Steve Clemons: Hi, I’m Steve Clemons and I have a question. Has Congress convinced the American people that impeaching president Donald J. Trump is justified? Let’s get to the bottom line. The impeachment inquiry is officially two months old, and it seems that the only thing that it has really proved is that Americans live side by side in two parallel universes.
In one, Donald Trump tried to bribe a foreign country into investigating a political rival to win the elections next year. And in the other, Democrats are conspiring to destroy the president at any cost. And their partners are an evil media spewing fake news, diplomats and bureaucrats from the “deep state” plus some Ukrainians who many believe where the real meddlers in the last election rather than the Russians. So which universe are we in?
Fortunately we have three people in the room who have the answer to that question. Rina Shah, a Republican strategist who founded relaxed strategies, a political consulting firm here in Washington. Newton-Smalll, contributor to Time Magazine and author of Broad Influence: How Women Are Changing the Way America Works. And Peter Roff, contributing editor for Newsweek Magazine and commentator for one America news network.
Thank you so much for joining us. Peter, let me just start out with you.
Clemons: What does the dashboard of this look like to you? I know that you have written about the Republican party and you’ve written in your own opinion pieces in support of president Trump, but I’d like to get the dashboard of what you think you’re seeing and that maybe others in Americans aren’t seeing about this impeachment process.
Roff: I think the dashboard clearly is that the Trump parts of America are getting Trumpier and the parts that don’t like president are getting more intense in their dislike of the president. Now, how that all adds up in 2020 is something we’re going to have to wait and see. Because I think we’ve reached the point where I think Peter Hart, the democratic pollster was telling me this, that where at 1980, where the country’s just sort of decided we don’t like what’s going on. We blame the guy in the White House. We need to see what the alternative is and if we can live with the alternative for four years, then we go there. If we can’t live with the alternative for four years, then we stay where we are.
Clemons: But that’s politics. Peter, I’m just interested in what we’ve seen the house do is put together information in a case in front of the American people about a phone call, about the intention of that phone call, about those who’ve listened to it and those that basically thought the president may have engaged in inappropriate behaviour. And so there’s been a discussion of facts. Why have those facts not percolated through?
Roff: I don’t think there’s been a discussion of facts. I think there’s been a discussion of what people presume. There’s been a discussion of feelings. There’s been a discussion of what people overheard. The fact standard as applies in a court of law, and admittedly the congressional community is not a court of law, but the fact standard in a court of law has not been reached.
And even if you wanted to argue that it was, everybody has said really no quid pro quo, at least not as defined by Adam Schiff, Nancy Pelosi and the people that want to remove the president from office.
Clemons: Well, let’s take a look for a moment at how the American public today looks at impeachment. What we see is that 46.3 percent of the nation supports impeachment right now, 45.4 percent doesn’t support impeachment. What’s fascinating about this, this is a snapshot now. We saw just two weeks ago, those numbers were actually over 50 percent so we’ve had a little bit of drop-off. Maybe the Democrats lost their audience a little bit. Rina, how do you see this right now? Because we’ve gone back, the nation has gone back to those numbers of a real just complete divide. That’s what these were in October. How do you see it?
Shah: Well, you know the nation’s always been divided. And that’s been my problem with speaker Pelosi bringing impeachment so late because it was damned if she did and damned if she didn’t.
And I think what we’ve really lost here is the understanding that we operated in a new sort of a new normal anyway because of technology having such a role in all of our lives. We’re bombarded with news of this impeachment all the time. But are Americans outside the beltway tuning in? And I think the answer is no, there’s a political fatigue here. The factor that really affects all of this.
And I think that’s what’s led to the numbers going back down, is that there seems to be that people really are talking about their feelings in this moment much to your point. And it feels like that there’s something sort of nefarious at play here from both sides. So people are not really sure what to say.
Clemons: Let me play Devil’s advocate here-
Shah: Yeah, sure.
