The first public congressional session of the impeachment inquiry aimed at President Donald Trump probably wasn’t compelling television for most voters. Most people just aren’t very interested in fine details. Nor did Democrats bring a lot of drama or theatrics.
And yet I suspect that for those who are interested in government and public affairs — including the news media — there was plenty of substance in the testimony before the House Intelligence Committee on Wednesday of two State Department officials responsible for U.S. policy in Ukraine. Competently guided by Democratic members and staff, Ambassador William Taylor and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent skillfully laid out facts that are clearly damning to Trump, and to the rogue Ukraine policy run by presidential counselor Rudy Giuliani, White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, and others on behalf of Trump’s 2020 presidential campaign.
With few exceptions, Democrats followed a just-the-facts, this-is-serious-business strategy, showing their intention to speak to those beyond their strongest supporters. There’s no way to predict whether they will succeed in weakening Trump’s support and building sentiment for his removal from office among people who are undecided or weakly opposed, but that’s the way to do it.
The Republican responses were unconvincing. Ranking committee member Devin Nunes of California and the Republican counsel used a lot of their time to sketch out debunked claims and conspiracy theories that Trump, Giuliani and others have been trying to spread.
Most of it was incomprehensible to anyone who doesn’t regularly tune in to the attacks on Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden that dominate Fox News and Republican-aligned talk radio. Republicans also made much of the early contact between committee staff and the anonymous whistle-blower who alerted intelligence agencies to the July 25 phone call in which Trump pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate Biden. They also alleged that Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff met with the whistle-blower and influenced his or her testimony. Schiff has credibly denied any such coordination, and it’s hard to see why it would matter given that the whistle-blower’s complaint has been almost entirely verified, including by the two witnesses on Wednesday.
The other Republican line of defense was somewhat less outlandish, though it still doesn’t add up. Their story goes like this: Trump had been more supportive of Ukraine than President Barack Obama had been; it was reasonable for Trump to temporarily hold up military aid even under circumstances that strongly suggested a pressure tactic to force the Biden probe; the aid was eventually delivered even though no investigation was publicly promised or undertaken; therefore there’s no harm, no foul, and nothing abusive.
It’s healthy in general for members of a president’s party to ask tough questions and to poke for holes in the opposition’s case. Nevertheless, in this case it won’t wash.
It’s true that Ukraine military aid was initiated by people in the Trump administration. But that doesn’t absolve Trump himself from responsibility for trying to wield it for personal political gain.
Because Trump is such a weak president, different officials take hold of different pieces of policy, sometimes in direct conflict with others. Today’s witnesses explained this as a two-track of policy for Ukraine, one through regular officials and the other through irregular channels. The regular group was advancing a normal U.S. policy of supporting a nation under attack from Russia. The irregular one wasn’t interested in any of that, but was advancing Trump’s personal campaign interests by trying to extort election assistance from the new Ukrainian government.
That plot failed because it was exposed, and Congress pressured the administration to follow the official policy. But the plot was real nonetheless, as detailed by today’s witnesses, by depositions taken recently, and by documentary evidence such as the written record of the July 25 call.
I suspect that the witness-bullying style of Republicans Jim Jordan of Ohio and and John Ratcliffe of Texas won’t play well outside of the president’s strongest circle of supporters, either.
The one big revelation in today’s hearing came at the beginning, when Taylor described in his opening statement a phone call between Trump and Ambassador Gordon Sondland that a State Department official overheard in a restaurant. Not only may that call tie Trump even more directly to the rogue policy, but it also provides new drama as the hearings continue.
The official, David Holmes, is being asked to give a private deposition to the committee on Friday, and may then be added to a public hearing. Sondland is scheduled to testify next week. He’s already changed his testimony once since his deposition; now he’ll either have to remember more things that he previously forgot to mention, or else there will be directly contradictory testimony. Either way, and regardless of substance, it brings the kind of suspense to the hearings that keeps live coverage going and gets people to talk about it.
Given the facts of the case, that’s bad news for Trump.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy.