George Kent (left), deputy assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs, and top US diplomat in Ukraine William Taylor are sworn-in before testifying yesterday
Witnesses called to give evidence in front of the cameras as Democrats attempt to amplify their case
When the first day of public hearings in the Democrats’ investigation into Donald Trump ended at 3.30pm on Wednesday, the battle lines had been drawn.
The president is accused of coercing Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky by threatening to withhold military aid unless he investigated the US leader’s political rival Joe Biden.
It was the Democrats’ first attempt to amplify their case against Trump, a case they have been building behind closed doors for weeks now.
To do so they summoned the acting US ambassador to Ukraine, William Taylor, and a deputy assistant secretary of state, George Kent, to the witness stand.
What was said?
The most damning interpretation of Trump’s actions was summed up by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, the leader of the Democrats’ investigation, in his opening remarks yesterday.
By withholding military aid and a White House meeting from Ukraine’s president, Trump was attempting, said Schiff, to “condition, coerce, extort or bribe an ally into conducting investigations to aid his re-election campaign”.
“If this is not impeachable conduct,” he asked, “what is?”
But, arguably the day’s headline new revelation came from Taylor, who testified that one of his aides had been present when US ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland – a key figure in the impeachment investigation – talked to Trump on the phone.
“The member of my staff could hear President Trump on the phone, asking Ambassador Sondland about ‘the investigations’,” said Taylor, who was not present at the time. “Following the call… the member of my staff asked Ambassador Sondland what President Trump thought about Ukraine. Ambassador Sondland responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden.”
David Holmes, the aide who Taylor overheard the conversation between Trump and Sondland, has now been asked to take part in a closed-door deposition with impeachment investigators on Friday.
Sitting next to Taylor, Kent used his opening remarks to chastise Trump’s aides’ antagonistic approach to diplomacy, and their “campaign to smear” American officials serving in Ukraine. “In my opinion, those attacks undermined US and Ukrainian national interests and damaged our critical bilateral relationship,” he said.
The Republican defence
Republicans, who have fallen in line behind their president almost without exception, went on the attack against Taylor and Kent, pointing out that both of their testimonies are based wholly on second-hand information, and calling into question their political neutrality. Both men strenuously denied, however, being politically motivated.
Republicans also raled against the existence of the impeachment inquiry itself. Rep. Devin Nunes was one of the most scathing: the Democrats were engaged, he said, in a “scorched-earth war against President Trump”, lamenting both “their impeachment sham” and Washington’s “politicized bureaucracy.”
Noticeably, the question of whether or not Trump did what he’s accused of was not subject to debate yesterday. Trump and his defenders have moved on from refuting he used the tools of foreign policy for personal political gain; instead they imply doing so is not particularly problematic.
The Republican defence of their boss is based on four key points. First, Trump’s attempt to push for a corruption investigation is legitimate, and Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, should not have been entangled in such efforts when his father was vice president.
To this, Democrats deny Trump’s interest in corruption is authentic, and point out that there is to date no evidence of foul play by either Biden. They also say that Republicans’ repeated raising of the Biden question is in fact just an attempt to raise suspicion of Joe Biden despite the absence of evidence.
Second, the Republicans point out that Ukraine never did launch an investigation, and that military aid was released nevertheless. To this, Democrats say that both of these things are because the whistleblower complaint became public, and only after that did Trump unfreeze the aid. Criminal intent here is the issue, they say, the fact it failed is beside the point. Although the fact there is no underlying crime should be a concern to Democrats.
Third, they lament how much of the testimony against Trump is based on second-hand information, or hearsay, as they put it. Democrats respond that they have called individuals they believe would have direct knowledge of events, but they have been blocked by Trump from testifying.
Fourth, they argue that the real motivation for the impeachment investigation is political. Democrats say they are just looking at the facts.
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What did the rest of America think?
“The competing information streams are epitomized by MSNBC and CNN, which have reported heavily on the impeachment inquiry, and Fox News, Trump’s favorite network,” says The Washington Post. “But those outlets and others trained their attention on the same scene on Wednesday – giving viewers from each world a rare glimpse into the other.”
Noah Bookbinder in The New York Times claims: “The evidence of wrongdoing by President Trump is overwhelming. The impeachment inquiry has been conducted so far in a sober, responsible way. As Wednesday’s hearing made clear, the witnesses are credible and clear, and the story they tell is alarming.”
However, The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board feels that, while Trump’s dealings with Ukraine are wrong, impeachment inquiries are not the appropriate channel to confront them.
“In a healthier political culture, Democrats would be using the Ukraine episode as an argument against Mr. Trump’s re-election… Instead Democrats have pulled out the constitutional bazooka of impeachment. They are doing so in partisan fashion, contrary to their earlier pledges, and in a political rush to beat the 2020 political calendar. On the evidence and the process to date, they are turning impeachment into a routine political weapon, and future Presidents of both parties will regret it.”