Forget the prognostications. It’s anyone’s guess at this point how President Donald Trump’s upcoming impeachment will play out, or how it may shape next year’s circus-atmosphere national elections.
But one important dynamic has already emerged unmistakably: The impeachment proceedings unfolding in Washington are a largely Californian-driven undertaking, which is arguably why it has succeeded so far where other moves to hold “Teflon Don” accountable have fallen short.
In one recent poll, 70 percent of those surveyed across the country found it “wrong” that the president hijacked US aid to our key ally Ukraine to serve his personal interests. In the same poll, a majority (51 percent) favored removal from office. Polls will bounce around, and the right-wing media machine will spin, but it’s unlikely any of that can stop Trump from being impeached in the House and landing in a Senate impeachment trial, at the very least. As the headline on a recent column by the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank put it, “Republicans Have a New Enemy: Truth Itself.”
“These facts are going to stand the test of time,” Eric Swalwell, the East Bay Congressman who sits on both the House Intelligence and House Judiciary Committee, recently told this news organization. “It’s just a matter of, at this moment, will they stand the test of courage for Republicans?”
California has played a big role in the impeachment proceedings, and the Golden State will also be called upon to lead the way in the post-impeachment era, whatever that ends up looking like. “Nothing defines this presidency better than Mr. Trump’s war with California,” says Clay Risen, deputy editor of the New York Times op-ed page and author of the book The Crowded Hour, about Theodore Roosevelt. “California is arguably the most progressive state in America, and it’s also arguably the most powerful, so it was inevitable that the state would clash with such an extremely conservative White House.”
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, another Northern Californian, has consistently been underestimated, but she has proven a worthy foil to Trump. She enraged many by resisting an impeachment inquiry, but moved on her own schedule with impeccable timing, according to some fellow Democrats. “Her political acumen is like no other,” Central Coast Congressman Jimmy Panetta says by phone. “I really don’t think there could be another Democrat who could handle the extreme left in our party and also smack down Donald Trump as she’s been doing.”
The knife edge of the impeachment effort has been California Congressman Adam Schiff, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, whose unflappability in the glare of the impeachment hearings has stood out all the more when juxtaposed with the sulky fury and bizarre pushing of debunked conspiracy theories by bizarro-world opposite, Republican Congressman Devin Nunes, whose Central California district includes Fresno. Nunes went from widespread ridicule to accusations, just as the hearings were wrapping up, that he’s actually implicated in the Ukraine scandal himself.
Nunes, along with Kevin McCarthy the leaders of a shrinking-before-our-eyes, all-in-on-Trumpism California Republican delegation, both led the party strategy of turning the hearings into a sideshow—the weirder and crazier, apparently, the better. The strategy may have had short-term benefits, at least when it came to easily led media types eager to demonstrate that they themselves could be manipulated, but dangerous in that it left an opening for Schiff, by contrast, to come across as serious and trustworthy, willing to let the facts speak for themselves.
“I’m very pleased that the investigation into the Ukrainian phone call is under the authority of Chairman Schiff,” says Panetta, himself a former prosecutor. “I’ve had a lot of conversations about this with him. He looks at cases like a prosecutor. He makes sure we put all the evidence out there upon which the American people, and Congress, can make a decision.”
As for Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose), this marks her third round of impeachment proceedings. In the early 1970s, she worked as a staffer for Congressman Don Edwards during Richard Nixon’s historic fall from grace.
This is a serious moment for our country.
— Rep. Zoe Lofgren (@RepZoeLofgren) December 12, 2019
When Bill Clinton’s life came under the microscope in 1998, she was serving her second term in the House of Representatives. But Trump’s impeachment hearings, Lofgren says, are fundamentally unique from the past two.
“The difference here is that President Trump has asserted the right to—on a blanket basis—reject all demands for documents or witnesses,” she tells San Jose Inside. “That didn’t happen in either the Nixon or Clinton matters. Further, President Trump has rejected all opportunities to defend himself, and the Republicans have chosen not to participate in good faith either. That also did not happen with Nixon or Clinton.”
In the current political climate, Lofgren adds, Republicans “seem to prefer complaining about the process instead of dealing with the facts before us.”
California has played an outsized role in counterbalancing Trumpism, and it will also play an outsized role in helping lead the way toward a new post-Trump world. To be clear, that will be hard—very hard. Trumpism played off of—and magnified—weaknesses of human character, the ease with which some are seduced by power, and the terrifying ease with which hate and recrimination can take over any conversation.
“People need to understand that yes, our democracy is based on our values, but it’s left up to people to implement those values,” Panetta says. “It’s left up to moral people, people who have the morality to push these values forward. … This is a democracy that’s about relationships and about trust, and we have to work on that.”
Swalwell believes Panetta will be a big part of that. “My respect for Jimmy is rooted in his service to the community as a trusted prosecutor, to the country as a soldier, and now to the Congress as an advocate for bipartisan collaboration,” Swalwell says. “I’ve known him as he’s worked in all three roles, and think very highly of him.”
Like the resistance thus far, the post-Trump recovery will have to start at a grassroots, interpersonal level, Panetta says. “Yes, it can be difficult with technology where people can sit at their desks and send out a social-media post and not see that reaction from another person that yes, you’re being offensive,” he says. “It takes actually getting out and looking people eye to eye and talking to them. I think there needs to be a little more humility in how we conduct ourselves, not just in Congress but in our society.”
The challenge is always to keep people interested and engaged between elections, not just every four years. Looking ahead to 2020, Swalwell sees a political earthquake. “There is going to be a reckoning at the ballot box regardless of what happens on impeachment,” he says, “and I think it will cascade after that.”
Staff writer Grace Hase also contributed to this report.