Congress

What to Make of the First Day of Impeachment Hearings

By Scott R. Anderson, Quinta Jurecic
Wednesday, November 13, 2019, 6:22 PM

It’s happening: After weeks of closed-door hearings, a parade of witnesses and much presidential grousing, the impeachment process has finally made its public debut.

President Trump said he didn’t watch the hearing. His supporters complained that the spectacle was boring. But despite the bad reviews from Republicans, the hearing—featuring State Department officials Amb. William Taylor, now serving as charge d’affaires in Ukraine, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent—unveiled at least one piece of significant new information about the president’s conduct and set the stage for impeachment hearings to come.

Kent, whose deposition testimony described how conspiracy theories circulated by Rudy Giuliani led to Amb. Marie Yovanovitch’s ouster from her post in Ukraine, was the unexpected star of the show. Wearing a three-piece suit and a yellow-and-blue bow tie—the colors of the Ukrainian flag—he delivered an opening statement that all but openly criticized actions by Trump and those who sought to influence Ukraine policy on the president’s behalf, stating, “It was unexpected, and most unfortunate, to watch some Americans—including those who allied themselves with corrupt Ukrainians in pursuit of private agendas—launch attacks on dedicated public servants advancing U.S. interests in Ukraine.” He also came to the defense of “some of [his] fellow public servants who have come under personal attack” from the president’s supporters—specifically Yovanovitch, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and Fiona Hill, all immigrants—whom he honored as having chosen to serve their adopted country.

For a career diplomat and career public servant, Kent made comments that were notably forward-leaning. Given public servants’ inherent caution and the professional need to avoid political sensitivities, most would have been far more circumspect in their comments and less pointed in their anticipated rebuttals. Kent was neither—and he continued to capably, and at times quite sharply, field questions throughout the day. The impression was a committed public servant who had been pushed to the limits of what he could stand and was willing to strain against the conventional limits of his position in order to push back. 

By contrast, Taylor played his cards closer to his chest and largely recycled much of the opening statement from his closed-door testimony, which was the first document to provide a detailed account of machinations before and after Trump’s July 25 phone call with Zelensky. While Kent’s testimony appeared intent on contextualizing Trump’s conduct—clarifying what was at stake in Ukraine and how the president’s behavior put it at risk—Taylor focused intently on the factual timeline of the Trump administration’s handling of Ukraine policy, going over it again in close detail. Together, the two witnesses set the stage well for the remainder of the day’s questioning and the impeachment process more broadly. The facts are bad for the president, and there is value in getting that material on video for the public to learn in real time. But they don’t represent a bombshell—because that bombshell already dropped when the depositions were first reported on.

There was, however, one major new factual revelation tucked inside Taylor’s opening statement—a piece of information that Taylor himself said he had learned only days earlier:

Last Friday, a member of my staff told me of events that occurred on July 26. While Ambassador Volker and I visited the front [line of the Ukrainian-Russian war in Ukraine’s east], this member of my staff accompanied Ambassador [to the EU Gordon] Sondland. Ambassador Sondland met with Mr. Yermak. 

Following that meeting, in the presence of my staff at a restaurant, Ambassador Sondland called President Trump and told him of his meetings in Kyiv. The member of my staff could hear President Trump on the phone, asking Ambassador Sondland about “the investigations.” Ambassador Sondland told President Trump that the Ukrainians were ready to move forward. 

Following the call with President Trump, the member of my staff asked Ambassador Sondland what President Trump thought about Ukraine. Ambassador Sondland responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden, which Giuliani was pressing for. 

This is, to understate the matter, very damaging for the president. While it is a secondhand account, as Taylor acknowledges, for the first time it points toward a witness with firsthand knowledge of Trump’s interactions with Sondland who may be willing to testify before the committee.

