After nearly two months of closed door hearings, the first set of public hearings in the impeachment inquiry against Donald Trump took place this week. The President stands accused of withholding $413 million in military aid in exchange for investigating Joe Biden, and his son Hunter’s involvement with the Ukrainian gas company, Burisma. Acting ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State of European and Eurasian Affairs George Kent testified before the House Intelligence Committee for five and a half hours last Wednesday. Ousted ambassador Marie Yovanovitch took the stand on Friday. None were on the infamous July 25th phone call between Trump and Ukrainian president Zelensky that served as the catalyst for the impeachment. Nor did any have direct knowledge of a pay-for-play extortion scheme between the White House and the eastern European nation. Nevertheless, each provided key information contextualizing the scandal. Though no smoking gun was revealed, each painted a picture of highly irregular diplomacy, in which Trump’s personal interests were prioritized over U.S. national security.
Much of the two hearing’s contents had leaked during the earlier portion of the inquiry. Democratic Chairman Adam Schiff opened his remarks on Wednesday with a comprehensive timeline of the Trump-Ukraine affair. The testimony provided by Taylor and Kent largely backed up the case presented from the left side of the aisle. Taylor was in contact with many high-ranking US diplomats in Ukraine. He observed ‘’two channels of policymaking and implementation, one regular and the other highly irregular.’’ The regular channel was the one carrying out the administration’s official position of strong support for Ukraine, which is highly vulnerable due to Russian incursion into its territory. It was this stated policy that encouraged the 72-year old Taylor to come out of retirement to resume a career of decorated public service. The irregular channel he observed was one where State Department officials were increasingly pushed to the sidelines. Through his contacts with others working on US-Ukraine relations, Taylor formed an understanding that military aid and a potential White House visit by Zelensky were predicated on the opening of the investigations Trump sought. He testified the scheme was the brainchild of Rudy Giuliani. He envisioned a ‘’nightmare scenario’’ in which Zelensky acquiesced to the demand, to the detriment of both nations and to the delight of Russia. Taylor was told explicitly by EU ambassador Gordon Sondland ‘’everything’’, meaning the White House visit and security aid were dependent on a public announcement of investigations into the Bidens and Burisma. The Democrats’ star witness never spoke to Trump directly, but drew a clear line between the president and the bribery charge at the center of the impeachment inquiry.
George Kent, the State Department’s top expert on Ukraine, played an important, but less substantive role. He did not speak at length about quid pro quos, but rebuffed numerous Republican defenses of the president. Members of the GOP cited ‘’Ukrainian election interference in 2016’’ and endemic corruption as reasons for Trump’s reluctance to give the money to the fledging democracy. Kent concurred with the conclusion of every American intelligence agency that Russia, and not Ukraine had meddled in the ’16 election, and there was no evidence to suggest otherwise. He also noted that corrupt Ukrainians had enlisted the help of Rudy Giuliani to smear and remove Marie Yovanovitch, who had been lauded for her anti-corruption agenda.
Yovanovitch took the stand on Friday through hours of emotional testimony. Like Kent, she also could not speak in detail about the administration’s coercive efforts, but detailed vividly the circumstances surrounding her removal. Rudy Giulani worked with a corrupt Ukranian prosecutor to orchestrate a smear campaign against her, which would eventually lead to her being recalled from her post. She added “[p]erhaps it was not surprising that when our anti-corruption efforts got in the way of the desire for profit or power, Ukrainians who preferred to play by the old, corrupt rules sought to remove me.’’ While she testified, Trump took to Twitter to denigrate the service of the former ambassador. When Chairman Schiff read the tweets aloud and offered Ms. Yovanovitch the chance to respond she said “[i]t’s very intimidating. I can’t speak to what the President is trying to do, but the effect is to be intimidating.” Schiff introduced the idea that witness tampering could be added to the list of offenses against the president.
Perspective is critical in viewing how the proceedings have gone to this point. Democrats are likely pleased to have laid the groundwork for an impeachment case that begins with severe impropriety in foreign policy. Three highly respected civil servants all testified that regular diplomatic backchannels existed in Ukraine, undermining US interests and security. Even for the most ardent Trump defenders, these facts are difficult to dispute and the witnesses that provided them, difficult to discredit.
GOP representatives that have enabled Trump’s lawlessness for almost three years also seemed pleased with the results. It must be acknowledged that for all Taylor, Kent and Yovanovitch said, none of them spoke directly to Trump or his operatives about the scheme.
A formal vote to impeach is almost as certain as Trump’s acquittal in a Senate trial. Removal from office was and remains a very high hurdle to clear. To this point in the inquiry it is difficult to imagine the Democrats have moved the needle much. Republican members of the House still espouse baseless conspiracies that conform to Trump’s worldview. The people most directly involved in the scandal have been blocked or refused to testify. Democrats have balked at the idea of enforcing subpoenas through a prolonged court battle. So unless Rudy Giulani, Mick Mulvaney or John Bolton have a sudden attack of conscience, it is unlikely the public will hear from those most directly involved in this skullduggery. Still the testimony to date, and yet to come is telling and undoubtedly worthwhile.
Trump has flirted with impeachment regularly since his inauguration. House Leader Nancy Pelosi resisted the calls as long as she could on political calculus. The move could well backfire on Democrats, but it is necessary nonetheless. As the scope of the administration’s misdeeds in Ukraine come into focus, it is clear they could not go unchallenged. To do so would be a tacit endorsement of egregious abuse of office. Ben Franklin famously described the United States as a republic- ‘’if you can keep it.’’ If we are to keep it, checks on malignant executive overreach are worth the risks they entail.
Photo by Darren Halstead