The Republican criticism of impeachment is all about process: It’s too secretive, since all interviews are behind closed doors, and only around 100 members of Congress from both parties are able to observe depositions.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., called it a “star chamber” process this week, and even Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, who is one of President Trump’s most vocal critics inside his own party, said he would like to see a vote in the full House of Representatives authorizing the inquiry.
But the biggest problem with Republican critiques is that Democrats in the House are following a playbook for investigations that was first written by Republicans in large part over the past several years.
Depositions held behind closed doors? That’s what happened with the congressional investigation into the 2012 attack on a U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya.
“Of the 50-some odd interviews we have done thus far, the vast majority of them have been private,” said Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., who chaired the House Select Committee on Benghazi, in 2015.
“The private ones always produce better results,” Gowdy said.
Gowdy also kept a close hold on transcripts rather than releasing them, as House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, the California Democrat overseeing the inquiry, is doing now.
Subpoenas issued without consultation with the minority? That too was part of the Republican playbook. Most committee chairs didn’t even have the power to do that until Republicans held control of the House from 2010 to 2018. In their zeal to investigate the Obama administration, House Republicans doubled the number of committees where the chair could issue unilateral subpoenas demanding witnesses come to testify or be deposed.
And while chairing the House Oversight Committee, Republican Darrell Issa of California issued more than 100 subpoenas without minority input during his investigations into the Obama administration.
Democrats did complain about the ways that Republicans were expanding the power of committee chairs to go after a Democratic president.
Drew Hammill, a spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, said in 2015 that expanding subpoena power would lead “inevitably to widespread abuses of power as Republicans infect the other committees with the poisonous process that Issa has so abused during his chairmanship.”
Republicans say their expansion of committee power was in response to a lack of cooperation from the Obama White House.
And as to the calls for a full House vote? In fact, that was done in 1974 and 1998 — in the run-up to the impeachment hearings of Presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton — because a full House vote was required to authorize committee staff to conduct depositions, which occur behind closed doors. Republicans, however, got rid of that requirement.
Democrats allowed one committee — House Oversight and Government Reform — to set its own rules for staff depositions in 2007. Republicans then extended that power to almost all committees in 2017.
Republican complaints that the president’s attorneys have not been allowed to sit in on the depositions have had more resonance, since Nixon’s attorneys were part of the House Judiciary process in 1974.
But comparisons to the 1998 impeachment of Bill Clinton are of limited value on this point. Much of the investigative work into Clinton was done by independent counsel Ken Starr, and the House moved quickly to impeachment without much of an investigative process.
Molly Reynolds, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, said that the House is now “still very much in a fact-finding inquiry” at this point.
That could soon change, as public hearings may commence as soon as mid-November, bringing in for public testimony some individuals who have spoken to staff.
But for now, Reynolds said, the question to ask is, “What stage of the process are we at and what level of transparency is appropriate for that?”
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