Clemons:… because I’ve been trying to understand this myself. This is the fourth time in American history that an impeachment process was conducted against an American president.
There’s like no bigger show than this show. And we have incredible debates about who did what to whom and what is liable. We’re seeing, I’m seeing judges and whatnot go back to the Federalist Papers and Hamilton, which has had a Broadway play and a Broadway revival is coming out reminding Americans what balance of power and checks and balances look like. And you’re right, the American public doesn’t seem interested. Is this an indictment of our democracy?
Shah: Well, I’m not sure that it is that quite yet and I think it’s going to be many months until we really know that, because right now people in all parts of America, and I think we can talk even about the urban centers are feeling like, is this enough? Is there enough evidence there to say, “He did it.” And when I talked to sensible Republican men and women who I believe have always been on the fence about this president and haven’t really quite liked his behaviour, but say the policies are what I like. They say to me, “I think Obama did this stuff too. We just don’t know about it.” And that’s the what about-ism that I think is really probably the most complex thing here.
Clemons: You just mentioned the word evidence, and I want to get Jay in this, but I want to play a very interesting clip from President Trump who talks about what we’re seeing.
Video: Just remember what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening. And I’ll tell you, I have so many people that are so incredible because we have to make our country truly great again. Remember, make America great again.
Clemons: Jay, that was from last year. But nonetheless, it’s sort of a constant theme from the president that the media are spewing out fake information, that you can’t trust the media. And that a fact is not a fact. Now, I remember actually in one of the first classes I took in high school in the ninth grade, we had a course that was about the start of the revolutionary war and we had eight primary documents and every document had a different view of it. And it taught me at the time, to some degree, truth is negotiated. Are we negotiating truth today?
I think absolutely Steven, this is part of the problem with what’s going on. And I remember during the 2016 campaign, the Wall Street Journal had this amazing op-ed, which called on Facebook to have an opposite button, right? So that if whatever algorithms were delivering whatever news to you, you should be able to flip that switch and see what the other side was. And of course Facebook hasn’t done that, but we are missing that opposite button, right?
Like all the idea of incidental news and used to get opening up a newspaper, opening up a magazine and seeing opposing opinions or other sides of things, we don’t get that anymore because news is just so siloed and it’s delivered into our inbox and into our Twitter feeds and we self-select whose opinions we see, we self-select who we’re reading and what we’re seeing. And that has created this siloization of news. And so people are convinced that this is the absolute truth, that this one whole side is totally lying.
And the other side is just totally crazy and they’re out to get each other. And that’s why I think there was a poll out a few weeks ago that you had almost 30 percent of Americans believing that we’re on the cusp of civil war because there’s just these two so polarised sides of the politics these days and they’re not talking to each other, they’re talking at each other.
Roff: I think that’s the key is they’re talking at each other and you know, Twitter is actually the perfect mechanism for communications in this era. A lot of people standing up shouting and nobody listening. It’s impossible if you have even 3,000 followers on Twitter like I do to read everything that everybody else is posting. And so people are just putting information out. They’re not being good consumers but getting back to where we are in terms of the polarisation, the country was polarized before Trump was elected. Michael Barone’s done the longitudinal studies. Partisan voting has risen dramatically.
Clemons: I should add Michael Barone is the guy who has written the political Almanac of Washington for decades –
Roff: And the guy that all of us look to for numbers and he absolutely brilliant, but partisan voting has written since the Bush years. The number of people who split ticket who vote Democrat for governor and Republican for Congress and Democrat again for city council and Republican for the US Senate has declined dramatically. And so people are taking upsides whether they’re being driven that way because of the information sources or the information sources are responding to what the natural inclination is. I don’t know.
Clemons: So Peter, if Barack Obama had said in a similar way to a foreign government, Venezuela or whatever. “Let’s go see what Senator Tom Cotton has done or let’s go take another political rival had done. What would your party be doing right now?
