History In The Making: Takeaways From 1st Public Impeachment Hearing

WCBS 880 Newsroom
November 13, 2019 - 4:05 pm
Impeachment Hearing

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WASHINGTON (WCBS 880/AP) — The U.S. House launched the first public hearing Wednesday of Donald Trump’s impeachment investigation, the extraordinary process to determine whether the 45th president of the United States should be removed from office.

Rep. Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, opened the hearing for the start of testimony.

The proceedings were being broadcast live, and on social media, from a packed hearing room on Capitol Hill. Only three U.S. presidents have faced such hearings before, and real-time Twitter commentary is expected from the president himself.

Testifying will be two seasoned diplomats, William Taylor, the graying former infantry officer now charge d'affaires in Ukraine, and George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary in Washington, telling the striking, if sometimes complicated story of a president allegedly using foreign policy for personal and political gain ahead of the 2020 election.

As WCBS 880’s Peter Haskell reported, seeing the witnesses on television could completely transform the equation.

Guy Smith, who advised President Bill Clinton during his impeachment hearing, notes when hearings were televised during the Watergate scandal, that’s when things went south for President Richard Nixon.

“When they went on television, people began to pay attention and they started to see the misdeeds of the president,” Smith said.

Meanwhile, former federal prosecutor Danya Perry says the Democrats plan is simple: “There’s a question of an abuse of power here. Was there or was there not such an abuse?”

Perry predicted Republicans would attempt to focus on anything but the question at hand.

So far, the narrative is splitting Americans, mostly along the same lines as Trump's unusual presidency. The Constitution sets a dramatic but vague bar for impeachment, and there's no consensus yet that Trump's actions at the heart of the inquiry meet the threshold of "high crimes and misdemeanors."

Trump calls the whole thing a "witch hunt," a retort that echoes Nixon's own defense. “READ THE TRANSCRIPT,” he tweeted Wednesday.

At its core, the inquiry stems from Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukraine's newly elected president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, when he asked the Zelenskiy for “a favor.”

In several hours of testimony, and even bickering among lawmakers, some memorable moments have emerged.

Here are some key takeaways from Wednesday’s hearing featuring the first public witnesses: George Kent and William Taylor.

Trump Pushed For Biden Investigation

William Taylor
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Hearings like this one can be scripted affairs. But on Wednesday, there was one early surprise.

William Taylor, the top diplomat in Ukraine, revealed for the first time that his staff members overheard the president speaking on the phone to another diplomat about investigations.

Taylor said some of his staff members were at a restaurant with Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland on the day after the July 25 call.

Sondland used his cellphone to call Trump from the restaurant and the staff members could hear Trump on the phone asking about “the investigations.” Taylor took that to mean investigations into the Bidens and the Burisma Group, the Ukrainian firm that had hired Hunter Biden as a director in 2014, he told lawmakers.

Sondland told the president that the Ukrainians were ready to move forward, and after the call, one of Taylor’s staffers asked Sondland what Trump thought about Ukraine, he said.

“Ambassador Sondland responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden, which Giuliani was pressing for,” Taylor said in his opening statement.

“I take it the import of that is that he cares more about that than he does about Ukraine?” Schiff asked Taylor.

“Yes, sir,” he responded sternly.

Taylor said he only learned about the call last Friday and didn’t know about it when he appeared for a closed-door deposition with House investigators conducting the impeachment inquiry.

Is It Bribery Or A Quid Pro Quo?

Adam Schiff
Jim Lo Scalzo-Pool/Getty Images

The impeachment inquiry in many respects is about controlling the narrative. On Wednesday, Democrats seemed to begin to pivot, framing the actions of Trump as possible “bribery” and “extortion” rather than emphasizing a “quid pro quo.”

Schiff introduced the notion of bribery into the debate when he criticized the acting White House chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, for saying that people concerned about Trump’s requests that Ukraine do political investigations should “get over it,” and that there is political influence in all foreign policy.

If the investigation finds that Trump “sought to condition, coerce, extort, or bribe an ally into conducting investigations to aid his reelection campaign and did so by withholding official acts — a White House meeting or hundreds of millions of dollars of needed military aid — must we simply get over it?’’ Schiff asked.

A Democratic staff lawyer, Daniel Goldman, also talked of possible “extortion and bribery” — a gradual change in wording that could preview Democrats’ approach going forward.

Later, Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, questioned the witnesses about the idea of bribery and noted that merely attempting the act could be considered a crime.

Lofty Language

Rep. Devin Nunes
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The witnesses — one a Vietnam War veteran and West Point graduate, the other a career foreign service officer whose family has served the country for generations — nodded to the history of the moment with language both lofty and personal.

Their phrasing laid bare the stakes of the proceedings even as some Republicans sought to minimize them, and their intentional references to serving under presidents of both parties were aimed at pre-empting Republican attacks on them as political partisans. That didn’t stop Rep. Devin Nunes, the top Republican on the House intelligence committee, from deriding the witnesses as being part of a smear campaign, “star chamber” from within the civil service.

William Taylor, the top U.S. official in Ukraine, capped his opening statement with an ode to how Americans feel in their best moments about their country: "less concerned about what language we speak, what religion if any we practice, where our parents and grandparents came from; more concerned about building a new country."

For his part, George Kent singled out by first name and even nickname the impeachment witnesses who were born abroad, likening them to 20th century national security policy: Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski, both immigrants.

"Masha, Alex, and Fiona were born abroad before their families or they themselves personally chose to immigrate to the United States. They all made the professional choice to serve the United States as public officials, helping shape our national security policy, towards Russia in particular. And we and our national security are the better for it," Kent said.

“It Was Crazy”

George Kent and William Taylor
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Crazy. Counterproductive. Illogical.

Taylor was unsparing, and colorful, in his characterization of making military aid to Ukraine contingent on the country announcing investigations into the 2016 U.S. election and into Trump’s political rival, Biden.

He was presented with oversized images of a September text message exchange with two other envoys in which he said it would be “crazy” to not provide military assistance to the former Soviet republic for domestic political gain. Those text messages were the among the first documentary pieces of evidence to become public as part of the House impeachment inquiry, and established not only the possible contours of a quid pro quo but also laid bare diplomatic concerns about the Trump administration’s dealings with Ukraine.

Asked to elaborate, Taylor said, “It was counterproductive to all of what we had been trying to do. It was illogical, it could not be explained, it was crazy.”

Security assistance to Ukraine, he said, was not only critical to that country but also to America’s own national interests.

Split-Screen Questioning

Robert Mueller
Darr Beiser, USA TODAY Network

Names familiar during special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, but not particularly relevant to the impeachment inquiry, received attention during questioning from some GOP lawmakers and the lawyer who was representing their interests.

There was a reference by Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., to the “Steele dossier” — a compilation of opposition research against candidate Trump compiled by a former British spy during the 2016 presidential campaign.

Also invoked were discredited allegations that Ukraine interfered in the most recent presidential election. Paul Manafort, the president’s former campaign chairman who did lucrative political consulting work in Ukraine, was cited, too.

Hearsay

Rep. Jim Jordan
Saul Loeb - Pool/Getty Images

Republicans dismissed the testimony of the witnesses as mere “hearsay.” Republican said the witnesses didn’t provide firsthand knowledge of suspected back-door dealings on Ukraine and did not speak directly with Trump.

Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, suggested the Taylor’s understanding was basically a bad game of telephone.

"We’ve got six people having four conversations in one sentence, and this is where you told me you got your clear understanding,” Jordan said.

Taylor and Kent believed their understanding of the issues were sound, gathered from their own knowledge and conversations with trusted staff.

But Democrats had another argument for Republicans: Trump could clear up the ambiguity by allowing those with firsthand knowledge to testify, such as Mulvaney, Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani and former national security adviser John Bolton.

Taylor and Kent stood by their understanding of the phone calls, the security aid and the push to get the president of Ukraine to commit to a public statement that he was investigating the issues.

(© 2019 WCBS 880. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)