WASHINGTON – To the Democrats in the impeachment hearing room, President Donald Trump was a corrupt leader who had manipulated American foreign policy to undercut a political rival and serve his personal ends.
To the Republicans in the room, Trump was an unconventional leader taking on unelected bureaucrats who dismissed his legitimate grievances and sought to undermine his foreign policy aims.
The historic impeachment hearings that opened Wednesday were ostensibly about the facts of the now infamous 30-minute call on July 25 in which Trump pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to open investigations that would damage former vice president Joe Biden and benefit Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign.
But the hearing Wednesday bore the unmistakable echo of fights that have divided the country since the day Trump delivered his “American carnage” inauguration speech from the steps of the Capitol and opened the doors of the Trump hotel to foreign leaders and lobbyists seeking favors from Washington.
In the first weeks of the Ukraine scandal, Republicans largely fell into line with Trump’s view that his call with Zelensky had been “perfect,” before edging away, amid hours of damaging testimony, and arguing that the call was problematic but far from impeachable.
On Wednesday, the country’s political leaders returned to the spot where they always seem to go. Once again, lawmakers were trying to untangle Trump’s self-interest from the broader national interest of the country he was elected to serve. At issue was the fundamental question of Trump’s presidency: Was his norm-breaking a betrayal of his oath of office or his right as the commander in chief?
Long before the first question was asked at the day-long hearing, it was clear that most in the room had made up their minds.
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif. described an “odious” scheme hatched by Trump and his allies to use desperately needed U.S. military aid as leverage to force Ukraine’s new president to dig up dirt on Trump’s political rival. “Is that what Americans should now expect from their president?” Schiff asked. “If that is not impeachable conduct, what is?”
His Republican counterpart and fellow Californian, Devin Nunes, insisted that the real wrongs were committed by an “outraged bureaucracy” that resented Trump’s “America First” foreign policy, his loathing of foreign aid and his dismissal this spring of one of their own, a career Foreign Service officer who was U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.
The Democrats greeted their first two witnesses, who they hoped would set the tone for the months of debate that will follow, as devoted, nonpartisan patriots who had spent their careers serving the national interest. William Taylor Jr., the senior U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, recounted a professional life that began with a bloody stint as an infantry officer in Vietnam and included periods as a diplomat in Iraq and Afghanistan.
George Kent, a deputy assistant secretary of state, described his father’s service as a submariner and his devotion to the country’s national interests as defined by Republicans and Democrats since the end of World War II.
“A Europe truly whole, free and at peace … is not possible without a Ukraine whole, free and at peace,” he said.
In a notable break with tradition, Nunes didn’t thank the two witnesses for their decades of service to the nation, but rather sought to condemn them for it. By his reckoning, bureaucrats in the FBI, CIA and the State Department had manufactured the Russia collusion scandal and accusations of obstruction of justice that marred the first half of Trump’s presidency. Now the same “politicized bureaucracy” was at it again.
“You’ve been cast in the low-rent Ukrainian sequel,” he told the two witnesses.
There wasn’t much argument over the facts, which were captured in the rough transcript of the president’s call, dozens of text messages between his aides and Taylor’s detailed timeline, which he composed from notes that he had taken during the course of his duties.
Daniel Goldman, the Democrats’ counsel, focused on a methodical inquiry, sketching out the timeline under which Taylor and Kent learned about the pressure campaign to extract political favors from the Ukrainians in exchange for an Oval Office visit for Zelensky and $391 million of military aid.
Goldman asked Taylor to explain the meaning of specific words that Gordon Sondland, a Trump donor turned diplomat, used to outline terms of the deal for the Ukrainians and their American interlocutors.
“What did he mean by ‘everything’ ” Goldman asked, referring to Sondland.
“The security assistance and the White House meeting,” Taylor replied.
Goldman summed up the testimony, “Whether it’s a quid pro quo, bribery, extortion, abuse of power of the office of the presidency, the fact of the matter … is that security assistance and the White House meeting were not going to be provided unless Ukraine initiated these two investigations that would benefit Donald Trump’s reelections?”
“Is that what you understood the facts to be?” he asked.
“That was the implication,” Taylor replied. “That was certainly the implication.”
Stephen Castor, the Republicans’ primary questioner, used his time with the two witnesses to explain Trump’s mind-set and cast the two longtime diplomats as unsympathetic and unresponsive to Trump’s concerns as commander in chief.
Castor read the witnesses quotes from Ukrainian officials, as captured in a 2017 Politico article, disparaging Trump as a candidate and a leader.
“Certainly that is giving rise to [the idea] that some elements of the Ukrainian establishment were out to get the president,” Castor asked. “And that’s a reasonable belief of his, correct?”
At this assertion both witnesses were largely speechless.
“I don’t know the exact nature of the president’s concerns,” Taylor said.
In Castor’s version of the Ukraine story, Trump was holding the line against hopelessly corrupt Ukrainian politicians, and their oligarchical patrons, who had opposed him in 2016 and were now seeking to take advantage of America’s wealth and goodwill. Castor spoke of “endemic” Ukrainian corruption and inquired about Burisma, the gas company that appointed Biden’s son, Hunter, to a lucrative position on its board in late 2014.
Kent, who was serving at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv at the time, said he raised concerns about Hunter Biden’s role with the vice president’s office. But he batted down any suggestions that Hunter Biden’s position on the Burisma board had protected the company from U.S. scrutiny or influenced the former vice president.
Vice President Joe Biden’s role was “critically important,” Kent testified. “It was top cover for us to pursue our policy agenda.”
And for the two witnesses and the Democrats in the hearing room, that policy agenda, executed on a bipartisan basis, was nothing short of sacrosanct. It involved repelling Russian aggression, safeguarding borders and supporting Ukraine in its “fight for the cause of freedom,” Kent said
“How does this affect our national security,” Schiff asked.
“It affects the world we live in, that our children and grandchildren will grow up in,” Taylor replied. “This affects the kind of world we want to see [and] our national interests very directly. Ukraine is on the front line of that conflict.”
The Republicans, meanwhile, sought to defend a president’s prerogative to define the nation’s interests as he or she sees fit. By this measure, the president’s actions were far less important than the motives of his accusers, including the anonymous CIA whistleblower whose complaint started the impeachment inquiry. Nearly two months later, most of the facts of that complaint have been confirmed by firsthand sources.
Democrats, including Schiff, who is the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, have insisted that the whistleblower’s testimony is irrelevant to the proceedings. To the Republicans, though, the anonymous bureaucrat remains the central figure in the narrative.
As the hearing drew to a close, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, complained that Trump’s supporters would never get an opportunity to question the whistleblower whose complaint launched the impeachment inquiry.
That prompted a tart Democratic response.
“I’d be glad to have the person who started it all come in and testify,” replied Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt. “President Trump is welcome to take a seat right there.”