shouldn’t.

Happy Thursday! We thought our introduction to the political journalism scene was going pretty well, but then we watched Zion Williamson’s NBA debut for the Pelicans last night: 22 points, seven rebounds, 4-for-4 from three? Good Lord. (Editor’s note: You’re not going to mention that 17 of those points came in a crazy three-minute run in the fourth quarter?)

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • With the death toll of the mysterious coronavirus rising to at least 17, Wuhan—the city in China at the center of the outbreak (population: 11 million)—is being locked down. All outbound planes and trains have been halted, and the city’s public transportation system shuttered.

  • President Trump announced he will be speaking at the annual March for Life on Friday, the first president ever to do so in person.

  • Joe Biden remains the favorite, but Bernie Sanders’ odds to win the Democratic nomination are inching upward after a series of polls showed the Vermont senator steadily climbing.

  • A University of Minnesota student was arrested in China and sentenced to six months in prison for posting tweets while in the United States critical of Communist Party leader Xi Jinping.

  • Longtime New York Giants quarterback and two-time Super Bowl winner Eli Manning is retiring from the NFL after 16 seasons.

Impeachment Trial Day 2: 2 Fast 2 Furious

One of our main goals here at The Dispatch is to respect our readers’ time: We are consciously trying to sift through the clutter and focus on things that actually matter. The Morning Dispatch is not going to be that dentist that recommends a root canal and quadrant scaling treatment when a simple filling will suffice. 

Which leads us to impeachment. Wednesday belonged to the House impeachment managers as they made their case for why Trump should be removed from office. The day brought with it a fair share of political squabbling, verbal tit for tats, and bad faith arguments. Almost none of it mattered. 

Instead, here are a few broader themes that seem to be crystallizing two days into the trial.

  1. The fight over witnesses isn’t going anywhere.

Because President Trump was in Davos, Wednesday’s impeachment news started trickling in around 5 a.m. ET. Trump was asked at a press conference to weigh in on whether or not former National Security Adviser John Bolton should testify.

“I would rather go the long way. I would rather interview Bolton. I would rather interview a lot of people,” Trump began, before explaining that, actually, he wouldn’t rather interview a lot of people. “The problem with John is that it’s a national security problem.” 

“I’d love to have Mike Pompeo testify. But again, that’s a national security problem.”

“Rick Perry has asked me, ‘I’d love to testify. Please, let me testify.’ … But we’re dealing with national security.”

We’ll refer you back to Jonah’s piece on executive privilege for a deeper look at what Trump can and can’t do to prevent his top aides from testifying, but it’s clear from that exchange he’d rather they not.

That won’t stop Democrats from attempting to subpoena them. Sen. Chuck Schumer and friends will face an uphill battle, but they might be able to pry off the four Republican votes necessary to make it happen later on in the trial process.

“While I need to hear the case argued and the questions answered,” Sen. Susan Collins said, “I anticipate that I would conclude that having additional information would be helpful. It is likely that I would support a motion to subpoena witnesses at that point in the trial.”

Sen. Mitt Romney told CNN, “I’ve already indicated I’m interested to hear from John Bolton, perhaps among others.” 

Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee—retiring in 2020—are other names to watch on that front.

If a witness like John Bolton is subpoenaed, you can bet there will be clamoring from Trump’s biggest supporters to call Joe and Hunter Biden as well. Sen. Ted Cruz told reporters Wednesday evening that Democratic statements earlier in the day “directly drew into question Hunter Biden, and made not only his testimony relevant, which it already was, but it is now critical.”

Although there have been some rumors floated of a Bolton-for-(Hunter) Biden witness swap that would give both sides plenty of fodder to bring back to their cable network of choice, it appears the trade deadline has passed. “Off the table,” Schumer told reporters when presented with the idea.

  1. Good luck changing anyone’s mind—about anything.

“So far what [head impeachment manager Rep. Adam Schiff] has said we’ve heard before,” Sen. Mike Braun told Axios.

“Six hours of testimony so far today since I didn't hear anything new, at all,” Sen. John Barrasso argued.

“So far we haven’t learned anything new,” Sen. John Cornyn said.

