On impeachment, Jim Jordan goes for the takedown
He made his name in Congress as an uncompromising brawler. A college wrestling champion, he cut his teeth on the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, grilling witnesses in high-profile hearings. He later co-founded the hard-line House Freedom Caucus that helped drive former Republican Speaker John Boehner into early retirement.
Now Rep. Jim Jordan has emerged as the GOP’s point man in the public phase of the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump.
Unlike his colleagues, the Ohio congressman regularly shows up to the hearings sans jacket, in just shirtsleeves and tie. He interrupts, corrects, and claps back. On Friday, during the testimony of former Ukraine Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, Rep. Adam Schiff, the House Intelligence Committee’s Democratic chair, tried to cut Mr. Jordan off after the latter had reached his five-minute limit for questioning. “My indulgence is wearing out,” Mr. Schiff said.
“Our indulgence wore out with you a long time ago, Mr. Chairman,” Mr. Jordan retorted.
Observers say the Ohio congressman is particularly skilled at building – in clear, easy-to-understand sound bites – an impeachment counternarrative. Where Democrats allege that Mr. Trump improperly used his office to try to get a foreign government to investigate a political rival, Mr. Jordan and other Republicans argue that the president’s opponents are trying to connect unrelated events, based largely on hearsay, to undo the result of the 2016 election.
“The Democrats have never accepted the will of the American people,” Mr. Jordan declared Tuesday. “They’ve been out to get the president since the day he was elected.”
“[Mr. Jordan] is someone who has built a reputation as an attack dog, someone who is media savvy, someone who is a stalwart supporter of the president and who has the skill necessary to take the lead for the GOP,” says Capri Cafaro, a former Democratic Ohio state representative and now an executive in residence at American University.
Mr. Jordan’s return to the limelight after a failed attempt last year to challenge Rep. Kevin McCarthy for minority leader also reflects the extent to which spectacle is central to the impeachment process.
In today’s polarized political landscape, the outcome seems almost preordained: that the Democratic-controlled House will vote to impeach the president, and the Republican-led Senate will vote to acquit him. Public opinion polls on impeachment have hardly budged in the weeks since the probe began, and an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll this week found that nearly two-thirds of respondents could not envision any new information changing their minds on the matter.
Which means the televised hearings are in many ways about theatrics – with each side appealing to its own voters’ emotions and trying to make a case that will help turn them out for next year’s elections.
“Political implications are all that’s left at this point,” Ms. Cafaro says.
A wrestler’s approach to politics
Friday’s exchange between Mr. Jordan and Mr. Schiff was one of a number of clashes between the two men since impeachment hearings went public. Mr. Jordan objects frequently, whether it’s to urge the chair to publish yet-unreleased transcripts from the committee’s closed-door depositions, or to accuse him of withholding the name of the whistleblower who first brought attention to Mr. Trump’s now-famous July 25 call with the president of Ukraine. (Mr. Schiff denies that he knows who the person is, and has vowed to protect the person’s identity.)
Witnesses aren’t spared, either. On Tuesday, Mr. Jordan tried to undermine the credibility of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, reading from a deposition transcript that appeared to raise questions about the National Security Council official’s judgment, and suggesting a possible connection to the whistleblower. “Your colleagues felt that there were times that you leaked information,” Mr. Jordan said. “Any idea why they have those impressions?” Colonel Vindman, a Purple Heart recipient who served in Iraq, called the suggestion “preposterous.”
Last week, Mr. Jordan went after William Taylor, the top United States diplomat in Ukraine, insisting that Mr. Taylor’s information was suspect. “And you’re their star witness,” Mr. Jordan said. “I’ve seen church prayer chains that are easier to understand than this.”
GOP Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina applauded his colleague the next day. “He’s probably one of the best at not only preparation, but delivery,” he says. “He certainly did an outstanding job.”
A four-time high school state wrestling champion, Mr. Jordan went on to win two NCAA Division I titles for the University of Wisconsin-Madison before becoming an assistant wrestling coach at Ohio State University. (The congressman has recently come under fire for allegedly ignoring reports that the team doctor at Ohio State had been sexually abusing players on the team – an accusation Mr. Jordan denies.)
In politics, Mr. Jordan racked up underdog wins – including a surprise victory in 2000 against veteran state Rep. Jim Buchy in the Republican primary for state Senate – mainly by outworking his opponents.
He was elected to Congress in 2006, running far to the right on issues like tax reform and welfare and as an adamant abortion foe. His refusal to compromise on conservative positions later helped him land the top post in the Republican Study Committee, a powerful bloc shaping policy in the GOP caucus.
He proved himself a pugnacious interrogator when the Oversight Committee investigated the Internal Revenue Service for targeting conservative organizations that sought tax exemptions, and then Planned Parenthood over allegations of selling fetal tissue from abortions.
His star rose further in 2015, when he drew media attention for his aggressive questioning of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during the probe into the terrorist attacks in Benghazi, Libya. In January of that year, Mr. Jordan also joined eight other Republicans in forming the House Freedom Caucus.
The group’s goal was to challenge GOP leadership, which its members thought wasn’t fighting hard enough for conservative priorities. Mr. Jordan was chair when the caucus led the charge against then-Speaker Boehner, who wound up leaving Congress before the term was up.
Mr. Boehner would later call Mr. Jordan a “legislative terrorist” – among other, more colorful names.
“In wrestling, you get points for something called a takedown. And you lose points for stalling,” says David Niven, associate professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati. “That’s entirely Jim Jordan’s approach to politics.”
Back in the spotlight
Just before the public impeachment hearings began, Republican leadership temporarily reassigned Mr. Jordan from the Oversight Committee, where he serves as ranking member, to Intelligence, which is in charge of the inquiry. The move, which necessitated bumping Arkansas Rep. Rick Crawford from the roster, is permitted under House rules, though not exactly common.
To Democrats, Mr. Jordan’s new role is just another sign of Republicans’ determination to focus on style and not the substance of the impeachment inquiry. “Our proper constitutional function is to try to determine what happened,” says Oversight Committee member Jamie Raskin, a Democrat from Maryland. “They instead put someone up as a polemicist.”
Republicans acknowledge Mr. Jordan’s bare-knuckle style is a big reason he got the job. “It’s not a secret that he’s one of the president’s strongest defenders,” says a GOP aide to the Oversight Committee.
But his experience on past investigations, and his presence at every deposition during the closed-door portion of the impeachment inquiry, are just as important, they say. “He understands investigations,” the aide says. “He knows appropriate ways of approaching witnesses in open hearings.”
“We have other members who are phenomenal analysts,” notes GOP Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida. But Mr. Jordan combines “those analytical skills with excellent performance skills.”
Some observers note that Mr. Jordan’s prominence also takes the pressure off other Republicans – especially those from less-safe districts – to vocally defend the president. “There are plenty of Republicans who would not want to be in that position,” says Herb Asher, professor emeritus of political science at Ohio State. “In some ways, he’s doing [them] a favor.”