Impeachment Today Podcast: Is Anyone Still Undecided?

Gordon Sondland, right, the U.S ambassador to the European Union. This guy, again.

It’s Monday, December 2, 2019, 69 days since House Democrats began impeachment proceedings. Every morning, the Impeachment Today podcast helps you separate what’s real and groundbreaking from what’s just, well, bullshit.

In today’s episode: after a nice long weekend, House Democrats are putting the final touches on their report that will lay out the case for impeaching President Trump. Expect leaks about what’s in it, coming as soon as Monday night. And we chat with BuzzFeed News editor-in-chief Ben Smith about who, if anyone, is still undecided about whether Trump should be thrown out of office.

You can listen to today’s episode below, or check it out on the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to your favorite shows.

It’s Monday, December 2nd, 2019. 69 days into the impeachment saga, and this is Impeachment Today. Good morning. I’m Hayes Brown, reporter and editor at Buzzfeed News. I hope you all had a restful break. I for one, managed to gain back all the weight I lost from stress during the impeachment hearings. I’m going to go ahead and call that a win, I think. Okay. Today we’re talking to Buzzfeed News editor-in-chief Ben Smith about the politics of impeachment two months in. But before we get to all of that, let’s catch up on what happened since you last heard from me.

Things are moving fast these days. House Democrats are putting the final touches on their report into everything that the impeachment inquiry has learned during the last two and a half months. The still secret report is also due to lay out the case for whatever impeachable offenses trump committed when pressuring Ukraine to do a series of political favors in exchange for a White House meeting and allegedly millions of dollars in military aid. Members of the intelligence committee will get their first look at this report on Monday evening. So I guess be on the lookout for push alerts about what’s in the report over the next few hours. The committee is expected to vote on the report and its recommendations this Tuesday. Once that passes, it goes on to the judiciary committee. They’ll be holding their first impeachment hearing on Wednesday, convening constitutional scholars to talk about impeachment broadly. Judiciary chair, Jerry Nadler offered to let the president’s lawyers take part in this hearing, but in a letter sent Sunday evening, the White House counsel said, eh, pass.

If this schedule seems busy, that’s because we’re in the home stretch until the House goes on recess for the holidays. As far as we have been told, Democrats still want the full House to vote on articles of impeachment before Christmas. Meanwhile, over the break, we learned that while Rudy Giuliani was in Ukraine, digging up dirt on former Vice President Joe Biden, he also apparently had a little side hustle going on. Giuliani was reportedly in talks with a Ukrainian official to represent him for cool $200,000. That official, Yuriy Lutsenko, was Ukraine’s then prosecutor general and the source of a lot of Giuliani’s conspiracy theories, about Biden and the work his son Hunter did for Ukrainian gas company. Though the deal didn’t go through, it got far enough along that a draft contract was drawn up earlier this year for Giuliani’s company to work with Lutsenko., Giuliani who was never registered as a lobbyist, is reportedly under investigation in New York over his alleged business dealings in Ukraine.

Finally, a key piece of testimony in the impeachment hearings is now being called into doubt. The US ambassador to the EU, Gordon Sondland, told investigators in a call with the president on September 9th the president was testy and shouted, “I want nothing. There’s no quid pro quo.” Or something to that effect, But that doesn’t track with what others said or White House records. Other witnesses said the ambassador and Trump actually had their call a few days earlier, and rather than being a straight denial, there was a crucial second clause that the ambassador recounted to them.

There’s no quid pro quo, but Ukraine’s president himself has to be the one to announce the investigations that Trump wanted into the Bidens and Ukraine’s non-existent interference in the US 2016 election. Apparently, the White House hasn’t found any phone records of any pre-dawn call with Trump on the date the ambassador described, and his other testimony has made clear that the ambassador didn’t have Trump’s cell phone number, so the call almost definitely didn’t happen as described. That is one less defense for the president. Also, a brief mia culpa. In our most recent episode, we said that the ambassador claimed the call he described was on September 1st. That was an error. We regret the mistake. Sorry to pull a Sondland. Okay, and now as we rouse ourselves from the lethargy of Thanksgiving, we turn to today’s reading from our Nixometer.

On our scale, a zero is a normal day in a normal White House. 10, President Richard Nixon resigns, flies away in Marine One. This morning we’re at a 7.0. The last four days have been time to breathe, relax, eat some carbs, have some fights with the fam. But now we’ve got a race to the finish line for the House of Representatives to before the end of the year, and by this time tomorrow we’ll have a better idea of just what the Democrats’ impeachment case is going to look like in the end. Okay. After the break we talked to Ben Smith about the politics of impeachment. Stay tuned.

All right. Time for this fucking thing. Normally we spend this time focusing in on ones, things, someone specific, something narrow. But today we’re stepping back and taking a look at impeachment as a big picture in the political meta-narrative sense of impeachment. To do that, I’m glad to be welcoming back buzzfeed News editor-in-chief Ben Smith. Thank you for taking the time, Ben.

Ben Smith:

Thank you for having me on your show.