Roff: I think there are a lot of people who’d be screaming bloody murder. I am very concerned that the Biden piece of this conversation though seems to be off limits for an awful lot of the –
Clemons: So go further. Tell me more about it.
Roff: The vice president was the point man on Ukraine policy for the Obama administration. His son Hunter gets a $50,000 a month job as a member of the board of directors of a company that has been identified as a place where corruption is a problem.
The vice president then intervenes to get the prosecutor investigating that corruption fired by threatening to hold up military aid and has seen bragging about it on tape. And somehow that whole part of the conversation is off limits.
Clemons: I don’t think it’s off limits. I mean I just want to challenge him in one sense, because I’m one of the writers when I was at the Atlantic who interviewed vice president Biden at that time, I actually went with him to Kiev and he did brag about having that prosecutor fired.
But I think as we saw in the hearings for those, the deputy assistant secretary Kent told very clearly that it was a whole of government initiative to try and deal with Ukrainian corruption and that president Trump’s effort was not a hold of governmentship. I’m not saying that’s not a legitimate on Hunter Biden, but I do think that there’s a bit of difference.
So going back to our original premises, why are those Republicans whom you know, who are dismissive of impeachment, not looking at the broader elements of that story?
Roff: I think they are, I think Lindsey Graham has taken a, I think a brave step forward in saying, “We are going to look at this.” There may be nothing there and it’s entirely possible there’s nothing there. The president may have believed there was something there. It may have been a legitimate belief. I think it is the responsibility of the federal government to make sure that our employees, that our diplomats, that our elected officials are not engaged in corrupt acts overseas, just as they are not engaged in corrupt acts over here. I think it is a legitimate area of inquiry and I think to argue that it goes to the personal political benefit of the president because Biden is his likely opponent in 2020 is a dramatic overreach, it really is pounding a square peg into a round hole-
Shah: I couldn’t disagree more. I couldn’t disagree more.
Roff: In order to meet the terms of what they want to get.
Shah: No, he used the word favour in black and white and to me it’s a very elementary argument that the president was clearly trying to eliminate a political rival of his before that person could become a real rival. And he was trying to do that by asking a foreign adversary, well, I guess Ukraine is not a foreign adversary, but let’s go deeper here and see what he was really asking for.
He’s saying, “Can you do this investigation?” And he knows that the results of that would produce likely information about Biden bragging about certain things. All this misinformation that’s out there. This has sort of created the sick chaos that president Trump likes to create because he likes to draw into things that are very questionable.
And that’s exactly where we are, and that’s where we’ve lost the American public because people are sort of doing a, he said, she said situation and who’s looking best here, the president and what we’re forgetting as that. That is completely unacceptable. That is completely wrong in our society to ask a foreign government to do your political bidding essentially.
Clemons: Rina, I want to play a segment from Devin Nunes commenting about exactly this and seeing things differently. Let’s hear for Congressman Devin Nunes.
Devin Nunes: The media of course are free to act as Democrat puppets and they’re free to lurch from the Russia hoax to the Ukraine hoax at the direction of their puppet masters, but they cannot reasonably expect to do so without alienating half the country who voted for the president they’re trying to expel. Americans have learned to recognise fake news when they see it, and if the mainstream press won’t give it to them straight, they’ll go elsewhere to find it, which is exactly what the American people are doing.
Clemons: Rina, you are Republican. You don’t support President Trump.
Shah: Lifelong. Yes.
Clemons: You just shared your own perspective that for this, this is very clear. If we had Devin Nunes on this show today, he would be seeing this very differently than you did and looking at this as somewhat of a scam. How do you navigate through this? What’s your North Star as a Republican in this interesting soap opera?
Shah: The constitution. Frankly, that’s it. And Republicans on Capitol Hill can talk about conspiracy theories all they want. They can say, “Well, let’s move the goalposts frankly on what is acceptable for a president to do and not to do.” And in broad daylight. The one thing congressional Republicans love to say that this has been happening for years, but what president Trump does and what they love about him is that he does it all in broad daylight and therefore it can’t be as nefarious.
