Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee faced a nearly impossible task as public hearings in the impeachment inquiry began today: they had to present the multi-character, multi-part story of how the White House and the president’s unofficial associates made American military aid to Ukraine conditioned upon political assistance by the Ukrainian government with Donald Trump’s 2020 reelection bid. They had to do this clearly and convincingly, and they had to do it while managing the theatrics and combating the misinformation issued by Republicans. The odds were stacked against them.
But with the help of procedural interventions in the impeachment inquiry that limited opportunities for Republican grandstanding, and a damning set of facts presented by the diplomat witnesses, Ambassador William Taylor and Deputy Assistant Secretary George Kent, Democrats largely succeeded in presenting a clear and morally stark narrative of the President’s actions. By the end of the hearing it was clear that there is little doubt that Donald Trump used his power as president to advance his personal interests in ways that are legally dubious and ethically abhorrent, and that Republicans have little sense of how to defend him.
In their opening statements, the witnesses established the geopolitical stakes of the American military aid to Ukraine, with Taylor making a moral case for the need to protect and encourage fragile attempts at autonomy and democratic reform in the young country, and Kent making a strategic case for advancing American interests worldwide by encouraging prosperity in Europe and checking Russia’s expansionist ambitions. Their point was that withholding the aid was directly in contrast with American global interests, undermining both American principles and American objectives.
Next came the men’s timeline, in which they recounted how they came to learn that the aid had been withheld, how they came to learn that its release had been conditioned upon a public commitment to investigate Joe Biden and his son, and how they encountered a series of officials from the State Department—who were bewildered and anxious about getting the money released—and from the Ukrainian government—who Taylor described as “desperate” to get the aid so that they could use it in their ongoing war against Russian incursion in the country’s East.
Taylor’s testimony in particular emphasized that the withholding of the aid was ordered by Trump himself. He recounted a conversation with European Union ambassador Gordon Sondland in which Sondland claimed that Trump had ordered the quid pro quo, while also saying that the president had described the exchange as “not a quid pro quo.” In another new revelation, Taylor described an anecdote that had been described to him by an aide. On July 26, the day after Trump’s infamous phone call asking the Ukrainian president for “a favor,” the aide had been at dinner with Sondland, who had made a call to Donald Trump. On the phone, the aide could overhear Trump asking about the investigations, and heard Sondland say that the Ukranians were “ready to move forward.” (Taylor also repeatedly referred to the Ukrainian president’s scheduled appearance on CNN to announce the investigations, which was narrowly averted when the money was finally released in mid September.) After the call ended, Taylor says that the aid asked Sondland what Trump thought of Ukraine. “He’s more interested in the investigations” than in Ukraine, Sondland allegedly responded.
Not knowing quite what to do with the avalanching evidence against the head of their party, Republicans focused almost exclusively on the secondhand nature of much of this information, with Representative Jim Jordan in particular complaining that the witnesses did not have firsthand information, and saying that if the impeachment proceedings were in a criminal trial, which they are not, then their testimony would be inadmissible as hearsay.
It is true that much of what Taylor and Kent spoke about in the hearings’ first public day were things that other people had told them, information about the President’s motivations and decision making processes that they had gathered secondhand. This would be a legitimate complaint if secondhand information was not the only information available to the inquiry: witnesses with first-hand information about the events in question, such as White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and former National Security Advisor John Bolton, have been prohibited from testifying by the White House.
Another line of attack seemed to be the Ukrainian’s public statements claiming that he did not feel “pressured” by Trump’s actions. Republicans like Representative John Ratcliffe repeatedly read President Zelensky’s on the record remarks out loud, asserting that these statements were sincere declarations of feeling, rather than what they are much more likely to be—political statements and strategic flatteries meant to assuage President Trump, who is still in power and whose help Zelensky still needs. Ratcliffe did not seem interested in Taylor’s description of Ukrainian national security officials as “desperate” for the aid.
Minor displays from Jordan and Ratcliffe notwithstanding, the hearings were blessedly free from the nonsequitor showboating that usually characterized televised congressional hearings, in part because of a procedural intervention that mandated that most of the questioning time would be monopolized not by congresspeople themselves, but by appointed staff attorneys for each side.
For the Democrats, this worked quite well, with their counsel, Daniel Goldman, using his questioning time to draw out facts from the witnesses, establish a timeline, and eradicate any doubt of wrongdoing. For the Republicans, things did not go so well. The Republican counsel, Steve Castor, appeared confused, underslept, and meandering, pursuing strange lines of inquiry that appeared to be drawn from conspiracies theories of the far-right internet and, in a lawyer’s rookie mistake, asking questions that he did not know the answers to. He was flailing; but then again, so were all of the Republicans.
It seemed quite clear to the congresspeople themselves that the Republican party was having a very bad day. When the Republican members spoke, they tended to yell and conspiracize, accusing their Democratic colleagues of unfair treatment and condemning the process. They were not so much trying to exonerate the president as trying to perform for him as he watched on TV. The Democrats, meanwhile, were calm, speaking in smooth tones, refusing to take the bait offered to them by Republicans, and on the whole, using their time with great efficiency. They were in uncommonly good form, and seemed in quite good spirits. Things were going exactly as they planned.
Moira Donegan is a Guardian US columnist