This editorial originally appeared in The Washington Post.
There is an old Washington saying that if you’re arguing about process, you’re losing. A follow-on maxim might be: If you are wrong on process, too, you must really be in trouble.
That would apply to the 30 or so Republicans who stormed last week’s House Intelligence Committee hearing in a secure Capitol facility, objecting that Democrats have, so far, conducted impeachment proceedings behind closed doors.
The stunt disrupted the testimony of Pentagon official Laura Cooper and temporarily distracted Washington from the evidence of President Donald Trump’s misconduct. The latter seemed to be the point, but Cooper simply testified a few hours later.
It’s already clear that the president grossly abused his office. Trump himself released a rough transcript of a call in which he pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate former vice president Joe Biden and his family as Zelensky sought military aid and a White House meeting. Republicans have offered no persuasive defense of the president’s actions, because there is none.
Yet questions remain, and House committees are methodically looking for answers. Lawmakers lack a voluminous investigative record like independent counsel Ken Starr’s 1998 report. They must do their own basic investigating, which is why it makes sense to hold some hearings behind closed doors. Investigators don’t want witnesses to play for the cameras or dishonestly align their testimony with that of earlier witnesses. Classified material may be discussed. Republicans, in their incessant and fruitless investigations of Hillary Clinton and the 2012 Benghazi, Libya, attacks, held many closed hearings — and insisted they were the most useful.
Moreover, Republican legislators are present at all of these closed-door sessions and are free to pose questions. In fact, the rules allowed many of those who stormed Wednesday’s testimony to enter the room in a civilized fashion if they so chose. The impression Republicans tried to convey, of Democrats cooking up an illegitimate indictment of the president while locking all others out of the room, is a partisan fantasy.
Marginally more persuasive was a memo Senate Republicans released Thursday complaining that the full House had not formally voted on conducting an impeachment inquiry and that Trump is not allowed counsel in the room. Neither is required by the Constitution or House rules. But holding a vote would add legitimacy, and, more to the point, the sooner House investigators move from closed hearings to open ones, the better. Citizens should learn the scope and gravity of the president’s misdeeds so they can form their own conclusions. House leaders should release transcripts of closed hearings, consistent with the protection of classified material, as soon as possible.
Of course, all of this could happen sooner if the Trump administration were not stonewalling lawmakers’ legitimate requests for information.