The word I love using, because both sides accuse each other of doing things that are so blatantly wrong. I come back to this whole thing and say, “It’s so simple. It’s so elementary, what is acceptable for our president to do and not do?” And to me to just sort of almost sell us out, the American people, and put his own personal interests above ours.
I really think it goes back to are you willing to put country over party and this president time and time again asks Republican to say, “Believe me, everything I’m saying is right. If I told you there was no quid pro quo, there wasn’t any.” And that to me is wrong, because that’s what dictators do, they tell us one thing and one is to believe another.
Clemons: So with all due respect, and I respect your-
Clemons: … independent thinking in your party, you don’t seem to be winning the case-
Clemons: … in the Republican case. So is impeachment, I’ll ask you both, I’ll wrap things up and jump to Jay, is this helping the president right now? Are you seeing that in November next year this will have been a net plus for the president or a bigger help for the Democrats?
I do believe this is wonderful for the Trump administration, for him to win re-election. Of course, in my study of the American presidency, the incumbency is just so strong and what are Americans going to do when they go to the polls next November? They’re just going to say, “Is the economy all right?”
If there’s been a large scale terror event, or even if there’s not been, they’re going to say, “What’s another four years?” And that’s what I worry. This isn’t about overturning the will of the people in the last election. This is about the fabric of our democracy. What keeps us together. I worry about another thing too, the othering of each other.
What we do, people look at me now, they say, “You’re a young brown woman who’s a mother, a daughter of immigrants.” I said, “I’m none of those things.” “I’m just an American above all of that.” Let’s just look at each other with what do we want from our country? What do we want from our leaders?
Clemons: Right. Peter help her here.
Roff: I don’t know how it plays out frankly. I suspect, and everybody’s operating in the presumption that the Senate doesn’t convict, that the Senate doesn’t remove him from office or that he chooses not to resign. I think all of those possibilities have to be on the table. I think it’s too early to say. I suspect if we get an impeachment without any action by the Senate other than the trial in which he survives.
It depends on what the vote is, but probably helps him in Trump areas and it probably hurts him in areas that are not Trump areas. It also depends a lot frankly on who the Democrats nominate as their candidate.
Clemons: So a lot of moving pieces.
Roff: If they nominate Joe Biden, that’s one thing. If they nominate Elizabeth Warren entirely different story.
Newton-Small: I’m not convinced actually that the house is going to impeach and I know that’s not a popular opinion in Washington right now, but I do actually-
Clemons: Do you think they have an off ramp possibility?
Newton-Small: I do. I do think they have an off ramp and I think the off ramp-
Clemons: What’s the off ramp?
Newton-Small: Is censure. Right. And you saw this even with Schiff this morning saying his report is going to come after Thanksgiving, but that a large part of the report will focus on the fact that the courts and the administration have obstructed them from interviewing key witnesses, right? And so I think they could easily say, “We didn’t get the full story. We didn’t get to hear from Mick Mulvaney from John Bolton, from these key witnesses in the White House.” And so [crosstalk 00:17:19]-
Clemons: But now we have this justice in. Can we have this decision?
Newton-Small: So then we moved to censure with reserving the right to impeach down the road, which also then prevents the Senate from having a trial and saves Joe Biden from that trial.
Roff: Having been around when my friends were full bore down the road to impeach Bill Clinton, I guarantee you there are a number of Republicans who when we got to the point said, “Hey guys, what are we doing here? I mean this is really thin. I mean, yeah, perjury, serious crime, but this is really thin. Is there a way we’re to pull this back?”
Clemons: They were not excited about going in?
Roff: They could not make the 180 and with all due respect-
Newton-Small: Never bet against Nancy Pelosi. She is like-
Clemons: Pelosi you think would take the center track.