HB:

So we’ve been doing this since mid-September. About two and a half months. You were on our first episode, about a month into the whole process. What would you say is the biggest change between now and then as far as impeachment goes?

BS:

I think the biggest change is nothing.

HB:

Oh, that’s very zen of you, but can you say more?

BS:

Yeah, you know, there was a poll taken I think before the hearings began. It said that 50% of Americans, you know, supported impeaching the president and 43% opposed, and there’ve been this series of really kind of shocking revelations that we can’t take our eyes off over the last month, and you look up and the poll says 50% support impeaching the president and 43% oppose.

HB:

That’s really interesting. So a few weeks back we had on Ariel Edwards Levy from the Huffington Post to talk about impeachment polling, how it works, an one of the things she pointed out was that everyone’s playing for, like a very narrow band of people who are still somehow undecided in all of this. What do you think it’s going to take actually capture them at this point then actually swing things like one way or another?

BS:

Yeah, I mean, I think if you are undecided at point about the merits of impeachment, but you know a lot of this is about whether Donald Trump is an acceptable president. I mean that’s the fundamental question of impeachment. The people who are undecided by that are like not people who listen to impeachment podcasts.

HB:

Oh, wow.

BS:

You’re talking to people who may not be paying quite as close attention as you and I are.

HB:

I’m a little hurt by that, but I take your meaning very well there. So for those people and for everyone out there, do you think that impeachment fatigue is real? Because I think that was a little bit of the worry when Pelosi first launched this, that the hearings would drag out, that things would take forever, and the public would lose interest. Do you think that’s something that’s born out or think that’s just kind of junk still?

BS:

You know, I don’t think the, looks like narrow majority who hate Donald Trump are tired of it.

HB:

True.

BS:

I mean, I think it’s confirming people’s worst fears, and it’s also just this incredible window into what’s really happening there, which is mostly like exactly what you thought was happening. Then on the other hand, I think the people who support the president were always tired of it. But you know, it’s also just the case with this stuff. You don’t really know until after the fact. You don’t know which straw’s going to be the one that breaks the camel’s back. Just because those polls haven’t moved yet, doesn’t mean they won’t.

HB:

Right. It feels almost like everyone’s waiting for that smoking gun tape, ala Nixon to suddenly magically appear, and then they’ll change their minds. But given like the weight of evidence that we’ve had so far, I don’t see that day coming for a while. I mean, do you have any sense of like what it actually could take to break off that group of people who are like, core support… Not even the core supports the president, that 30% who will always vote for him. That extra like 15% who still support him even though they aren’t his true base.

BS:

I mean, I think it would take a real surprise. Something that surprised us, that surprised Fox news’ hosts, that really surprised everyone, and almost by definition it’s very hard to speculate on what that would be.

HB:

Just something unspinnable out there.

BS:

Something just totally different.

HB:

But what about the politicians who are living through this, especially the ones who are running for president in 2020. You have a whole slate of Democrats who are out there making their case for the country, and I feel like impeachment is not somehow at the forefront of any of their stump speeches or anything like that.

BS:

No, I was texting with our reporter Ruby Cramer the other day. She was out in Iowa, and I said, you know, how are they talking about impeachment there? She said, not at all. It’s just not the thing that’s coming up at the Democratic campaign events. I think that’s partly because they’ve said their piece. They want him impeached and removed. They say all sorts of terrible things about him. So there’s, in a way, there’s nothing to ask. But also it seems like there’s this Democratic primary campaign that’s about race and education or about healthcare, that is pretty much detached from the sort of legal proceedings in Washington.

HB:

Is there a chicken and egg thing here though? Is what I’m wondering, like are democratic politicians not talking about it because they think that people don’t want to hear about it, or the people don’t want to hear about it because the politicians aren’t really talking about it to them?

BS:

I think a lot of Democrats are riveted by it, and you know, if you look at, you know, MSNBC every night that’s the show are watching. But I think that it’s not a way for Democratic politicians to distinguish themselves from each other. Pete Buttigieg and Joe Biden and all the others are trying to draw distinctions between themselves and other candidates. Between Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and for none of them the distinction is actually I kind of like Donald Trump.

HB:

Since you brought up MSNBC, let’s actually talk a little bit about Fox News and how it’s impacting people’s views out there of the impeachment. In our last episode before the Thanksgiving break, we talked to Ryan Broderick about how there is basically two impeachment hearings happening right now.w To impeachment processes, really, where on the one hand you have this very facts driven narrative and on the other you have loony town basically all based around this like sludge of conspiracy theories that’s being regurgitated back out. Is Fox News the real deciding factor here for will the president be impeached and is there like a world in your mind where like Sean Hannity says, “You know what, I’m done. I’m out.”

BS:

But you just hit your hand on the table very hard, Hayes. Are you okay?

HB:

I was being emphatic.

