Impeachment hearings begin with a bombshell

Trump is right to be rattled – the first day of public impeachment hearings into the Ukraine scandal very much didn’t go his way.

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Compared to other recent US congressional hearings, Wednesday’s opening day of the formal public impeachment inquiry into president Donald Trump was a focused affair. A lot of that was because, for the first half of the proceeding at least, questioning was done not by members in a five-minutes-and-done ping-pong way but by two professional trial attorneys, one for the Democratic majority on the committee and one for the Republicans.

The first two witnesses, US ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor and deputy assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs George Kent, immediately presented the Trump camp with close to their worst-case scenario. Career diplomats with more than 75 years of public service between them, the two were confident and assured figures – the more the Republicans on the committee hectored them, the more grownup they looked and the more damning their testimony played.

The Republicans, both through their counsel in the first half of the day’s five-plus hour cross-examination and, more chaotically, through individual members in the second half, tried to move the focus on to Joe Biden’s actions – but neither Kent nor Taylor would be drawn in. One particularly illuminating moment saw GOP Rep. John Ratcliffe ask dramatically if they thought anything in the call was impeachable, only to withdraw his own question once he realised Taylor was actually going to answer him. 

Much of the second half of the hearing saw the two witnesses sit with bemused expressions as Republican representatives orated vigorously at the cameras behind them.

Probably the most newsworthy part of the hearing came during Taylor’s opening remarks, in which he revealed that an aide had heard Trump himself demand to know what was happening with the Ukraine investigation into the Bidens in the background of a phone call with Gordon Sondland, Trump’s ambassador to the EU, a key figure in the scandal who is set to testify next week. 

That was the day’s big bombshell – brand new information that he had learned since his closed-door testimony in October, and by the time the hearing had ended the aide in question had been summoned to speak to the investigating committee.

The problem for Trump is that this is really a very simple case. The quid pro quo was evident in even the trimmed readout that Trump himself tweeted out after the whistleblower complaint was revealed. But to watch two serious diplomatic hands testify to their “shock” and “concern” when they saw what Trump and Giuliani were trying to pull off was nonetheless arresting. As Taylor put it, “President Trump did insist that President Zelensky go to a microphone to say he is opening investigations of Biden,” ie, withholding US military aid to a key national security ally to use as leverage to strongarm a foreign power into investigating Trump’s domestic political rival.

The Republicans were left with little to stake their case on other than two core strands, both of them weak: one, that because the crime could not be executed in full it doesn't count – as one Twitter user accurately pointed out, “If a thief tries to rob you but stops when the police show up, it’s still against the law”; and two, that Trump is personally extremely concerned with stopping corruption around the globe, an argument that few of even the president’s closest allies could possibly take seriously.

Despite Republican efforts to sow the seeds of equivalence, both Kent and Taylor took pains to put clear blue water between the acts of Joe Biden in joining an international demand in 2012 for the firing of a corrupt former prosecutor, and the acts of Trump and Rudy Giuliani in trying to extort Ukrainian prime minister Volodymyr Zelensky this summer. Giuliani, Kent testified, was “looking to dig up dirt.”

Trump claimed not to have watched the hearing – but immediately, of course, undermined that claim by saying that the outside counsel the Democrats brought in, prosecutor Daniel Goldman, looked “like a TV lawyer.” The president was clearly rattled, firing off more than a dozen retweets of GOP loyalists during the hearing, despite theoretically being busy all day in a bilateral meeting at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue with Turkish autocrat Reccip Erdogan.

“The witch hunt? I haven't watched,” Trump said at a joint press conference with Erdogan soon after the hearing finished, calling it a “sham which shouldn't have been allowed”. But he seemed subdued.

The Senate, which will later act as jury in the impeachment trial when, as seems overwhelmingly likely, the House of Representatives passes articles of impeachment, will still almost certainly not vote to convict the president, as a two thirds majority is required by the constitution. But Trump is still right to be worried – today looked very bad for his attempt to claim that the whole Ukraine scandal is overblown. These were serious people, and they made the Republican efforts to discredit their concerns look clownish.

Nicky Woolf is the editor of New Statesman America. He has formerly written for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.