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Impeachment Trial

Public Impeachment Hearings Begin

The next stage of the impeachment inquiry has begun, as witness testimony has moved from being conducted in closed-door rooms to being conducted in public, with both Democratic and Republican lawmakers asking questions of witnesses Bill Taylor and George Kent. The hearing, which started at 10 AM and lasted until the mid-afternoon, represented a forum for Democrats to make their case that the president engaged in what amounts to extortion by threatening to withdraw aid to Ukraine unless that country’s president went on CNN and announced an investigation into Burisma, the company for which Hunter Biden worked while his father was the US vice president. Simultaneously, the hearing was a chance for Republicans to offer their defense of the president, using their allotted time to attack the witnesses’ credibility by asserting that they had never met the president nor listened to the call in question, pointing out that the Trump administration provided military aid to Ukraine when the Obama administration only provided economic and political aid, and expressed outrage at the fact that the whistleblower’s identity has not been disclosed and that he or she has not been called to testify, among other lines of reasoning.

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The hearing began with Adam Schiff, who described the rules for the hearing and introduced the witnesses, and then presented the Democrat’s theory of the case, outlining a summary of events involving Trump’s phone call with President Zelensky. He defended the impeachment inquiry, saying that “if foreign interference is not impeachable, what is?” and worried that if the president gets away with inviting foreign interference, other presidents would feel emboldened to do the same, threatening principles fundamental to the core of the country. Devin Nunes then delivered his opening statement, beginning by attacking Democrats and the “corrupt media” and asserting that the impeachment inquiry is nothing more than a partisan attack on the president, comparing it to what he called the “Russian hoax” which culminated in Robert Mueller’s underwhelming testimony before congress, calling the inquiry a “low-rent Ulkranian sequel.” Nunes described the closed-door testimonies as a “cult-like” atmosphere during which witnesses “auditioned” for a “televised, theatrical performance.” 

Overall, most pundits thought the hearing was a win for Democrats and a loss for Republicans, and as the hearings proceed over the coming days and weeks, this trend is likely to continue.

The witnesses then delivered their opening statements. George Kent spoke first, detailing Rudy Giuliani’s activities abroad, including a “campaign to smear” the ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, in order to set up a shadow foreign policy apparatus to allow the president to circumvent official channels in his conduct with Ukraine. Then Bill Taylor gave his opening remarks, reitering testimony he gave earlier behind closed doors and describing the series of events he witnessed and had knowledge of. Taylor also broke news by revealing that a member of his staff had overheard a cell phone conversation between Trump and Gordon Sondland, during which Trump asked about the investigations into Biden, and Sondland responded that “the Ukrainians were ready to move forward.” Also, Taylor testified that Sondland claimed that President Trump cares more about the investigations into Biden than he does about Ukraine. Both witnesses said they thought the president was not genuinely interested in corruption in Ukraine and expressed alarm at his attempt to extort the foreign country.

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While Republicans complained that neither of the witnesses had direct knowledge of the call, another witness who listened in on the call, Alexander Vindman, is scheduled to testify next week. Notably, witnesses who would be able to provide more first hand evidence, including John Bolton, have ignored lawful congressional subpoenas and refused to appear in Congress under orders from the White House. Previously, Republicans complained that the witness depositions were held behind closed doors, though they voted against moving forward with public hearings and complained about the theatrical nature of the event. Republicans spent considerable energy focusing on the whistleblower, asserting that it wasn’t fair that Adam Schiff knows who the whistleblower was and they don’t. (Schiff denies knowledge of the whistleblower’s identity.) Republicans forced a vote to subpoena the whistleblower, which is not expected to pass. 

Many GOP senators have stated that they wouldn’t be watching the hearing. The president’s staff said Trump wouldn’t be watching the hearing, but he offered his commentary on Twitter throughout the event. Overall, most pundits thought the hearing was a win for Democrats and a loss for Republicans, and as the hearings proceed over the coming days and weeks, this trend is likely to continue.

Impeachment

What to Expect from Public Impeachment Hearings This Week

The presidential impeachment inquiry is well underway in the House of Representatives, as they just voted along party lines to enter into the public phase of the process, during which witness testimony will be televised live on several networks. While much of the evidence unearthed during the inquiry has already been made public by way of news reports, comments from representatives, and document releases including transcripts, the public performances from witnesses with first-hand knowledge of Trump’s phone call with the president of Ukraine are hoped to bring about a sea change in the American people’s view of the matter. 

Scheduled to be broadcast live on major networks like ABC and NBC, the hearings are expected to attract a wide audience both in America and around the world, as political spectacles of this sort have historically drawn large crowds. Democrats hope that being able to hear witnesses speak directly about the president’s misconduct will persuade more Americans to support impeachment, whereas Republicans will try to use the opportunity to deflect and evade, as they have by and large criticized the inquiry as a “witch hunt” since it began.

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The current impeachment inquiry is historic, as presidential impeachment has only been attempted three other times in U.S. history, and while impeachment led to the resignation of Richard Nixon, no American president has ever been removed from office through the mechanism of impeachment. Impeachment is built into the U.S. constitution as a corrective mechanism against a tyrannical or dangerous president, and is meant to be used only in extreme circumstances when essential elements of American democracy are at risk. 

Democrats hope to explain, through witness testimony, how the president abused the awesome powers of the executive branch in service of his own personal interests, against the interests of the country and of American democracy as a whole.

Two sessions will take place, on Wednesday and Friday, during which some of the most compelling witnesses from the first phase of the inquiry will speak candidly before the American public, answering questions from both Democratic and Republican lawmakers. Democrats will use the opportunity to attempt to establish a clear, compelling, straightforward narrative of events concerning the president’s attempted extortion of the Ukrainian government for political favors. Meanwhile, Republicans will likely do everything in their power to obstruct the investigation, and are bound to attack the process of impeachment, accuse the Bidens of wrongdoing, and attempt to diminish the credibility of witnesses. While Republicans can suggest witnesses, the direction of the inquiry is currently in the hands of Democrats, as they represent the majority party in the House. Republicans have taken bold steps in their opposition of the inquiry, even attempting to reveal the identity of the original whistleblower, in violation of federal law.

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Congress and the American people will hear testimony from three key witnesses: the former United States Ambassador to Ukraine, Bill Taylor; the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, George Kent; and senior American diplomat Marie Yovanovitch. Bill Taylor will testify first. All three witnesses have previously testified during closed-door meetings, and the transcripts of these testimonies have been released, so lawmakers and journalists already have a good idea of what the testimony will contain. These witnesses defied a White House order not to comply with congressional subpoenas and have all told very similar stories about their observations of the President’s conduct. As career government officials and non-political-appointees, they are considered by experts and the media to be reliable and trustworthy witnesses, though Republicans are sure to attack their credibility nevertheless. 

Republicans have struggled to mount a unified defense for the president, who often changes his explanations and justifications for his conduct. Public impeachment hearings will only make this problem worse for Republicans, at least in the short term, as the many allegations of the president’s extortion of Ukraine are consistent and even corroborated by evidence released by the White House and statements from Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney. Witnesses will likely testify that the president engaged not only in a quid-pro-quo arrangement with Ukraine, but in fact extorted the small European country for illegal election assistance. Democrats hope to explain, through witness testimony, how the president abused the awesome powers of the executive branch in service of his own personal interests, against the interests of the country and of American democracy as a whole. Only time will tell, however, how voters react and more importantly how Republican senators handle the likely upcoming trial after Democrats present them with articles of impeachment.