Republicans complained throughout the hearing that neither Taylor nor Kent had spoken directly with Trump about their concerns regarding the hijacking of Ukraine policy. Likewise, the president’s defenders have floated the notion that Giuliani and Sondland were freelancing and not taking direction from Trump in their apparent efforts at pressuring the Ukrainians. This explanation is hard to swallow—as the call memo of Trump’s conversation with Zelensky shows, Trump himself clearly played a role in pressuring Ukraine. But the House has not yet produced evidence clarifying the specifics of how Trump’s instructions did or didn’t flow down to Giuliani and Sondland, in large part because of the White House’s stonewalling and the refusal of witnesses such as Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney to testify before Congress. 

Taylor’s testimony changes that. And reports indicate that the staffer in question, David Holmes, is now scheduled to be deposed by Congress in a closed-door session on Friday, Nov. 15. If Holmes confirms this story, the president will have lost one of the few arguments left in his defense.

Key to the hearing was the Intelligence Committee’s decision to allow staff counsel to question witnesses in 45-minute segments, rather than alternating in five-minute segments, for the hearing’s initial three hours. In his 45 minutes of questioning, majority counsel Daniel Goldman focused primarily on burnishing certain aspects of the factual account that Taylor had laid out in his opening statement. Goldman was careful to elicit from Taylor the fact that he had kept detailed contemporaneous notes throughout the relevant time period, which Taylor had used to inform his testimony. At times referring to those notes, Goldman then focused Taylor’s attention on specific exchanges Taylor had with Sondland and phrases he heard Sondland use in describing Trump’s objectives in relation to Ukraine, carefully establishing that Taylor understood Sondland to be a conduit both from Giuliani and from Trump himself. 

This questioning of Taylor may well be aimed at setting the stage for the committee’s own questioning of Sondland next week. Sondland will doubtless be asked whether his work on Ukraine took place on his own initiative or was tasked to him from the president. In this sense, Goldman’s questioning of Taylor was the first link in the chain that Democrats hope to use to tie broader interactions with Ukraine—beyond just the call with Zelensky—back to Trump’s personal involvement.

The Republican strategy, by contrast, was much harder to suss out. Steve Castor, a House Oversight Committee staffer, walked Kent and Taylor through a rambling line of questioning that never quite added up to anything, to the point where even supporters of the president wondered on social media where Castor was headed. House Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Devin Nunes held forth on the Steele dossier—a subject that both witnesses were quick to say they knew nothing about. As the hearing went on, other Republicans—most prominently Rep. Jim Jordan—tested out a range of arguments, including that Ukraine and Hunter Biden are corrupt; that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election; that, for those reasons, Trump was right to push Zelensky to investigate these issues; that neither witness had direct contact with the president and that therefore their testimony may not be accurate; that the aid was eventually released in the absence of an announcement from Zelensky and therefore no wrongdoing was actually committed; and that the identity of the person behind the whistleblower complaint remains secret. It’s a scattershot approach that depends largely on the willingness of the president and the press to swallow conspiracy theories and distractions that add up to nothing more than a lot of spaghetti on the wall.

One aspect of the Republican strategy that appears constant is an effort to undermine the legitimacy of the process leading to impeachment proceedings. Nunes opened and closed by identifying three questions—what interactions the whistleblower who initially brought attention to the July 25 Trump-Zelensky call has had with Democrats, to what extent Ukraine meddled in the 2016 elections, and why Burisma placed Hunter Biden on its board—that he maintains should be answered before any further steps are taken, even as he accused Schiff of conducting a “star chamber” and orchestrating a show trial. Jordan and other Republicans returned to these themes, with several reiterating demands for more information about the whistleblower and implying that they were not fully aware of what had happened in the prior closed-door sessions. None of these critiques, however, have much bearing on the question of impeachment: Trump himself disclosed and has corroborated the July 25 call memorandum and none of these points contest the facts to which Taylor, Kent and others have testified. Instead, these Republican efforts are aimed to distract and obfuscate by creating so much outrage at the Democrats’ conduct that Trump’s own actions—the subject of the impeachment inquiry—cease to be the focus of the public debate.

The effectiveness of the Republican strategy, both within the president’s core base of support and in the media environment more generally, remains to be seen. But at least four more hearings are queued up: Former Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch will be testifying on Nov. 15, followed by a slew of Defense Department, State Department and National Security Council officials the following week. In other words, there’s a lot more of this yet to come.