Even by the base standards of today’s House G.O.P., which often resembles a ragtag protest group more than a government party, this was a slimy effort at diversion. “This is about distraction, distraction, distraction,” the veteran Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee, of Texas, accurately pointed out. But it was left to Hank Johnson, a seven-term Democratic congressman from Georgia, to deliver the most effective put-down of Gaetz. “The pot calling the kettle black is not something that we should do,” Johnson said. “I don’t know what members, if any, have had any problems with substance abuse, been busted in a D.U.I.—I don’t know. But, if I did, I wouldn’t raise it against anyone on this committee.” The titters that went around the hearing room as Johnson was speaking indicated that at least some of those present knew what he was referring to.
Late one night in 2008, a police deputy stopped Gaetz’s car, for speeding, not far from the congressman’s home. In his incident report, the deputy said that Gaetz smelled of beer and that “his eyes were watery and bloodshot, and he swayed and staggered when he got out of the car.” The deputy arrested Gaetz and took him to a police station, where he was booked and photographed. For reasons that have never been entirely clear, the charges against Gaetz were later dropped. But, in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times , in 2014, Gaetz acknowledged that he had “made bad decisions that resulted in an arrest” and added, “that is sort of something that we all live with.”
If you think, for a moment, that Johnson’s rebuke was sufficient to shame Gaetz into silence, you haven’t been paying attention for the past few months. In their fealty to Trump, many members of the House G.O.P. are entirely shameless and more than a bit bonkers. Given a second opportunity to speak, Gaetz brought up Hillary Clinton—why not?—and said he was just glad that the country now had a President who is concerned about corruption.
He wasn’t the only Republican to speak in favor of his amendment, of course. Another was Louie Gohmert, the Texan who once issued a dire warning about “terror babies” and who, on Wednesday night, as the hearing started, read out the name of an official who has been identified, in some reports, as the intelligence whistle-blower. In weighing in on Gaetz’s amendment, Gohmert followed his example and brought up Clinton. He also offered a novel theory that she was somehow responsible for the Democrats’ impeachment of Trump. “What we continue to see is projection,” Gohmert said. “Someone on their side engages in illicit conduct and that is what they accuse President Trump of doing.”
Within the confines of a supposedly serious congressional hearing, there is no wholly effective way to counter the sort of slime and gibberish that Gaetz and Gohmert were promoting. In any case, it wasn’t directed at Americans who are undecided about the merits of impeaching Trump, if any such people exist. Its only purpose was to fire up the Trump faithful, go viral on right-wing Web sites, and, perhaps, even get picked up on Fox News. In other words, it was part of politics as a tribal ritual rather than politics as rational discourse, and, therefore, it was largely immune to rational counter-argument.
Jackson Lee pointed out that Trump had put aid to Ukraine on hold despite the fact that the State Department and other U.S. agencies had stated that the country was already in compliance with anti-corruption directives. Hakeem Jeffries, the chair of the House Democratic Caucus, read out a list of the names of witnesses, Trump appointees all, who confirmed that the President had pressured a foreign government to target a U.S. citizen: Biden. Zoe Lofgren, who represents a district in Silicon Valley, said that, although the behavior of Hunter Biden and of Trump’s sons and daughters were things that voters could consider in a general election, “here we are talking about the abuse of Presidential authority.”