Adam Schiff started the hearing by reminding us that this impeachment hearing is not just about Trump but about the future of our democracy. We are in a very important moment in our country in which we are asking whether it is all right to do what Trump did. If it is, then future presidents will be able to do what Trump did, namely solicit a foreign government for manufactured dirt on a political rival and use the vast power of our country as if the money belongs to the president to induce and coerce people to get him or her what they want. The focus on the big picture was an important reminder that our Constitution is at stake here and that this is exactly what the founding fathers anticipated could happen if our country had a president like Trump. He is not trying to protect us. He is out for himself. He is not watching out for our national security. This is a turning point for our democracy. Will we rise to the occasion?
Bill Taylor and George Kent were the kind of witnesses every prosecutor dreams of working with to put in the case in chief. They were clearly there to tell the truth. They established that they were apolitical and not “Never Trumpers”. And they pushed back on Democrats questions when the Dems tried to get them to agree with conclusions and opinions beyond their factual knowledge. That helped them to be even more convincing.
There was also a bombshell. New information was recounted by Bill Taylor. When he was away from Kiev at the front where the Russians are attacking Ukrainians, a member of his staff went to a restaurant with Ambassador Sondland in Kiev along with some other people. While at dinner Amb Sondland calls Trump directly on his cell phone (btw that is a huge security breach to do that on a line where Russians are probably listening in) and note that Sondland is calling Trump and Trump answers! Trump has been claiming that he hardly knows Sondland. Yet he takes his cell phone call the day after the conversation by phone he had with Zelensky in which Trump asks “for a favor, though”. The favor he wants is made even clearer in this call with Sondland. The conversation between Trump and Sondland is so loud that the staffer can hear both sides of the conversation. Trump brings up the investigations with Sondland to check on how that is coming . Sondland reassures him that Zelensky is ready to comply. After hanging up the staffer asks Sondland what the president thinks about Ukraine. Sondland replies that the president cares more about the probes into the Bidens than about Ukraine. That aide will be deposed by the House on Friday. Sondland will have to “evolve” his remarks for a second time when he testifies before the House now that this information has come out. He is on the hotseat if he lies. This bombshell puts Trump squarely in the driver’s seat as the director of the bribery plot. It is first hand information incidentally overheard by a staffer who is not subject to Trump’s obstructive ban on anyone testifying against him who has first hand knowledge.
Like all good mob bosses, Trump has learned that if he can distance himself from the people in the room with him who have had first hand knowledge of his words and actions, he can usually skate away from being implicated in crimes. I imagine he learned that from Roy Cohn who was the lawyer for a lot of mob bosses and was one of his teachers. Today in the hearing Republicans complained about the fact that there was only second hand information. They complained that there was hearsay instead of first hand information. The response from the Dems was that the reason for the second hand information is that Trump is barring everyone who has first hand information from testifying. That fact is actually good evidence that people like Mulvaney and Bolton have nothing exculpatory to say in Trump’s defense If they did, they would be showing up to be deposed by the House and banging on the doors of the hearing room where these televised hearings are taking place, demanding to be witnesses. That’s not happening.
The Republicans have been ordered by Trump to defend him on the merits. But to do that they have to say that they agree there was nothing wrong with holding up security assistance for Ukraine to get what he wanted personally. It means they would have to say that what Trump said in the call with Zelensky (which was fundamentally a call setting up the bribery/ extortion) was fine and there was nothing wrong with the pressure campaign Trump directed Guiliani to do to coerce Ukraine to do a hit job on Biden and find him the nonexistent server that would show the Ukrainians were the ones who cyber attacked the DNC, not the Russians. The Republicans did not go there today. Maybe they are not as crazy as Trump is. Maybe they realize that Trump will not be president forever and they need to preserve some vestige of self-respect so they can look in the mirror and not feel overwhelmed by disgust.
What the Republicans did do is try to attack around the edges. But not very effectively. Devin Nunes led the Republicans and much of what he tried to establish was that everyone should just focus on the one single call Trump had with Zelensky which was perfect. Nothing to see there. No evidence in that call of anything like a crime. The response to that weak defense is that it wasn’t one call. It was a campaign. There was a many months pressure campaign on Zelensky. Evidence of that campaign came out in the testimony today and more is coming.
Jim Jordan frantically asked one question after another in an attempt to rattle the witnesses. He seemed to think he was scoring points by getting Taylor to agree that Zelensky did not report being blackmailed to anyone. Since when does someone report being blackmailed to the very people conducting the blackmail of him? Really? Is that all you got, Jim Jordan?
