Maybe you can help me figure out the score here.
I pay a lot of attention to the state of play in the battle between this lawless President and the House Democrats seeking to uphold the rule of law. But sometimes — despite all that attention — I’m left with questions that cloud the scoreboard. I can’t tell who’s winning.
This week has been one of those weeks, what with the Democrats of the House winning slam-dunk victories in two federal courts, and with various commentators talking confidently about how the net is closing in on Trump, and saying also that these victories bolster Speaker Pelosi’s strategy of proceeding carefully, step-by-step.
But I can’t tell just what these court victories mean in terms of achieving what must be the ultimate goal.
The Democrats have often acted and spoken as if their sense of the task is the same as mine. If the ultimate goal is to save our democracy from this would-be autocrat, the penultimate goal — the means to that end — is to get a substantial majority of the American people to see the need for Congress to do what it must do to protect the nation from Trump.
The Democrats (at least some of the time) and Trump both recognize that this battle is over public opinion.
That’s why the Democrats want public hearings (with Mueller, McGahn) and why they want access to information that will expose Trump’s various forms of criminality (tax returns, etc.).
That’s why Trump is doing everything he can to prevent the kind of televised hearings that helped bring down Nixon, and why he’s using the legal process to block/delay release of his financial information.
The Democrats already know that Trump has committed impeachable offenses– not only from the Mueller Report, but even from Trump’s current attack on Congress’s clear constitutional role. Their efforts cannot be mostly about their own need to know.
And the Democrats already know that the Trump legal cases are bogus, and that they’ll be thrown out of court– exactly as the two federal judges did this week with the Mazars (accountants) and Deutsche bank cases. And what doubtless will happen with the IRS defiance of clear federal law about handing over Trump’s tax returns requested by the House Ways and Means Committee.
So their victories in court can hardly be news to them.
Trump’s lawyers presumably also know that their arguments are not “serious” and are “unfathomable,” as the judges have declared. So we can presume that they’re not expecting to win in court but only hoping to win by buying time.
So one of the big questions is: Is Trump succeeding in buying enough time to matter– in terms of the outcome of the battle?
The federal judges’ rulings now get appealed. Does that mean that the Democrats will get none of the materials they’re seeking until the appeals have been exhausted? Or are there any immediate fruits of these victories?
(One particular piece of the picture that confuses me: the federal judge in DC — in the Mazars case — refused to stay his judgment. Does that mean that Mazars is compelled — or even allowed — to obey that judge’s ruling and give the Congress the materials now? If so, what can be the meaning of the case now being appealed to the Court of Appeals? If the material were to be already in the hands of Congress, what would be left to decide? And if the appeals process means that nothing happens until it’s been decided above this judge, why would the issue of a “stay” even arise?)
These judges have definitely moved these cases quickly, by the usual standards of federal cases. If it can be assumed that the higher court(s) will likewise expedite their hearing and deciding these cases, and assuming that the original decision is upheld, when would that mean that there would be a final court order compelling that the Congress be given the material?
Assuming that the Democrats prevail in all these court processes — and I’m imagining that their victories in the Mazars and Deutsche Bank cases are previews of how the other battles over witnesses and documents will go — how soon do they need to prevail for it to be rightly said that the Democrats have won and Trump has lost?
Another question is: In the battle for public opinion, is Trump losing already as these legal battles are being fought, or is he winning because the public is not yet seeing anything that will have an impact on them?
The legal commentators who are crowing about the devastating rebukes the Trump team is being given by the judges seem to think that these blows directly hurt Trump by exposing his indefensible obstruction of justice.
My fear is that the public as a whole is disconnected from these legal processes, and from the issues of “checks and balances” and “separation of powers” and all the other serious constitutional issues at stake.
But I’d love to think that — even without the powerful hearings that should be happening, even without the evidence being made public of Trump’s financial corruption (or whatever he’s been so eager to hide) — the public is witnessing in the current battle enough to move opinion against Trump.
Is there evidence that this is happening? Do we see signs that the Democrats’ current step-by-step, gradual movement that Speaker Pelosi has persuaded her caucus to stick with, is more than a means to some hoped-for future end, but is already succeeding in moving American public opinion to where she wants it to be before any official declaration of the “I-word”?
Last night, on MSNBC, freshman representative Katie Hill of California said that the calls to her office had switched dramatically from 2:1 against impeachment to even more than 2:1 for impeachment.
Are there signs that such a switch is happening in the nation more generally? I haven’t seen polling data suggesting this. Have you?
So time is passing. The Democrats are winning in court but still blocked from staging the dramatizations they’ve wanted (and that Trump is doing everything he can to prevent).*
* Let me again advance the idea — developed in my piece How Nadler’s Committee Can Start Effective Hearings Now — that the House Judiciary Committee (blocked for now from getting the desired public testimony from witnesses like Mueller and McGahn) can already stage powerful hearings by calling a handful of that extraordinary number of former Department of Justice officials — especially Republicans among them — who signed that extraordinary letter that draws the conclusions from the Mueller Report and from McGahn’s reported testimony: that Trump is guilty of “multiple felonies” against the rule of law.