Of course, if these Republican senators are so disappointed by the lack of fresh material being brought to bear by the House impeachment managers, have we got news for them: They can vote to obtain more! 

“I understand the president’s desire to get all this information out in the public,” Sen. Ron Johnson told Politico when asked about Trump’s feigned interest in calling witnesses. “But at the same time we have to look at what’s best for the country.”

Reasonable people can disagree on process grounds over the evidence-gathering role the Senate should play vis-a-vis the House in an impeachment trial. 

But it’s not just the witness fight that has demonstrated many in the GOP’s lack of intellectual curiosity here. “I’m not an impartial juror … I’m not impartial about this at all,” Sen. Mitch McConnell told reporters weeks before taking an oath that he “will do impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws.” At one point in the trial a reporter counted 21 empty chairs on the Republican side compared to two on the Democratic. Sen. Dianne Feinstein left the Capitol an hour before the Senate adjourned. A GOP senator from Idaho fell asleep during the proceedings.

This trend can be extrapolated to the cable networks as well. While CNN and MSNBC pushed back prime time shows to continue airing a live feed of the trial, Fox News forged ahead with its regularly scheduled programming, hosting members of Trump’s defense and impeachment teams to bash the Democrats’ case, while, for much of the night, relegating the Democrats’ actual case to a muted box in the bottom corner of the screen.

There are plenty of Republicans in the Senate taking this process as seriously as they should. And again, reasonable people can disagree over whether or not President Trump’s Ukrainian adventure rises to the level of an impeachable offense. We can tell you now: well shy of the 67 needed to convict Trump will vote to do so.

But even in a political environment where statements are only true if they’re uttered by someone on the same team, the least the “greatest deliberative body in the world” can do is listen.

  1. Because we’re still getting new information!

As Adam Schiff's argument drew to a close late last night, Chief Justice John Roberts, presiding over the trial, announced that supplemental testimony from Jennifer Williams, an aide to Vice President Mike Pence who testified in the impeachment inquiry last November, could be entered the Senate record. The testimony remains classified, so the public won't be able to see it—but senators will be. 

We won’t get ahead of the facts, but it seems unlikely that Schiff would ask to introduce—and ask senators to look at—a nothingburger. Even if the document doesn’t live up to the inevitable hype it receives over the next 24 to 48 hours, you can be sure its contents will fuel a thousand cable news food fights.

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A Few Bad Apples

One problem the Republican Party has struggled with for decades has been its inability to distance itself from the bad actors in its midst. For many conservatives, a general conviction that the mainstream media and the left tend to operate in bad faith leads them to embrace any figure deemed a pariah by the media on “enemy of my enemy” grounds. In recent years, the problem has been less the party’s inability to distance itself from bad actors as it has been the eager willingness of some in the GOP to embrace grifters, conspiracy theorists and bigots.

This week, we saw two striking examples of this phenomenon. The first took place at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where the White House issued a press credential for the trip to Rick Wiles of TruNews. The problem: TruNews is a ludicrously anti-Semitic blog that peddles the absurd notion of a Jewish conspiracy to seize political power to carry out mass murder against American Christians. In recent months, Wiles has repeatedly insisted that Democrats’ impeachment effort against the president was part of this “Jew Coup”—because “that’s the way the Jews work, they are deceivers, they plot, they lie, they do whatever they have to do to accomplish their political agenda.”

That’s not an isolated example. It’s typical of the aggressive anti-Semitism that characterizes the views of Wiles and the bigots who appear with him.

“This is by far, I think, the most prestigious event in the world,” Wiles bragged in his broadcast from Davos. “It’s an honor to be here, and we just want to thank President Trump and the White House for extending the invitation to be here. … There’s a lot of people in the news media that are very upset that TruNews is showing up at these places, but it’s God’s favor on us. Almighty God’s favor is on TruNews.”

The White House has not yet offered an explanation for its decision to credential TruNews in Davos.

Then there was the event that took place at the Florida Capitol on Tuesday, at which state Sen. Joe Gruters, who also serves as chairman of the Florida Republican Party, plugged a bill designed to stop big social media companies from allegedly silencing conservative voices.