BS:

You know, I don’t think so. I mean, I think the person who could whack his hand on the table and say that is Rupert Murdoch, not Sean Hannity or his son Lachlan. But there’s no indication that they would ever do that. I do think what you’re seeing is this totally built out mature alternate information space of Fox News and the sort of internet, the kind of Facebook friendly cluster of things around that, and talk radio, which has been there for a long time. It’s underestimated, but it’s a big part of the sort of conservative media. You know, have just kind of decided to go to war on these alternative facts that if you don’t listen too closely, kind of sounds like the real facts.

HB:

Right. It’s like, oh yeah, I know-

BS:

And Russia, they’re big countries.

HB:

Joe Biden was doing a thing, and it was probably bad, so sure, why not? So of those two stories, which in your mind is the Senate listening to, especially the members of the Senate GOP?

BS:

I think Republicans in the House are ultimately politicians who want to get reelected by voters who mostly really like Donald Trump, and so they are at least pretending to believe the Fox News version. Occasionally they get, kind of feel some sense of shame over that. You saw Senator Kennedy from Louisiana backtrack on a little bit of it after, you know, a bunch of journalists, I assume he kind of respects and wants to be in the good graces of railing at him about it. I think there is in the Senate in particular a vestige of the kind of older tradition that it’s the world’s greatest deliberative body, but it’s been awhile.

HB:

It really has. So when we eventually do get to the Senate, I mean, you’re still seeing that there’s no way to really move the needle for them. Because you know, when again, looking to Nixon, it was only after senators and the GOP went to Nixon and said, you know what? This is not going to fly, my guy. You are not going to be able to make it out of this trial alive that he resigned. Of those senators, I mean, there’s maybe like what? Seven, that people are looking at as a maybe, which is nowhere near enough.

BS:

NI mean there’s a kind of a whole genre of fan fiction about imagining a cascade of senators turning on Trump, and you know what? Nothing is impossible. I mean that’s the thing about politics. It’s full of surprises, and yet I don’t think anybody paying close attention really sees a path now.

HB:

Well, that is interesting. So when we do get to the trial portion of it, is there just anything that you are in particular looking out for that you would like, flag ahead to the people out there watching?

BS:

You know, I think it’ll be interesting to see whether Mitt Romney, who has in the past essentially swung at, or you know, taken a shot at the king and missed, and realizes how costly that is. Whether he will try to mount some sort of attempt to lead Republicans against Trump. There are a lot of senators who are quietly in off the record trashing Donald Trump every day to journalists who I think you’ll see stand up there and defend him. Or I think you’ll also see people say, you know, I don’t want to defend the conduct, but there’s an election coming soon. We’re not the appropriate jury, the American people is the appropriate jury here, and that may be the kind of door out for people who can’t quite stomach defending Trump.

HB:

There’s like 12 different defenses that have been like raised by Republicans in this whole thing, but we don’t have time to get into all of them. So we’re going to tie more year into the future. It is just after the 2020 election. Donald Trump has been impeached. Has he been removed, and does he win reelection based on your read right this second?

BS:

I don’t think he’s been removed, and we have gotten out of the predictions business around here.

HB:

Fair enough.

BS:

Who’s going to win elections.

HB:

You know what? That’s a completely fair knock on us in the media, and I appreciate it, and you, Ben, for taking the time. So thank you for joining us.

BS:

Thank you.

HB:

We asked you before the holiday just what you were doing to prep for any potential MMA octagon style fights over impeachment that could be on the horizon. For the most part, it sounded like a lot of you just really wanted to not have to deal with that energy. Here’s a voice memo we got from Cassie laying out her plans to keep her sanity.

Cassie:

Hey Hayes, my plan for surviving Thanksgiving mainly involves me volunteering to work and getting that sweet union double time and a half holiday pay. My dad and his girlfriend are super deep into Fox News and sincerely believe that impeachment is a giant hoax. I can’t take beating my head against that wall anymore, so I’ll go to work and get a pity plate when I’m done. I’ll stop by and visit because I do love them, and I also want it to remain that way. Love the podcast. Thanks.

HB:

Thank you, Cassie. That’s a really solid plan, and I really hope it worked out for you. I also got this DM from Quintin. My whole childhood, my uncle would fight about politics with my other relatives. I never thought much of it because I wasn’t politically engaged, but now that I am, Thanksgiving is insufferable. Attacking my views on Facebook frequently, I had to resort to deleting him, which really offended him. He’s getting on in years, had a scare just last month. This may be our last Thanksgiving together and while we disagree, I love the guy under all that, and this year I just plan to not feed into anything. I’m not even going to open my mouth unless I’m eating a heaping spoonful of stuffing. Man. That actually really got to me. Quintin, I hope that the holiday with you and your uncle really went well.

Honestly, thank you to all of you out there who responded. For those of you who did spend Thanksgiving with loved ones, I hope it wasn’t too traumatizing and that you at least got some good pie out of it.

Okay, that’s it for today. Tomorrow we’ll have more for you on the first of the House judiciary’s hearings because the fun just does not stop. Be sure and subscribe to Impeachment Today on the the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts, Spotify and wherever you listen – and maybe leave us a rating and/or a review. Also, tell your friends about the show as we all figure this out together.

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