Another tack was that the President and Guiliani’s concerns were valid. Ukraine was a cesspool of corruption, right? And if Trump wanted to investigate what nefarious things Hunter Biden and Joe Biden were doing in that cesspool of corruption that was a valid reason to make Zelensky announce “investigations”. The problem there was that the witnesses, especially Kent, bolstered Joe Biden being engaged in the anti-corruption effort and that when Biden tried to get a sleazy prosecutor kicked out, Biden was just one of a number of people who could see that that guy was corrupt and needed to go. Then the Republicans did their best to try to confuse the issue- “investigation” was the code word Trump was using for the hit job he wanted done on Biden. They were trying to say that what Trump wanted investigated was more general corruption. Since when has Trump ever been concerned about cleaning up corruption? Never. The only thing he cares about is getting IN on corruption to enrich himself.
What also came out from that line of questioning was that Trump had felt dissed by Ukraine in the run up to the 2016 election. There were numerous negative and critical commentaries and articles about Trump that upset him. (We know how thin skinned he is. This was very likely part of the germination of his antipathy towards Ukraine.) However the basis for that negative reaction to Trump by Ukrainians was that candidate Trump had said it might be OK with him if Russia kept Crimea. Taylor pointed out that that was very inflammatory to all Ukrainians since that would mean Russia could violate their border and get away with it. It might also be taken as a green light for Russia to take over even more of Ukraine. So, duh! no wonder Ukrainians dissed Trump.
Another tack was the no harm no foul defense. The Ukrainians eventually got the money and Zelensky did not make a public statement on CNN about opening up an investigation into Biden. So, hey, let’s just pretend everything is ok. What the Dems then brought out was that the only reason there was no harm was because the whistle-blower report came to light on Sept 9th, and the House made it clear they would investigate on Sept 10th and on Sept 11 Trump released the funds. This is reminiscent of the many instances documented in the Mueller Report where people like Cory Lewandowski or Don McGhan are given orders or directives by Trump that are illegal, such as “Fire Mueller!” and they do not do it. Which saves Trump from breaking the law. But there are no more people in the White House who act as guardrails these days- at least none that we know of. If Trump skates on this bribery and abuse of power impeachment, he will be even more emboldened and dangerous. He will very likely fire all of the people we are hearing from in this impeachment proceeding. Lt Colonel Vindman who ties Trump more directly to this bribery plot has already been removed from the National Security team for some bogus reason. And Trump has been growling about getting rid of the Inspector General who made the whistle-blower report available to Congress. More obstruction and cover ups.
Another tack was to denigrate the witnesses. That was hard to do because these guys are straight arrow, patriotic public servants who take their jobs very seriously and were not out to get Trump. Taylor took over for Amb Marie Yovanovich at the request of Mike Pompeo. These two men who testified today were part of the Trump administration. Eric Swalwell asked them if they were “Never Trumpers” since Trump, who claimed he was not even watching this witch hunt hoax, was busting out about 3 dozen tweets all day including one that labeled the two witnesses as “Never Trumpers”. They were both very convincing in their responses. They were not out to get Trump. They were not “Never Trumpers”. They were apolitical and motivated by a desire to keep our country safe in terms of national security. They were there as fact witnesses.
Perhaps the best moments of the day were the ones that helped us understand how Ukraine’s national security ties into OUR safety and national security. To have this back channel carrying out Trump’s personal vendetta against Biden and helping him win re-election was undermining normal diplomacy and working against the interests of our country, our allies in Europe, as well as Ukraine. Russia was emboldened and the world order established after World War II that a country’s borders have to be respected and defended by everyone so that territorial aggression by countries like Russia would be prevented by that mutual agreement and strong alliances was being damaged. That world order was and still is being challenged by Russia taking over Ukrainian land, Crimea, which endangers us as well as our European allies.
Another good moment was when Jim Jordan said he wanted the whistle-blower to come in since that person was the guy who started it all. And Rep. Peter Welch (D) countered by saying the person who started it all was welcome to come in and testify, “President Trump is welcome to take a seat right there” (pointing to the witness seat). Touche.
I do not know how today’s hearing will play across America. Fox News is pretending that the hearing was a big boring nothingburger. The Republicans want to encourage everyone to turn off their TV sets because the hearing is not sexy enough. No celebrities losing their bathing suits diving into a swimming pool. Republicans want to blur the lines and hold onto their core Trump cult voters. They are hoping for a confused electorate that cannot tell truth from fiction. Today the bottom line was that Republicans did not have facts to counter the facts we heard from two excellent witnesses who were not rattled. The Dems had a good first day. Is America watching? Does America care? We are going to find out.