The impeachment inquiry is going public, a pivotal step for House Democrats as they try to make their case to the country that President Donald Trump should be the third president in US history to be impeached.
Seven weeks after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the impeachment inquiry, her party’s members are bringing in three witnesses to testify publicly. The Democrats are trying to illuminate their case that Trump abused his office by pressuring the Ukrainian President to announce an investigation that would benefit Trump politically, while withholding a one-on-one meeting and $400 million in security aid.
Republicans, meanwhile, are turning from protesting the impeachment process to arguing that the Democrats’ case simply doesn’t add up, since Trump and President Volodymyr Zelensky both say there was no pressure campaign and that Ukraine ultimately received the aid money.
The first impeachment hearing kicks off Wednesday with Bill Taylor, the top US diplomat in Ukraine, and George Kent, the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs. It’s a high-stakes affair for everyone involved, from the President to the witnesses to pair of congressional aides who will be thrust into the spotlight.
Here’s what to watch for when the gavel drops in the hearing room:
Can Democrats successfully make their case for impeachment?
The last time the Democrats held what was billed as a make-or-break hearing for impeachment, the result was a flop.
That was former special counsel Robert Mueller, whose testimony was intentionally limited in what he was willing and able to say about the President’s connection to Russian election interference and obstruction of justice.
Now the Democrats’ impeachment effort has shifted 180 degrees away from Mueller, after the Ukraine issue burst into the open following an anonymous whistleblower complaint alleging the President had solicited help from Ukraine with his 2020 campaign.
Still, despite the different subject matter — and the public polling on impeachment, which starkly shifted in the Democrats’ favor as the Ukraine issue unfolded — Democrats face the same hurdles with the Ukraine hearings as they did with Mueller.
The witnesses have already been questioned for hours behind closed doors and their transcripts have been released, meaning there are unlikely to be any bombshells or significant new developments in the public testimony. Instead, Democrats are going to look to Taylor, Kent and other witnesses to spell out to a nationwide audience what most people probably have yet to read in detail: that Trump, along with his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, withheld a one-on-one meeting and millions in US security aid in order to persuade Zelensky to go to a microphone, as Taylor testified, to announce an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden.
The inquiry started with a whistleblower complaint, but Democrats say they’ve collected so much evidence they don’t even need to hear from that individual, arguing that the 15 witnesses who have testified all point to a Ukraine shadow diplomacy spearheaded by Giuliani, which first led to the ouster of US Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch and then prompted the push for an investigation and the freeze on US aid.
A Democratic aide said Democrats are telling a “very simple story” that the President abused his office and his presidential powers.
Democrats are betting that in this case, unlike with Mueller, the “movie version” of the testimony playing out in a hearing room will successfully bring the story to life for people who didn’t “read the book.”
Will the hearing format help Democrats break through?
Democrats passed a House resolution last month dictating the rules of the public hearings, making a key adjustment to a traditional hearing: The chairman and ranking GOP member of the House Intelligence Committee will each get 45-minute blocks to ask questions.
The rules change was an effort to counteract a frustration that’s emerged from many recent high-profile hearings, including Mueller and the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation hearings in the Senate: that the five-minute back-and-forth questioning between members of the two parties leads to disjointed, hard-to-follow narratives.
Democrats hope the 45-minute blocks will give them the time to walk witnesses through their full stories like they were able to do in the closed-door depositions, where the majority and minority alternated hourlong and 45-minute rounds. The format also means that Democrats will get to lay out their case with the witness for a full 45 minutes without GOP interruption, before Republicans then get to do the same to try to push back against the Democratic arguments. It’s a format that was also used during the impeachment hearings for President Bill Clinton two decades ago.
The rules include another key distinction to allow Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, a California Democrat, and ranking Republican Rep. Devin Nunes, also of California, the ability to tap committee staff attorneys to ask questions, which both are expected to do. That means that two relatively unknown congressional aides — Daniel Goldman, the Intelligence Committee’s director of investigations, and Steve Castor, the House Oversight Committee GOP counsel — will be two of the most prominent faces in the public impeachment hearings.
