Even before the proceedings began, the cavernous hearing room — the notoriously frigid chamber of the Ways and Means Committee — was dotted with lawmakers there to simply spectate. Top Trump allies Mark Meadows, Andy Biggs and Louie Gohmert were among the earliest arrivals.
The Republican strategy to defend Trump was already on display before the hearing began. Three placards were assembled on easels behind the GOP seats: One quoted Rep. Al Green (D-Texas) suggesting that Trump could be reelected if he isn’t impeached; a second accused Schiff of knowing the identity of a whistleblower who first brought the Ukraine scandal to light; and a third was a printout of a tweet by Mark Zaid, a lawyer for the whistleblower, from January 2017, suggesting a “coup” was underway against Trump.
In his opening remarks, Rep. Devin Nunes of California, the top Republican on the Intelligence panel, harangued Democrats over what he called a “three-year-long operation” to “overturn the results of the 2016 election.”
“This is a carefully orchestrated media smear campaign,” Nunes said, and described the Ukraine controversy as a “low-rent” sequel to the investigation of the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russians.
For the next two weeks, these proceedings will be broadcast across the nation and will showcase a desperately divided Congress jockeying to persuade a similarly divided nation about whether Trump breached his oath of office and endangered national security.
For Democrats, the case is largely settled: Trump pressured Zelensky on a July 25 phone call to announce investigations into Biden and other Democrats.
That call came amid a broader effort by Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, aided by senior State Department officials and diplomats, to demand the probes. Along the way, several of those officials warned Ukraine that a White House visit for Zelensky and hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid could hinge on succumbing to Trump’s demands.
Republicans are expected to position themselves effectively as Trump’s defense counsel, seeking to legitimize the president’s skepticism of Ukraine and minimize his potential role in the Giuliani-led effort. Trump’s allies argue that his concerns about corruption in Ukraine were well-founded and that his discussion with Zelensky was appropriate.
They are also expected to mount a fierce rejection of the impeachment process as a “sham” that has deprived Trump of meaningful pushback and due process. Though Democrats reject this characterization, it is likely to cause flare-ups during the hearings that could become explosive flashpoints for a national audience.
Democrats believe their case is rock-solid — but that they must now sell it to the American public.
The hearings are a legacy-defining test for Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Schiff, her handpicked impeachment inquiry leader. Democrats have praised Schiff, a former federal prosecutor, for leading a focused closed-door investigation of the Ukraine matter, but there is a pervasive anxiety about the unpredictability of public hearings, which are fraught with political landmines.
Their public questioning began Wednesday with the testimony of Taylor, the top American diplomat in Ukraine, and Kent, a deputy assistant secretary of state. Marie Yovanovitch, the ousted former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, is scheduled to testify publicly on Friday.
Both officials provided investigators with vivid details of what they viewed as a coordinated campaign to condition U.S. military aid and a White House meeting between Trump and Zelensky on the Ukrainian government’s willingness to publicly announce Trump’s desired investigations.
Taylor was the first witness to directly connect Trump to a quid pro quo involving the aid and a White House meeting — but Republicans have pushed back on his claims, noting that his recollections were often based on what others had told him, rather than what he witnessed himself.
Kent, meanwhile, described what he called a “campaign of lies” on the part of Giuliani, Trump’s free-wheeling emissary in the fight to ensure that Ukraine would investigate Biden.
During his closed-door testimony last month, Kent said Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, relayed to him that Trump “wanted nothing less than President Zelensky to go to microphone [sic] and say investigations, Biden, and Clinton.”
Republicans are likely to use Kent’s appearance to their advantage, though, because Kent told investigators that he expressed concerns to Biden’s office in 2015 about his son Hunter’s role on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company, saying it “could create the perception of a conflict of interest.”