Newton-Small: I think Pelosi did not. [crosstalk 00:18:07] Rina said earlier. I think Pelosi did [crosstalk 00:18:08].
Clemons: To your point Jay, because you mentioned it, Federal Judge, District Court Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson had this wonderful statement in which I found very interesting from a historical perspective and she said, “The United States of America has a government of laws and not of men stated simply the primary takeaway from the past 250 years of recorded American history is that presidents are not kings.”
Clemons: I don’t know how you end up with a censure off ramp, because this decision from the judge was basically saying that Don McGahn, former White House counsel would have to testify before the house, which then creates an interesting pathway for the acting Chief of Staff, Mick Mulvaney and of course the 900 pound gorilla in this, John Bolton, National Security Advisor who has a $2 million book deal on what he may or may not write about.
Newton-Small: But then you also … That’ll get appealed to the Supreme court. They’ll likely stay any kind of witness testimony until they’ve actually come to decisions. It could be June by the time it gets to that decision from the Supreme court and there’s no way they’re going to then in June impeach the president. I think-
Roff: And it should be said too, that this judge’s decision is a bit of an outlier in terms of what the precedent has historically been. The Congress subpoenaed Attorney General Eric Holder to come and testify in Fast and Furious. He refused. He was cited for contempt of Congress. [crosstalk 00:19:30] The justice department couldn’t enforce that.
Clemons: The Republican dominated congresses and democratic. I’ve never seen more people just ignore subpoenas. I used to think, and we were all trained, you can’t ignore a subpoena. I worked as a staff member for a U.S. Senator and was nearly subpoenaed to appear before a house committee. Didn’t happen, but I was shaking in my boots thinking this could be the worst thing ever for my life, my career, my financial situation.
Clemons: But why is it not such a big deal anymore?
Roff: I think it’s not a big deal because the idea that the Democrats, once they took control of the House of Representatives had it’s item one on their agenda, impeaching the president, and they had been searching for a reason since they started. Mueller, emoluments, now the Ukraine phone call. They tried to turn quid pro quo into bribery because of focus groups and they’ve now backed off on that.
Shah: No, because it was [crosstalk 00:20:27] extortion.
Roff: There may be something. They focus-
Shah: No Peter, I’m sorry with all due respect you’re completely wrong.
Roff: They focus grouped it. They found out that bribery tested-
Shah: There’s no focus group.
Roff: … better than quid pro quo-
Shah: You’re telling me the average American can not see this for what they are, you must be saying our fellow citizens are quite dumb.
Roff: I’m telling you what the reports are in the focus groups.
Shah: You must be taking our electorate for a complete-
Roff: I’m telling you what the focus groups reported. I am simply saying-
Shah: This is not about the focus groups Peter, this is about the American people seeing in broad daylight.
Roff:… that hey knew the impeachment was coming and so it’s hard to take this whole thing seriously. And I think that this has been destructive to the institution of Congress. It has been introduced in [crosstalk 00:21:01].
Clemons: But the word bribery is [crosstalk 00:21:02].
Shah: President Trump has been-
Roff: To the institutional-
Clemons: The powers in the constitution. So it’s going to be interesting moment for a history lesson over Thanksgiving weekend. Jay, as we look at what might move the needle in this, and I’m very interested in your research and work that you’ve done on women who are leading politically in this nation. Both parties.
I know you interviewed Nancy Pelosi, heard her talk about your interview in fact. I think women are going to play a bigger role in this next election. Where are women tilting today and what is driving them on this impeachment? Do they have a particular spot in this that’s different than everyone else or are they just blended in with both sides?
Newton-Small: No, they actually are very distinct and unique in this. And so non-college educated white women as a subset of a group of voter.
Clemons: So non-college educated white women?
Newton-Small: White women.
Clemons: They supported Trump?
