5 things to watch in first public hearings in Trump impeachment inquiry on Capitol Hill
WASHINGTON – The House impeachment inquiry begins public hearings Wednesday after weeks of closed-door depositions investigating President Donald Trump's dealings with Ukraine.
Much of the evidence gathering occurred behind closed doors, as three key committees gathered depositions from State Department and National Security Council officials. But now the entire House – and the country – will be able to watch as testimony unfolds.
Democrats suggest that Trump's demand that Ukraine investigate his rival while withholding nearly $400 million in military aid could warrant impeachment. During a July 25 call, Trump urged Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, and his son, Hunter, who served on the board of Ukrainian energy company Burisma Holdings. But Trump has dismissed the investigation as a partisan "witch hunt" and said he was justified in fighting corruption in Ukraine.
The hearings will educate the American public about what happened in anticipation of a possible House vote on whether to impeach Trump. If the House adopts articles of impeachment, the Senate would hold a trial on whether to remove the president from office.
“In my view, the public hearings have the potential for significant impact,” said John Marston, a former federal prosecutor now in private practice at Foley Hoag LLP. “If the case is made clearly and with compelling evidence in the hearings, that can move the needle in the public, and that is what will drive the views of congress. So public hearings have the potential for significant, even determinative, impact as this moves forward.”
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Two witnesses are scheduled Wednesday. Bill Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, who told lawmakers about gradually learning about demands for investigations, first as a condition for a meeting between Trump and Zelensky and then as a condition to receive military aid. George Kent, a deputy assistant secretary of State, raised concerns about Giuliani steering policy privately. The witness Friday is Marie Yovanovich, the former ambassador to Ukraine, who explained how Giuliani's criticism and pressure led to her ouster in April.
Here are five things to look for in the public hearings:
How far will GOP go defending Trump?
House Republicans have remained unified in defending Trump against the Democratic rules for the impeachment inquiry. To this point, Republicans have focused their opposition to how the inquiry was conducted. Three key panels took depositions behind closed doors that other lawmakers couldn't attend. Then the House authorized public hearings with the support of just Democrats.
Trump said Saturday that there shouldn't be any hearings because there shouldn't be any investigation. He encouraged people to read the summary of his July 25 call with Zelensky rather than listen to witnesses with third-hand knowledge.
"There shouldn’t be anything. There shouldn’t be impeachment hearings, is what I said," Trump said. "This is a witch hunt at the highest level, and it's so bad for our country."
The approach of hearings focused attention on the president's actions, but some Republicans have said even if Trump's request for investigations was inappropriate, it doesn't merit impeachment.
Rep. Mac Thornberry of Texas, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, said it was inappropriate for a president to ask a foreign leader to investigate a political rival. But Thornberry said the July 25 call sounded like how Trump talks regularly and shouldn't be grounds for impeachment.
"I believe it was inappropriate," Thornberry told ABC's "This Week with George Stephanopoulos" on Sunday. "I do not believe it was impeachable."
Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, also said a president shouldn't urge the investigation of a political rival, but that calls for impeachment were premature.
"I think if you're trying to get information on a political rival to use in a political campaign – is not something a president or any official should be doing," Hurd, a former CIA officer who serves on the Intelligence Committee, said on "Fox News Sunday." "I think everybody has – most Republicans have said that that would be a violation of the law."
Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., said he would look for evidence of the president's motivations if the House sends articles of impeachment for trial in the Senate.
"Here are the two possible scenarios," Kennedy said Sunday on CBS's "Face the Nation." "No. 1, the president asked for an investigation of a political rival. No. 2, the president asked for an investigation of possible corruption by someone who happens to be a political rival. The latter would be in the national interest. The former would be in the president's parochial interests and would be over the line."
Will a consistent narrative emerge?
The initial witnesses will describe how two channels of diplomacy emerged. Taylor learned gradually from May through September about demands for Ukraine to investigate the Bidens and Burisma, first as a condition for a meeting between Trump and Zelensky and then as a condition for Ukraine to receive military aid. Taylor called the trade-off "crazy." Kent raised concerns about Giuliani's private back-channel efforts, testifying that Trump "wanted nothing less than President Zelensky to go to microphone and say investigations, Biden, and Clinton." And Yovanovich explained how Giuliani's criticism and pressure led to her ouster in April.
Congressional Republicans asked to hear from Kurt Volker, the former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine, on the same panel as Taylor and Kent because Volker dealt first-hand with Giuliani and others. Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y., argued that witnesses such as Taylor and Kent had only indirect knowledge of the arrangements because neither spoke directly to Trump or Giuliani.
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Volker in his closed-door testimony described Trump's longstanding presumption of corruption in Ukraine. "And like a lot of business people, I think he just recoiled at the corrupt environment," Volker said. The special envoy also said "no," when asked if Trump asked Ukraine to manufacture dirt on the Bidens, in contrast to looking for evidence of whether Burisma tried to influence the 2016 U.S. election.
