GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- The impeachment hearings change committee rooms this week, and that has potential to bring more prominence to North Dakota’s only member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Kelly Armstrong is a member of the House Judiciary Committee. He was elected to the House last year after a short career in the North Dakota Legislature, where I became an Armstrong admirer, a hard spot for a journalist to be found in, but not one that any observer of the Legislature can avoid. Armstrong was not a frequent author of legislation; rather he saved many poorly conceived or badly written bills, sometimes by tanking them, more often by making them workable. He earned this role as a member of the state Senate’s Judiciary Committee, starting as a freshman legislator in the 2013 session, advancing to vice chairman in 2015 and chairing the committee in 2017, his last session in the state capitol.
The Judiciary Committee is a foundational committee in any Legislature, a position it shares with only Appropriations. Appropriations deals with money, of course, and Judiciary deals with the rule of law.
Of these two bodies, Judiciary gets the more emotional bills. College presidents whine about budget cuts at Appropriations Committee hearings, and sometimes a human services provider will offer moving testimony about the impact of cuts to programs on individuals who need services, but mostly it’s all about numbers. Judiciary’s not like that. People show up there distraught about the loss of a child in a drug sting or a truck to civil asset forfeiture. Sheriffs and prosecutors come too, insisting that such tools as these are essential to public safety. The high-touch issues go to Judiciary, as well, including such ideas as an equal right amendment, religious rights, property rights, gun rights, abortion rights, housing rights, pretty much the gamut of human rights.
Managing all of this requires a big open ear, a level of equanimity and a passion for justice, and Armstrong applied these talents. That’s not surprising, of course. By profession he is a defense attorney, and he knows how to handle the details of a messy case. He’s also a partner in his family’s oil-and-gas business, so he’s familiar with the ins and outs of property law. Besides that, he served as chair of the state Republican Party, and helped deliver 63 percent of North Dakota’s votes to Donald Trump, now the subject of an impeachment hearing to which Armstrong will have a front-row seat as a member of the House Judiciary Committee.
Armstrong gained some attention during earlier Judiciary Committee hearings. He lectured Michael Cohen about professional ethics, for example. Cohen, once Trump’s personal attorney, is now in prison, having pled guilty to violations of campaign finance laws, tax fraud, bank fraud and perjury.
More recently, Armstrong asked questions suggested by conservative TV talker Sean Hannity, a Trump ally. That’s not too surprising either; Armstrong won 60 percent of the vote in 2018, three percentage points below Trump’s own performance in 2016 and 40,000 votes fewer than the total rolled up by the Republican congressional candidate in that presidential election year. Kevin Cramer, a Trump surrogate, won a seat in the Senate, creating the House vacancy that Armstrong fills. He might think he has some political work to do – an eventuality he’d recognize as a former state party chair.
Armstrong’s national exposure continued last month on “Face the Nation,” broadcast Sunday, Nov. 24, on CBS. Korrie Wenzel, publisher of the Grand Forks Herald, took the trouble to transcribe the five-minute Kelly’s exchange with the show’s host, Margaret Brennan. Armstrong said “Democrats are going to lose more and more control over this,” a hint that he and his Republican colleagues expect to mount a vigorous defense of the president.
In his hometown two days later, Armstrong compared the impeachment hearings to an internet meme, Kayla Henson reported in the Dickinson Press: “After two weeks … Democrats … see a gold dress. Republicans … see a blue dress. Nothing has changed except you have independents in the middle … and they just don’t care.”
Armstrong also offered some insight as a defense attorney.
“My clients in criminal court had significantly more due process rights than the president in the White House. Process matters because that’s how the truth comes out. …” At the same time, he conceded that the process is a political one and not a legal one. Rather than building a fact-based case, he said, “it’s about finding a narrative.”
The narrative that’s under construction is one that the founders anticipated. In “The Federalist Papers,” Alexander Hamilton explained the rationale for requiring the Senate to ratify treaties with foreign powers in these words: “A president might make his own aggrandizement, by aid of a foreign power, the prize of his treachery to constituents.” These words appear in Federalist 75, first published in March 1788. It was required reading in one of my political science classes at UND half a century ago.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.