The bill itself, which would expose companies like Facebook and Twitter to civil liability if they censor religious or political speech on their platforms, isn’t particularly noteworthy in itself—it’s the sort of thing that’s trendy among a certain sort of market-skeptical conservatives right now, structurally similar to a federal bill Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley introduced last year. What was particularly noteworthy was who Gruters had there to introduce the bill with him: Laura Loomer, the loony internet conspiracy theorist and self-styled “proud Islamophobe” who has called for a permanent ban on Muslims entering the country, a prohibition of Muslims serving in elected office, and was kicked off most social media platforms last year over her constant inflammatory remarks. Loomer is currently running for Congress in Florida’s (safely Democratic) 21st Congressional District, running on a platform that if she were in Congress Twitter would have to give her account back.

“I am proud to have Laura Loomer stand with me here today, because what we are here discussing is social media censorship, and we are trying to stop the bias,” Gruters said at his press conference.

Asked by The Dispatch whether he is comfortable supporting a figure like Loomer given her past statements, Gruters demurred: “The event I held with Ms. Loomer is not an endorsement and has nothing to do with her congressional bid. Again, this discussion is about protecting the public’s rights under the First Amendment and why it is not okay to censor those that you don’t agree with.”

Of course, even if you buy that argument, and there are many reasons to be skeptical, it’s not necessary to announce that you’re “proud” to appear with well-known bigot.

These are not fringe GOP figures embracing and amplifying this ugly bigotry. It’s the leader of a major state Republican Party and the White House press office. And it ought to be embarrassing for sane members of the GOP.

Worth Your Time

  • Last year, the New York Times’s “1619 Project” attempted to recast the history of America—rather than a story of a nation founded as an experiment in self-government and dedicated to human rights and liberty, a story of a nation founded and perpetuated primarily for the sake of the institution of chattel slavery. But that project quickly ran afoul of a number of historians who took issue with many of its factual claims. This Atlantic piece, written by Princeton history professor Sean Wilentz, is an important contribution to the subject. 

  • This meditation on the humble words “mere” and “able,” which comes your way courtesy of Wilfred McClay and The Hedgehog Review, is a simple and edifying delight: “Would it not be a vast improvement if we learned to calibrate our language so that it described merely the way things are, and appreciated them for that?” 

  • The latest National Review editorial scolds Senate Republicans for clinging to the legally dubious and intellectually hollow argument that the president cannot be removed from office unless he has committed a crime. “Republicans would be better off arguing that in this case the president’s behavior, while objectionable, should be left, as scheduled, to the judgment of the voters directly—an argument that already has the support of most voters in polls and accords with Senate Republicans’ actual beliefs.”

Presented Without Comment

A Glimmer of Hope

Something Fun

We are somehow both cheered and unsettled to see that Sen. Cory Booker’s ornate and generally regrettable dad jokes didn’t end when his presidential campaign did.

Toeing the Company Line

  • The second edition of Tom Joscelyn’s Vital Interests newsletter is out and it’s a must read, focusing on the implications of the Trump administration’s new trade deal with China, changes in ISIS leadership, and American military presence in Africa.

  • Two new podcasts for your listening pleasure! The latest Advisory Opinions features Jennie Bradley Lichter—the deputy director of the White House Domestic Policy Council—for a conversation on religious liberty. On the flagship Dispatch Podcast, the Sarah hosts David, Jonah and Steve in a discussion of impeachment, executive privilege, our nuclear modernization efforts, and Monday’s gun rights rally in Virginia.

  • On the home page today: David French takes a look at Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, an important religious liberty case. And also on the legal front, Timothy Sandefur looks at a case that was argued before the 5th Circuit yesterday, challenging the Indian Child Welfare Act.

Let Us Know

Eli Manning is retiring from the NFL as a player of dramatic contradictions. He spent his whole career in his older brother’s shadow, then went out as the highest-paid player in NFL history. He slogged through mediocre season after mediocre season seemingly most of his career, but twice triumphed over the greatest NFL dynasty of all time on the biggest stage in sports. Who are some other athletes who leave behind as impressively erratic a legacy?

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).

Photograph of John Bolton by Mark Wilson/Getty Images.