Democrats Take Their Impeachment Case to the Public
WASHINGTON – The first public impeachment hearing on Capitol Hill in two decades featured somber House Democrats, stoic witnesses, an angry but somewhat bungled response by House Republicans attempting to defend President Donald Trump without addressing the allegations against him, and hundreds of spectators, some of whom lined up at 5 a.m. and waited nearly all day to catch a glimpse of the five-hour proceedings.
Much of what witnesses Bill Taylor, the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, and George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs, were going to say was known well ahead of time, due to the release of transcripts of their closed-door meetings with House investigators.
But that did not diminish the hearing’s drama.
The president is accused of withholding military aid to Ukraine to induce it to open an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden’s business dealings in the country.
During the July 25, 2019, phone call between President Trump and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, the two men discussed a range of issues, including the military aid.
Trump then said “I would like you to do us a favor though …”
He went on to ask Zelensky to look into “CrowdStrike,” long the focus of a debunked conspiracy theory.
CrowdStrike Holdings of Sunnyvale, California, sells cybersecurity software to big corporations and government clients. The company gained notoriety in 2016 when the Democratic National Committee paid it to investigate a hack of its server, which it determined emanated from Russia.
Trump’s interest in CrowdStrike and the DNC server, more than three years after the hack, is seen as his way of undermining the notion that Russia meddled in the 2016 election to help him win.
“I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say CrowdStrike … I guess you have one of your wealthy people…The server, they say Ukraine has it,” Trump said.
He then turned his attention to the Bidens.
“The other thing, there’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that. So whatever you can do with the attorney general would be great. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution, so if you can look into it. It sounds horrible to me.”
Zelensky responded by assuring the president the Ukraine government would be “very serious about the case and will work on the investigation.”
The biggest reveal during Wednesday’s public hearing involved a second, previously unknown telephone conversation, involving Trump and Gordon Sondland, the U.S. Ambassador to the European Union.
Taylor said a member of his staff was present on July 26, a day after the president’s call with Zelensky, when Sondland called the president. The aide told Taylor the president was speaking quite loudly and could clearly be heard asking about the “investigations.”
Taylor said his aide later asked Sondland what the president’s views were on Ukraine.
“Ambassador Sondland responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden,” Taylor told the committee.
For the Democrats, on the committee, Taylor’s recollection was further proof that Trump was at the center of the White House attempt to pressure Ukraine to interfere in the 2020 election by taking down Biden, a political rival.
While Kent generally adhered to what he previously told investigators behind closed doors, his opening statement was nevertheless riveting as he recounted how he came to realize that the United States was pursuing two policies regarding Ukraine, each via its own, distinct channel.
The first was the “regular” channel, running through the U.S. State Department and down through the ambassadors in Kyiv. The other, what came during the hearing to be called the “irregular” channel, was apparently being run by the president’s personal attorney, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
Kent said he initially was troubled by what he saw as a campaign by Giuliani and others to smear then Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch. He said his concerns became grave in mid-August, when “it became clear to me that Giuliani’s efforts to gin up politically-motivated investigations were now infecting U.S. engagement with Ukraine, leveraging President Zelensky’s desire for a White House meeting.”
Nunes Seeks to Shift Focus Away From President
In his opening remarks, Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said, “the issue that we confront is the one posed by the president’s acting chief of staff when he challenged Americans to ‘get over it.’
“If we find that the president of the United States abused his power and invited foreign interference in our elections, or if he sought to condition, coerce, extort, or bribe an ally into conducting investigations to aid his reelection campaign and did so by withholding official acts — a White House meeting or hundreds of millions of dollars of needed military aid — must we simply ‘get over it’? Is that what Americans should now expect from their president? If this is not impeachable conduct, what is?” he asked.
Neither Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., nor any of the other Republicans on the panel, came anywhere near those questions.
Instead, Nunes launched into an attack of Schiff and the proceedings.
He claimed, without evidence, that the witnesses “deemed suitable for television” by the Democrats were “put through a closed-door audition process in a cult-like atmosphere in the basement of the Capitol, where the Democrats conducted secret depositions, released a flood of misleading and one-sided leaks, and later selectively released transcripts in a highly staged manner.”
“What we will witness today is a televised theatrical performance staged by the Democrats,” he continued, congratulating the witnesses “for passing the Democrats’ Star Chamber auditions.”
Though members of both parties were scattered throughout the audience in the House Ways and Means Committee hearing room, selected as the site of the impeachment proceeding because of its enormous size, Nunes’ talking points appeared to mostly fall flat in the room.