Goldman and Castor have led questioning during the closed-door depositions, so they will be well prepared for their moment, even if the notion of outshining lawmakers at hearings will be a foreign one. The Republicans even made Castor a shared aide for the Oversight and Intelligence committees to allow him to participate.
Can Republicans mount a defense of Trump?
For weeks, House Republicans have decried the closed-door Democratic impeachment process, accusing Schiff of running an illegitimate, secretive inquiry to overturn the results of the 2016 election.
Now that the inquiry is out in the open, Republicans are shifting their strategy to focus more on the substance of the Democratic narrative in an attempt to undercut the case for impeachment. Republicans on Monday circulated an 18-page memo detailing their argument against impeachment with four core points:
- The July 25 call summary “shows no conditionality or evidence of pressure.”
- Zelensky and Trump “have both said there was no pressure on the call.”
- Ukraine “was not aware of the hold on US assistance” during the July 25 call.
- The hold on US aid was lifted on September 11, 2019, without an investigation into Biden.
While Republicans aren’t likely to drop fully their complaints about the process — especially if the witnesses they requested are denied by the Democrats — the public hearings aren’t expected to include major shenanigans like the effort led by GOP Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida to “storm” the House Intelligence secure space last month to protest the impeachment inquiry.
Now that the Republicans effectively got what they asked for — open hearings — they have to try to win their argument on the substance. Of course, they’ve already been attempting to do just that behind closed doors in the depositions, despite Trump’s false claims on his Twitter feed that Republicans have been shut out of the process or that the transcripts are somehow doctored.
How do the witnesses come across?
The public takeaway that comes out of the impeachment hearings will depend in large part on the witnesses sitting across from lawmakers: longtime career officials who remain at the State Department. The officials all expressed concern and alarm at the campaign led by Giuliani to remove Yovanovitch and then to push for political investigations.
Republicans will look to question the witnesses’ credibility and reliability in order to undercut Democratic arguments. That doesn’t mean Republicans will necessarily try to attack witnesses — this isn’t Michael Cohen testifying — but they will look to poke holes in the arguments witnesses put forward. That’s particularly true of Taylor, who says he was told that Trump would not meet with Zelensky or release the Ukraine security aid unless the Ukrainian President publicly announced investigations into the Bidens and the 2016 election.
Taylor’s account is based on what he was told by other officials, such as US Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland and National Security Council aide Tim Morrison. Republicans plan to build the case in their line of questioning that Taylor didn’t have a “clear understanding” of what Trump wanted, and point to the fact he relied on what he had been told by others to argue that Taylor’s account should not be given more weight than those of witnesses with more direct involvement, like former US Special Envoy Kurt Volker, who said he did not see a quid pro quo with Ukraine.
Rep. Lee Zeldin, a New York Republican who has been a key participant in the depositions, said Tuesday that Taylor was not credible because his account was based on “second-, third- (and) fourth-hand information.”
Democrats, however, are likely to point to the fact that Taylor’s account has been corroborated by other witnesses, including Morrison, who did not take issue with the July 25 call itself. And Taylor explained in his deposition that he took meticulous notes of his conversations — meaning his account of what happened over the past few months was not as hazy as others, like Sondland.
The question of witness credibility will be key for every public impeachment hearing, but perhaps none more than the first day with Taylor. If he comes across as credible and compelling, it will go a long way to helping Democrats make their impeachment case.
What does Trump’s counterprogramming look like?
This is the first social media impeachment proceeding, and the first where the President’s Twitter feed gives him the ability to respond unfiltered and in real time to the televised hearings.
Trump has tweeted repeatedly on impeachment in recent weeks, with frequent attacks on Schiff and Pelosi, questions about why the whistleblower isn’t coming forward and complaints that Democrats are trying to impeach him over a “perfect” phone call.
His Twitter feed will be a wild card for both sides.
What’s more, the President has a joint news conference scheduled with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan following their meeting at the White House on Wednesday, giving him a potentially prominent platform to respond to the impeachment hearings.
Trump’s news conference could create quite the split screen for day one of the public hearings.