U.S. congress mostly behaves during TV debut of impeachment hearings

Congress behaved itself as Americans and the world tuned in for the first time to the impeachment hearings against President Donald Trump.

But the largely respectful conduct Wednesday wasn’t an effort to preserve the dignity of the House doing the gravest of its constitutional duties, or the sudden return of civility. “Boring,” as the president’s son Eric tweeted, served both parties during only the fourth presidential impeachment proceedings in the nation’s history, on the cusp of the 2020 election year.

So between the pillars of a chilly House hearing room, lawmakers put up posters, waved papers around and in the case of ringer Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, speed talked through five-minute rounds of questions. Republicans seated in the audience grumbled and one openly scoffed at Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif. But there was a distinct lack of bickering and over-the-top burns that have become the hallmark of congressional hearings during the Trump presidency.

It all seemed to serve the spirit of being “solemn” and “sad,” as suggested for months by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

“It’s hard for me to stay awake,” said Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., who attended the proceedings in one of two rows reserved for lawmakers.

Short of war, there’s no more serious national question than whether a president should be removed from office. Impeachment, the first step in the process of removal, is such a grave and seldom-used remedy that it’s spelled out in the Constitution and has only been levelled by the House against two presidents, Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton 130 years later. Richard Nixon was on the brink of it in 1974 before he resigned.

This moment is animated by Trump’s reckoning with an equivalent branch of government after a lifetime in the private sector — and the limits that puts on his presidency. On Wednesday as the hearings opened, Trump dismissed them as “a joke” and said he hadn’t watched them while hosting a visit from Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan.

READ MORE: ‘Sad day’ or ‘scam’? What to watch at Trump impeachment hearing

When history happens in Washington, it sometimes looks like a room full of people processing information. In this case, most of that information was known by the time Schiff, the House Intelligence Committee chairman, gaveled open the hearing.

The two witnesses, diplomats William “Bill” Taylor and George Kent, already had testified to their concerns over Trump’s shadow diplomacy, all while holding up military aid to the U.S. ally. Transcripts of their closed-door testimony running hundreds of pages had been made public. And Trump and his allies had long since dismissed the probe as a “witch hunt” and a “fraud,” while Democrats say the July 25 phone call represented an abuse of power, if not the bribery cited by the Constitution as grounds for impeachment.

On Wednesday, there were signs that this stage of the impeachment process would be less than riveting.

The House recessed for a few hours so that lawmakers could watch the proceedings or attend them in person. A few Republicans and Democrats stopped by, including Meadows and Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, the Michigan Democrat who famously vowed on her first day in Congress to impeach Trump, attended the hearing’s opening moments.

One who stayed for hours was Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, who had some things to say about the hearing and the impeachment effort. And he said them out loud from the front row of the hushed hearing room.

When Schiff said he didn’t know the name of the whistleblower who sparked impeachment, Gohmert laughed out loud.

When Kent testified to the character of other witnesses, Gohmert growled, “All gossip mongers.”

And when Schiff interrupted Republican questions with a parliamentary inquiry, Gohmert scoffed, “Are you kidding me?”

If Schiff heard, he did not respond. But he’s clearly not kidding, and Pelosi’s got his back.

“I hope we will all take our lead from him,” she told House Democrats in a closed meeting, according to an aide who was not authorized to speak publicly and requested anonymity.

Laurie Kellman, The Associated Press

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