The lone exception came when he said “now they accuse President Trump of malfeasance in Ukraine when they themselves are culpable,” a line that drew a “here, here” from one of the lawmakers in the room.
Like Schiff, Nunes also raised questions.
“First, what is the full extent of the Democrats’ prior coordination with the whistleblower and who else did the whistleblower coordinate this effort with?” he said. “Second, what is the full extent of Ukraine’s election meddling against the Trump campaign? And third, why did [Ukraine gas giant] Burisma hire Hunter Biden, what did he do for them, and did his position affect any U.S. government actions under the Obama administration?”
The closest the Republicans on the committee came to addressing the charges House Democrats have made was to attack them as based on mostly hearsay evidence.
Throughout the hearing on Wednesday, committee Republicans repeatedly pointed out that Taylor and Kent had not spoken with Trump or with Giuliani, making it difficult for the officials to know their motivations.
And when it came to Taylor, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, argued that much of what he said appeared to be based on second and third-hand sources.
After reading a scant few lines from Taylor’s previously released testimony, Jordan bellowed, “we’ve got six people having four conversations in one sentence!”
Later, several Democrats addressed Jordan’s statements, saying the Trump administration had blocked key witnesses with first-hand knowledge from testifying.
Perhaps the shakiest performance on Wednesday was that of Republican counsel Stephen Castor, who attempted to mine Ukraine’s longstanding and oft-acknowledged history of corruption as the motivation for Trump’s requests of Zelensky.
This fell flat under follow-up questioning from Schiff, Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., and Democratic counsel Daniel Goldman.
Where Castor appeared to hope to frame the statements of the July 25 phone call as statements of concern about corrupt, the Democrats asked Taylor and Kent to describe in detail the kind of prosecutorial infrastructure that needs to be put in place to address Ukraine’s corruption program.
“Do the president’s comments sound like he’s talking about creating that kind of infrastructure?” Goldman asked.
“No, they do not,” Kent said.
The Republican line of questioning on corruption also allowed the Democrats to draw a distinction between what the GOP lawmakers alleged was Biden’s malfeasance when it came to Ukraine — the claim he had a prosecutor fired who was looking too closely at Burisma — and Trump comments to Zelensky.
At best, the Republicans argued, if Biden’s withholding aid to Ukraine until a prosecutor was fired was okay, than Trump’s handling of Ukraine was fine too.
Taylor and Kent disagreed, with Kent suggesting “I don’t think they are the same thing.”
“The vice president requested the removal of a corrupt prosecutor who had destroyed the very investigative infrastructure that we were giving them U.S. tax dollars to create,” he said.
With that, Rep. Himes chimed in. “And President Trump was aiming the historic corruption in Ukraine at Biden and the 2020 election.”
Neither Kent nor Taylor commented on that last assertion, maintaining, as they had throughout the hearing that they were not appearing on behalf of one side or the other or for one outcome or another.
When asked later by Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, if they thought Trump committed impeachable offenses, both witnesses said that was up to Congress to decide.
Impeachment Draws Crowd
How all of this played publicly is anybody’s guess. Many of the spectators waiting in line said they already were leaning one way or the other on impeachment, and were attending out of curiosity and to see a bit of history.
One elderly man in line said the first congressional hearing he attended was related to the Nixon impeachment inquiry and that he’d been attending meetings on the Hill ever since.
Another, younger man said he’d accompanied his wife to Washington on business and that they were heading home to Oregon on Thursday.
“I’ve gone to the Smithsonians and a couple of tours, I thought what better way to end my stay than to see this,” he said.
The public line to get into the meeting room never dwindled down to less than 100 people waiting to get in, late arrivals hoping that the lucky and hearty who arrived early would opt to leave early as well.
All three major broadcast networks, cable news outlets and PBS aired wall-to-wall live coverage or broke regularly scheduled daytime shows to broadcast detailed opening statements from key witnesses and questions from lawmakers. The hearing was also live streamed on many media platforms.
As of Thursday morning, there were no reports on possible viewership, but there are some who believe the most important viewership is a viewership of one: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who will be responsible for planning the next phase of the process if the House votes in favor of articles of impeachment.
McConnell told the Washington Post this week that Senate Republicans currently plan to hold a full trial that will last roughly from early January to mid-February.
The ongoing proceedings in the House continue Friday with testimony from former ambassador Yovanovitch and then next Tuesday through Thursday, with testimony by Sondland, Kurt Volker, U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine, and Alexander Vindman, a National Security Council aide.
All three men participated in or have direct knowledge of conversations with Trump on Ukraine, the committee said.
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