As the first public impeachment hearing got underway on Capitol Hill this morning, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) began the proceedings with a high degree of sobriety and seriousness. The California Democrat seemed eager to acknowledge the historical weight of the circumstances, which are rarely seen in the American tradition.
And when he was finished with his opening remarks, it was Rep. Devin Nunes' (R-Calif.) turn.
When we last heard from the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, the GOP lawmaker unironically criticizing Donald Trump's Democratic critics of acting "like a cult," relying on "defamation and slander," and bouncing "from one outlandish conspiracy to another."
This morning, as a Washington Post analysis noted, Nunes continued down the same unfortunate path.
Rep. Devin Nunes (Calif.), the ranking minority-party member of the House Intelligence Committee, was the first Republican to present a defense of President Trump during the first public hearing of the House's impeachment inquiry.For many observers, Nunes's arguments might have been somewhat confusing, relying at times on shorthand references to rhetoric popular in conservative media. To others, Nunes's introduction of the Republican case might have seemed tangential to the day's discussion.
I imagine many Americans watching were confused, and understandably so. The far-right lawmaker's opening remarks should've been accompanied by some kind of cipher to help those unfamiliar with conservative media conspiracy theories unravel what in the world he was talking about.
The Post's analysis went point by point, highlighting the Republican's errors of fact and judgment, but what Nunes failed to even try to do was mount a credible argument about Trump's innocence.
Nunes' defense of the president, in other words, largely neglected to include any meaningful defense of the president.
As Jon Chait added, "As the state-of-the-art Trumpist of the party's congressional wing, Nunes's opening statement reveals the best case they have been able to muster for his defense. As a matter of substance, it is almost nonexistent."
So why bother? Why go through unrelated conspiracy theories, process complaints, and easy-to-discredit allegations? It's likely that part of the message was intended to make the Television Viewer in Chief down the street happy: Trump revels in the kind of conspiracy theories that Nunes is only too eager to share, and it's hardly a stretch to think the president and his followers were the congressman's intended audience.
Nunes could've focused on persuading the public at large, but he chose instead to pursue the latest in a series of base-mobilization strategies. It was as if the goal had nothing to do with winning over on-the-fence voters, and everything to do with getting a Trump retweet.
That, naturally, came soon after, with the president retweeting this item from House Minority Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).
But the other part of the equation is arguably more important: the fact that Nunes' pitch made little effort to defend Trump on the substance was likely because defending Trump on the substance is nearly impossible.