The House Intelligence Committee opened historic impeachment hearings Wednesday to investigate whether President Donald Trump (and his allies) abused his office in an attempt to strong-arm Ukraine into opening an inquiry into his political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden.
I monitored the highly anticipated – and hugely high-stakes – hearing as it happened. Below, my thoughts on the biggest moments of the day.
Adam Schiff appeals to history – and the future
Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff’s opening statement had a very clear message: These hearings aren’t about just Trump. They’re about how the presidency functions (and should function) within our democracy – and about the checks and balances between the legislative and executive branches built into the Constitution.
“Our answer to these questions will affect not only the future of this presidency, but the future of the presidency itself, and what kind of conduct or misconduct the American people may come to expect from their commander-in-chief,” said Schiff at one point.
At another, citing the Trump’s administration’s refusal to allow its senior officials to testify before Congress, Schiff said such a move “is not what the Founders intended,” adding: “The prospects for further corruption and abuse of power, in this administration or another, will be exponentially increased.”
In closing, Schiff asked, “Is that what Americans should now expect from their President? If this is not impeachable conduct, what is? Does the oath of office itself – requiring that our laws be faithfully executed, that our President defend a Constitution that balances the powers of its branches, setting ambition against ambition so that we become no monarchy – still have meaning?”
The goal of Schiff’s repeated invocations of history – he mentioned the Founders twice and the Constitution three times – was to cast these hearings less as a partisan effort directed at Trump and more as a necessary defense of the democratic principles on which the country was founded.
This isn’t about Trump or even a particular political party, Schiff was saying. This is about how we want our government to work – and not work.
It seems unlikely that Schiff’s appeal to history will sway many people on the committee. Even before he began speaking, Republicans had put signs behind the dais criticizing the proceedings.
Devin Nunes turns it up to 11
If Schiff tried to ground the hearings in history, California Rep. Devin Nunes, the highest-ranking Republican on the Intelligence Committee, sought to go the gonzo route.
He called the hearings a “pitiful finale” to Democratic attempts to overturn the results of the 2016 election.
He described the closed-door testimony offered by Ukraine witnesses a “cult-like atmosphere.”
He suggested that the whistleblower “was known to have a bias against President Trump.”
He derided the “impeachment sham.”
He called the proceedings a “Star Chamber.”
He dismissed the investigation as a “low-rent Ukrainian sequel” to the Mueller investigation.
Nowhere that I could tell did Nunes actually, you know, address the July 25 transcript between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Or the facts presented by the witnesses called by House investigators.
Bill Taylor’s opening statement is a wow
Taylor, the top US official in Ukraine, delivered a tour-de-force opening statement – packed with details about the formation of an “irregular” channel (led by personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani) with Ukraine that often ran directly counter to his own regular channel and longstanding US policy in the region.
Taylor also laid out an excruciatingly specific timeline of his interactions with, among others, National Security Adviser John Bolton, US Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland and top Ukrainian officials. In that timeline, he repeatedly made clear that there was a not-very-quiet understanding that military aid from the US to Ukraine was being withheld unless and until the country announced an investigation into Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian natural gas company where Hunter Biden, the former vice president’s son, sat on the board.
Most stunningly, Taylor recounted an episode that he was told about only after his September 22 closed-door testimony involving Sondland. According to Taylor, Sondland met with a top aide to Zelensky on July 26 – one day after the fateful call between Trump and Zelensky. Sondland then called Trump and informed him of the nature of the meeting and an aide to Taylor heard Trump ask of “the investigations.” Following that call, the Taylor aide asked Sondland what Trump’s thoughts were on Ukraine. Sondland replied that Trump cares more about the Biden investigation than anything else.
The geopolitical impact of Trump’s approach to Ukraine
While the focus of Wednesday’s hearing – from members of Congress at least – is what Trump (and his allies) did in regard to Ukraine and the Bidens, both Taylor and George Kent, a State Department official, repeatedly expressed their concerns about the impact of withholding military aid to the country.
Taylor noted that he had traveled to the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine and had seen, directly, the impact of the nearly $400 million in withheld American military aid for the country in its ongoing fight against Russian incursions. Kent, similarly, sought to emphasize how critical Ukraine – and America’s support for Ukraine – was in the ongoing efforts to limit Russia’s advancement in the region. (Russia annexed Crimea, a Ukrainian territory, in 2014.)
