To the surprise of nearly everyone, there was a surprise.
The opening of the first public hearing of the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump was expected to be an effort to tell a narrative, to put into compelling context the private testimony that already has been released by the Intelligence Committee. The theory was that having the witnesses’ words said out loud – their accounts of whether Trump pressured Ukraine to investigate his political rivals – might engage Americans in a way their words on paper never could.
That storytelling effort was in evidence during the daylong hearing Wednesday, but as it turned out, news also erupted, and during the first 90 minutes. Bill Taylor, a veteran ambassador with an unflappable demeanor and deep voice out of central casting, revealed that he had learned just last Friday that a staffer from the U.S. Embassy in Kiev had overheard a phone conversation between Trump and Gordon Sondland, a political donor the president had appointed U.S. ambassador to the European Union.
In the account relayed by Taylor, Trump was talking so loudly that he could be overheard in the restaurant on the cellphone. He reportedly asked about “investigations;” Sondland told him that the Ukrainians were ready to move forward.
It was July 26, the day after the now-infamous call in which Trump had asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to do “a favor.” After the call was over, the staffer asked Sondland what the president thought about Ukraine. “Ambassador Sondland responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden, which Giuliani was pressing for,” Taylor quoted the staffer as saying.
That exchange represented an important piece of evidence bolstering the Democrats’ case that Trump pushed Ukraine to launch investigations into the business dealings of Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, and into the 2016 campaign, holding as leverage the promise of a White House meeting and the release of millions in military aid. It showed the influence of a rogue foreign policy operation being led by former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, now the president’s personal attorney. It raised questions about the distance Trump last week tried to put between Sondland and himself. “I hardly know the gentleman,” he said then.
And it started the drum roll for Sondland’s testimony before the committee, scheduled for next week.
Rule One of investigations: You can never be entirely sure where they are going to lead.
The committee quickly scheduled a closed deposition on Friday with David Holmes, an aide to Taylor.
Trump pushes back, refers to ‘circus’
At the White House, where he was meeting with the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Trump dismissed the proceedings taking place at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
“I’m too busy to watch it,” he told reporters in the Oval Office. That said, he did manage to post a series of tweets deriding the hearing as nothing more than a “circus” and a “fraudulent hoax conspiracy theory.”
On Capitol Hill, House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff described high stakes in exploring the president’s behavior. “Our answer to these questions will affect not only the future of this presidency, but the future of the presidency itself, and what kind of conduct or misconduct the American people may come to expect from their commander-in-chief,” the California Democrat said in the vaulted hearing room on Capitol Hill.
He referred repeatedly to the Constitution and the Founders.
Democrats had described their goal as explaining to Americans who may not have been paying much attention up to now what they believe happened between the Trump administration and Ukraine, and why it matters. The deliberate pace, with extended opening statements and then 45 minutes of uninterrupted questioning by each side, was unusual for Congress.
Republicans, meanwhile, portrayed the whole inquiry as a sham pursued by Democrats bent on overturning the results of the 2016 election. They noted that neither Taylor nor deputy assistant secretary of State George Kent had firsthand knowledge of what Trump had done; they said that made their testimony hearsay.
California Rep. Devin Nunes, the committee’s ranking Republican, sarcastically congratulated the two witnesses “for passing the Democrats’ Star Chamber auditions held for the last six weeks in the basement of the Capitol.”
They didn’t respond to that, though both denied they had a partisan agenda. They said “no” when asked specifically if they were “never-Trumpers,” those opposed to Trump from the beginning of his political climb.
This impeachment is historic, different
Impeachments are by definition momentous and historic events. An early effort to remove the forgettable Andrew Johnson in 1868 failed. More than a century later, Richard Nixon chose to resign under fire when it became clear he was going to be leaving the Oval Office, one way or another. Bill Clinton survived an impeachment trial in 1999.
But the impeachment of Trump is different from those that have gone before in some fundamental ways. For the first time, a president in the midst of running for a second term is facing the Constitution’s most serious penalty. The allegation involves not personal misbehavior, as it did with Clinton, but an abuse of power that allegedly involved threatening an allied government and encouraging foreign interference in a U.S. election.
And the hearings are taking place when the nation’s politics are so bitterly divided that even the polarized Clinton era seems less fierce, and the time of Nixon a virtual golden age of bipartisanship.
Americans now seem divided into warring tribes, resistant to persuasion. An average of the latest national polling by FiveThirtyEight.com calculates that 48% of Americans support impeachment; 44% oppose it. That’s not significantly different from the returns in 2016, the election that put Trump in the White House. Then, 48% voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton, 46% for Trump.
Whether the testimony Wednesday and the hearings that follow will change anybody’s mind isn’t yet clear.
Next up: Marie Yovanovitch, the U.S. ambassador to the Ukraine who was unceremoniously dismissed after being targeted by Giuliani, is scheduled to testify Friday.
Will there be more surprises?