If there's one thing Americans understand, it's TV cop shows. So here's the deal: Donald J. Trump isn't on trial; he's under investigation. And the first thing that happens during any serious probe is that detectives question witnesses separately so they can't cook their testimony.
If Witness A can't be sure exactly Witness B is saying, there's a better chance of getting a straight story.
Just about everybody with a TV set understands these things.
So it's hard to imagine who that flash-mob of Republican congressmen thought they were kidding by storming the U.S. Capitol secure room where witnesses were being questioned in the House impeachment inquiry. According to them, confidential congressional hearings constitute an unprecedented Star Chamber proceeding. Supposedly, only Democrats were allowed to participate; Trump was being denied his constitutional right to an attorney, to cross-examine witnesses or examine the evidence against him.
In a word, Trump was being railroaded.
In reality, none of that is true. Indeed, about half the indignant GOP congressmen were playing hooky from their duties as members of the very committees — Intelligence, Judiciary, Foreign Affairs, etc. — conducting the inquiry. They could have been in the hearing room questioning witnesses if they had any questions to ask. Instead, they staged a publicity stunt for TV cameras.
Do they take their constituents for fools?
Meanwhile, on Fox News, Sean Hannity promised to expose "something corrupt and dangerous to this democratic republic that we love. We will expose on this program the Democrats' top-secret, their Soviet-style impeachment coup attempt ... an unprecedented unconstitutional attempt to nullify the will of the American people."
This is all but delusional. The U.S. Constitution gives the House of Representatives sole authority over impeaching the president, and says very little about exactly how. Hannity never did say what was unconstitutional about it, except as the word means "something I really, really don't like."
House Republicans, of course, held hundreds of hours of confidential Benghazi hearings during the Obama administration, without finding much to illuminate the tragedy beyond what was already known.
On "Meet the Press" back in 2015, U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., explained the advantage of closed-door hearings. Largely because there's less grandstanding and bickering among politicians, he said, "the private ones always produce better results."
Democrats thought Republicans were mainly blowing smoke, but never challenged their constitutional authority to do so.
Remember when Hillary Clinton appeared under oath before Gowdy's committee for 11 straight hours all by her lonesome?
Assuming that the House votes to impeach Trump, he'll have the benefit of his full constitutional rights — an opportunity to contest all the evidence against him, to have all the lawyers he wants, and to cross-examine witnesses.
Just like any defendant on "Law and Order."
For that matter, remember when Bill Clinton testified before Kenneth Starr's grand jury regarding his naughty activities with Monica Lewinsky? They broadcast the thing on national TV, inadvertently increasing sympathy for the big dope and pretty much dooming their chances to remove him. Not that it was Clinton's finest moment.
But that won't be an issue for President Trump, who — you read it here first — will never testify under oath, come hell or high water. He has the constitutional right to take the Fifth Amendment, and surely he will.
What, then, will Trump's defense consist of?
So far, of maligning the honor and patriotism of witnesses, career public servants and combat veterans alike, who have blown the whistle on his Ukraine extortion plot. That's essentially all he's got.
Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner.