By Olivia Beavers and Mike Lillis
Democrats have reached a make-or-break moment on impeachment. For the first time, Democrats will bring their impeachment inquiry to the American public on Wednesday as they seek to showcase the most damaging testimony about President Trump’s contacts with Ukraine and elevate their case that he is unfit for office.
After weeks of closed-door witness depositions, the stakes are high for Democrats to deliver not just in terms of drawing in the public with riveting witness narratives, but also ensuring that Republicans and other protesters do not derail the hearing into political chaos.
In many respects, the hearings are a simple public relations campaign. Democrats have already heard this week’s witnesses testify for hours privately; now they’re taking those stories to the televised world in hopes of captivating viewers and bringing voter sentiment behind the notion that Trump abused his power and should become just the third president in the country’s history to be impeached.
“Even though we don’t anticipate additional information beyond … what we have already made public, there is a real value in hearing directly from the witnesses so the American people can hear it from their mouths and firsthand,” said a Democratic aide working on the inquiry.
Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, delivered a similar assessment.
“Yes, they read the transcripts, but they need to hear for themselves from these witnesses — about what the witnesses saw or heard at the White House or their diplomatic post related to the president’s extortion of the Ukrainians,” Castro told The Hill.
They have a tough road ahead. Only a sharp shift in public backing for impeachment is likely to sway Trump’s Republican defenders in the Senate, where a two-thirds majority is needed to remove a sitting president. And GOP leaders have dug in to back their ally in the White House: Not one House Republican voted to back an impeachment inquiry last month.
But the stakes are also high for Trump and Republicans, who are seeking to defend the president’s conduct amid mounting evidence that he enlisted a foreign leader to find dirt on a political opponent amid his bid for reelection. And GOP leaders in both the White House and the Capitol on Tuesday were bracing for the public fight.
A new CBS poll released Tuesday indicates both sides face a divided electorate as they seek to capture the public’s favor, finding that 56 percent of voters feel Trump has handled the impeachment process poorly, while 52 percent think Democrats have done the same.
For Democrats, there are potential perils in taking the investigation live. Over the summer, in the midst of their probe into Russia’s 2016 election interference, they compelled the public testimony of former special counsel Robert Mueller, whose shaky, stoic delivery changed few minds in the general public — and none on Capitol Hill. More recently, Democrats brought in Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s former campaign manager, in a hearing that quickly devolved into a partisan shouting match.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff’s (D-Calif.) challenge is to steer the Ukraine hearings toward something in between — to draw out a compelling narrative without allowing the proceedings to degenerate into a spectacle of acrimony and partisan grandstanding.
With that in mind, Democrats seem to be bracing for political shenanigans. Schiff, for one, has acknowledged that “the temptation to turn this solemn process into a political circus” might be “irresistible.” He’s urging lawmakers in both parties to tone it down and focus on the substance of the investigation.
“I hope that all Members will approach these proceedings with the seriousness of purpose and love of country that they demand,” he wrote Tuesday in a “Dear Colleague” letter.
Still, Republicans are also gearing up for the open hearings, holding closed-door practice sessions as they strategize how best to counter Democrats’ accusations that Trump conducted a shadow foreign policy at the expense of national security.
In a memo sent from Republican staff to GOP members Tuesday morning, Republicans argue that the “evidence gathered does not establish an impeachable offense.”
In particular, Republicans plan to swat down Democrats’ claims that Trump and his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani sought to press Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to open two politically motivated investigations that would benefit him heading into 2020.
Allegations that Trump used nearly $400 million in aid as leverage to press Zelensky to open a corruption probe into his top 2020 political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, is at the heart of the inquiry that threatens to topple Trump’s presidency.
Republicans contend that because Ukraine did not know the aid was being withheld until very late in the negotiations, there could not be a quid pro quo. Still, some witnesses have testified that Kyiv knew much earlier than Trump’s allies have said.
“President Zelensky and President Trump have both said there was no pressure on the call; The Ukrainian government was not aware of a hold on U.S. security assistance at the time of the July 25 call; and President Trump met with President Zelensky and U.S. security assistance flowed to Ukraine in September 2019 — both of which
occurred without Ukraine investigating President Trump’s political rivals,” according to the GOP staff memo circulated Tuesday morning.
Democrats have lined up two high-level State Department officials to appear as witnesses on Wednesday, including the top U.S. diplomat to Ukraine, William Taylor, who had testified last month that Trump’s dealings with Zelensky amounted to a “clear” quid pro quo.
“Security assistance money would not come until the President committed to pursue the investigation,” said Taylor, who testified during his closed-door deposition “that was my clear understanding.”
Democrats hope Taylor’s years in foreign service will lend credibility to his claims about the president’s Ukraine policy.
But Republicans have sought to undermine Taylor by claiming that he lacked firsthand knowledge of key events, a GOP talking point that has been hammered by the White House and the president’s defenders as they seek to undercut witness testimonies.
“The one thing we know is Bill Taylor never ever talked with the president. There were all kinds of important meetings that he wasn’t present at, but he got information second-, third-hand so the American people can judge that for themselves tomorrow,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a close ally of the president.
“The facts are on the president’s side, the truth is on the president’s side,” added Jordan, who was temporarily moved to the House Intelligence Committee to defend the president during the impeachment hearings.
But Democrats say they’ve pulled in testimony from a range of witnesses who have different levels of contact with the president.
Wednesday’s second witness is George Kent, a senior State Department official, who will sit alongside Taylor before the committee. He had previously painted a bleak portrait of Giuliani’s activities in Ukraine, saying the president’s personal lawyer carried out a “campaign of lies” in order to oust U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, according to a transcript of his testimony.
“Mr. Giuliani, at that point, had been carrying on a campaign for several months full of lies and incorrect information about Ambassador Yovanovitch, so this was a continuation of his campaign of lies,” Kent testified on Oct. 15, according to his now-public transcript.
While Wednesday will be Democrats’ first opportunity to create a strong impression with the American people, the House Intelligence Committee has other public hearings in the works that can back up the testimony given by Kent and Taylor.
On Friday, Yovanovitch is slated to testify publicly about the shadowy campaign to oust her, led by Giuliani, corrupt Ukrainian representatives and disreputable media figures.
It remains unclear how long the public hearing phase of the Democrats’ investigation will last. Schiff, in his “Dear Colleague” letter, said that “additional witnesses will be announced this week.” He did not say who will appear — or when.
Amid the media’s clamor for new information, Democrats are revealing just one thing: They intend to be persistent.
“You should just expect that we’ll continue to make news every day,” said the Democratic aide. “So don’t ask us what’s on tap. Just know something’s on tap.”
By Olivia Beavers and Mike Lillis