Newton-Small: They supported Trump and they were the only group that actually vastly did enormously in the last election. So post the sort of Democratic National Convention, [inaudible 00:22:00], Gold Star family scandal that they swung hard against Trump going into that summer. Then they swung back towards the first debate. Then there’s the whole sort of E! entertainment sort of video or audio that comes out about groping women. They swing against him again. And then-
Clemons: But where are they now?
Newton-Small: At the very end they ended up voting for him by an historic margin of 28 percentage points, which was eight percentage points better than Mitt Romney in 2012, which was a huge, huge margin. Right?
Newton-Small: In 2018 they swung back hard against him, right? So they only went Republican by a margin of six percentage points, which is a 22 point swing. And now post sort of these hearings and impeachment, they’re again swinging back against him. So I would actually, I mean it’s hard to say.
Clemons: So just give me the quick snapshot. Where are they going to be over this Thanksgiving recess and break for Congress? What are your women going to be doing when they come back?
Newton-Small: I think again it depends on who the nominee is, because I think if it’s Joe Biden-
Clemons: But we’re not going to know that next week.
Newton-Small: We won’t know that then I think they probably would vote for Joe Biden frankly. I think if it’s Elizabeth Warren, it’s a lot more complicated. They don’t like women candidates. They’ve been very clear about that with Hillary.
Clemons: Peter give me your snapshot of what happens this next week.
Roff: I think we’ve got a lot of intense conversations going around on tables everywhere in America and in the red states-
Clemons: Red America, blue America?
Roff: They’re defending the president’s. In the blue states they’re throwing out the Trump supporters from the table and making them go eat in the hall.
Roff: Country’s polarised and it comes down to the dinner table.
Clemons: Rina, I want to ask you the same question and give you the final word on where we end up, what you think is going to come down and then I want you to tell me, are we going to have a debate at the tables that Peter just said about the constitution, about the founding fathers, about what a fact is? Just give me your prognosis.
Shah: I don’t think we’re going to have those debates. I don’t think we’re going to have those conversations.
Clemons: You’re a Downer. You’re a Downer.
Shah: I’m such a Debbie Downer in this moment. Having worked in politics the majority of my adult life I can say that I’ve always been an optimist, but what I’ve seen over and over is that this president has succeeded in eroding our trust in our institutions and there’s been nobody I think worse in modern history at any level of government that is worse for our democracy. And Republicans will do this thing where they say they’ve wanted to get him from day one.
What does it look like to get an American president? Republicans are painting that picture right now, and Democrats are frankly at almost a loss because every time we … I’m not a Democrat, every time any of us who are working against the president anyway or asking Americans to at least question his actions and his behavior, we are told that we just hate him and we have never wanted somebody like him in the post and that we ought to get used to it. So I really do believe that Americans are just as divided as we see in the polls.
Clemons: All right, well thank you for that. I mean, Peter and I had been around longer if I may say than the two of you.
Roff: [crosstalk 00:24:53]
Clemons: We’ve seen a lot of cycles and swings in this town and it really raises the interesting question. We’ll have to do a show on it someday on what happens when the Dems run everything. Are we going to be seeing the same thing, which I know some of us are talking about. I want to thank you all for being with us today. Our Republican strategist, Rina Shah, author Newton-Smalll and commentator Peter Roff. What a great discussion. Thank you all very much.
Roff: Thank you.
Shah: Thank you.
Clemons: So what’s the bottom line? This week 435 house members and 100 senators are heading to their home districts to enjoy America’s Thanksgiving holiday. What they’re going to hear from their constituents will influence how the impeachment inquiry plays out over the next few weeks. Do the people want to pursue impeachment, or do they want to back off? We’re soon going to find out.
What we do know is that the level of distrust is very high. Political lenses influence what people see as fact and what they care about. What lies ahead will be a brutal, divisive and bare knuckled competition for the power to define truth and America’s leadership. And that’s the bottom line.
Source: Al Jazeera News