"Even if he's asking them to investigate the Bidens, it is to find out what facts there may be rather than to manufacture something," Volker said.
Jimmy Gurule, a former federal prosecutor who is now a law professor at Notre Dame, said the hearings will put arguments about serious allegations into a public forum for the American people to decide whether the president's conduct was appropriate. Republicans and Democrats may have made up their minds already, he said.
"But there are independents, many of whom are on the fence and many of whom haven’t made up their minds about the nature of this scheme and whether it was an abuse of power or not," Gurule said. "I think that in the end is the intended audience."
How much was Trump involved?
Much of the closed-door testimony credited Giuliani with guiding Ukraine policy to push for investigations. But how much was Trump involved?
Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, said Trump told him at a May 23 briefing on Ukraine to deal with Giuliani, who “emphasized that the president wanted a public statement from President (Volodymyr) Zelensky committing Ukraine to look into anti-corruption issues.”
Fiona Hill, a former National Security Council senior director for Europe and Russia, asked Sondland in late June who assigned him to oversee Ukraine. “And he said, the president,” Hill said.
Giuliani also said repeatedly he was working for Trump. Giuliani tweeted Nov. 6 that his investigation was done solely as a defense attorney to protect Trump from false charges.
Taylor said during a July 18 conference call that an unidentified Office of Management and Budget staffer said the directive to withhold military aid “had come from the president to the chief of staff to OMB.”
Trump and his Republican defenders have insisted that while he asked Ukraine to investigate the Bidens during the July 25 call, he didn't explicitly mention the trade-off for military aid.
"The fundamental facts have never changed and will never change," said Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, the top Republican on the Oversight and Reform Committee who joined the Intelligence Committee to participate in the hearings. "There was no pressure, no pushing, no quid pro quo."
Will Republicans attack Yovanovitch?
Yovanovitch was a career foreign service officer serving as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine when she was removed abruptly in late April, after months of criticism by Giuliani. Hill called the removal "a real turning point" among diplomats recognizing Giuliani's influence because "there was no basis for her removal" based on a "a mishmash of conspiracy theories" that had "no merit whatsoever."
Republicans have questioned whether Yovanovitch collaborated with Democrats, as they have alleged with the whistleblower. Zeldin asked during her closed-door deposition about her contacts with the House Foreign Affairs Committee after her recall from Ukraine. Yovanovitch testified that she received two emails from a staffer and referred the person to the State Department.
But Zeldin said department emails suggested she had more contacts, saying she apparently “did not accurately answer this question” under oath. Republicans earlier drew attention to the whistleblower’s intermediary contacting the House Intelligence Committee before filing a complaint about Trump's July 25 call.
Trump retweeted Zeldin’s exchange with Yovanovitch, calling it “a terrible lie. How can she do such a thing?”
But the committee headed by Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., tweeted in reply to Trump that the panel had “already debunked this ugly smear.”
What's happening with GOP witnesses?
Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee asked Saturday for nine categories of witnesses at the public hearings scheduled to begin Wednesday. Under rules the House adopted for the hearings, Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., could reject any of the requests. Republicans could ask for a vote on any rejections, but Democrats control the committee and it’s not clear how many will be allowed or rejected.
Republicans requested testimony from the whistleblower, the only witness Schiff rejected outright, and any individuals who helped the person prepare the complaint about the July 25 call.
Schiff said the panel wouldn’t help Trump threaten, intimidate or retaliate against the person who filed the complaint with the inspector general for the intelligence about the call. Andrew Bakaj, one of the whistleblower’s lawyers, said his client was willing to answer written questions, but not in person out of concern about being identified.
Government officials who testified in closed-door depositions are also on the Republican witness list: David Hale, the undersecretary of State for political affairs; Tim Morrison, the National Security Council senior director for Europe and Russia; and Volker.
Republicans also requested subpoenas for Hunter Biden and Devon Archer, a Biden business partner who was a fellow board member for Burisma, to ask about possible corruption at the company.
And Republicans sought testimony from two witnesses associated with the 2016 election: Nellie Ohr, a contractor for the research firm Fusion GPS that produced the dossier of alleged ties between Trump and the Kremlin, and Alexandra Chalupa, a Democratic National Committee staffer with alleged connections to Ukrainian efforts to interfere with the election.
Schiff replied to Rep. Devin Nunes of California, the top Republican on the Intelligence Committee, that he was reviewing the requests. But Schiff sounded pessimistic in his Saturday reply to Republicans about accepting the Bidens or political operatives as witnesses.
“As we move to open hearings, it is important to underscore that the impeachment inquiry, and the committee, will not serve as vehicles for any member to carry out the same sham investigations into the Bidens or debunked conspiracies about the 2016 U.S. election interference that President Trump pressed Ukraine to conduct for his personal political benefit,” Schiff said.