The genuine concern expressed by Taylor and Kent is a startling reminder that the pressure campaign organized by the White House had, to these longtime diplomats’ minds, real-world implications not just for Ukraine but for the United States’ interests in the region – and specifically in its dealings with Russia.
In short: This wasn’t just about Trump getting what he wanted on the Bidens from Ukraine. This had real reverberations in American geopolitics.
Taylor says none of this was normal
One of Republicans’ biggest talking points going into these impeachment hearings was that nothing Trump did in his call with Zelensky was outside the normal operating procedures of a President negotiating with a foreign leader. “We do that all that time with foreign policy,” acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney said last month, adding, “Get over it.”
Taylor was clear on Wednesday that he did not agree with the Republican view on this. “It’s one thing to try to leverage a meeting in the White House,” said Taylor. “It’s another thing – I thought – to try to leverage security assistance. … It’s much more alarming.”
Partisans will take the side that affirms their view. But remember that Taylor is a longtime diplomat serving under both Democratic and Republican presidents. And that Mulvaney is, well, not.
Nunes pushed a debunked Ukraine conspiracy theory
Opening his questions to Kent and Taylor in the early afternoon, Nunes detailed a widely debunked conspiracy theory that, somehow, the Ukrainians were involved in working to aid Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign and that the country might have possession of the hacked Democratic National Committee’s server. (The President brought up this same conspiracy theory during his July 25 call with Zelensky.)
To be clear: There is no evidence that Ukraine played any role in the 2016 US presidential election. Kent said as much during his testimony – under oath – earlier on Wednesday. Former National Security Council Russia expert Fiona Hill said the same during her closed-door testimony to House investigators.
And former White House homeland security adviser Tom Bossert summed it up to ABC’s George Stephanopoulos this way in late September:
“It is completely debunked … I am deeply frustrated with what [Giuliani] and the legal team is doing and repeating that debunked theory to the president. It sticks in his mind when he hears it over and over again, and for clarity here, George, let me just again repeat that it has no validity.”
So, no, Devin Nunes.
Republicans’ main talking point: Yawn
There’s a very clear effort by prominent Republicans to paint this impeachment hearing as a big nothingburger.
“This sham hearing is not only boring, it is a colossal waste of taxpayer time & money,” tweeted White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham.”This is horribly boring… #Snoozefest,” tweeted Eric Trump. And North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows, a close White House ally, told CNN’s Lauren Fox: “I don’t know about you but it’s hard for me to stay awake and listen to all of this.”
The similarity in language is, well, not an accident. It’s obvious that Republicans believe their best way to get through all of this is to say that it’s all boring and a bunch of details that only nerds care about.
Will it work? For the base, yes. For the rest of the country? I doubt it.
Jim Jordan showcases his patented interviewing style
House Republicans so value Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan – and his ability to score points in congressional hearings – that they added him to the Intelligence Committee just days before Wednesday’s hearing.
And Jordan did his thing. He spoke fast. He interrupted. He snarked. (“You’re their star witness?” Jordan sarcastically asked Taylor. “I’ve seen church prayer chains that are easier to understand than this.”)
The goal of all of this – as it always is with Jordan – is to make witnesses look unsure and unsteady. (When you talk really fast and then push the witness to immediately respond in a single-word answer, it tends to have that effect.)
Did it work with Taylor? There were a few “ums and “ahs” from the ambassador, but he stuck to his story.
Republicans say Ukraine never did what Trump asked, so…
One of the main thrusts of the GOP argument against the testimony of Taylor and Kent is that, for all of their concerns about what Trump asked of Zelensky, the nearly $400 million in military aid was released in September – even without Ukraine making any public statement about its plans to investigate the Bidens.
Jordan hit on the nothing-actually-happened line. As did Texas Rep. John Ratcliffe. As did New York Rep. Elise Stefanik.
But context matters. Right around the time that the aid was released fully – September 11 – Congress had begun to ask questions (on a bipartisan basis) about why the aid was being withheld. And there was already talk about a whistleblower complaint, which had been formally filed on August 11, alleging wrongdoing by Trump on that call with Zelensky among other things.
That timing suggests that the argument being made by Jordan and other Republicans isn’t as conclusive as they want it to seem.