How Democrats and Republicans are laying out their arguments for impeachment
WASHINGTON – As the public bore witness to the first public hearing in the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, one thing became clear: Members from both sides of the aisle thought their side won.
The House Intelligence Committee wrapped up the hearing after over five hours of testimony from State Department official George Kent and Ambassador Bill Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine.
In transcripts from the previous closed-door depositions and in Wednesday’s hearing, Democrats and Republicans presented largely consistent arguments and lines of questioning.
As more public hearings proceed over the next week, here are some of the arguments and strategies both sides used Wednesday and are expected to use moving forward:
House GOP members have been given opportunities to question witnesses, both in the private and public hearings. And their line of questioning maintains the consistent themes of attempting to defend Trump and undercut the evidence Democrats say shows Trump committed an impeachable offense.
Namely, Republicans argue that the assistance aid allegedly held up as leverage for politically motivated investigations was delivered to Ukraine without any investigations and that the Ukrainian government was unaware of the stall in aid at the time of the July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukraine’s leader. That call, they say, shows there was no quid pro quo.
Former Vice President Joe Biden’s role in pressuring Ukraine to oust a top prosecutor and his son Hunter Biden’s seat on the board of Ukrainian gas company Burisma are a key focus for Republicans, who have requested to subpoena the younger Biden.
Republicans questioned multiple officials behind closed doors about Hunter Biden’s qualifications for his former position and repeated that line of inquiry Wednesday. Several witnesses have replied that they don’t have detailed knowledge about the arrangement between Burisma and Hunter Biden as it is outside their area of expertise.
“Was Hunter Biden a corporate governance expert?” Steve Castor, the Republican counsel, asked Kent.
“I have no idea what Hunter Biden studied at university or what his CV says,” Kent replied.
Republicans have argued that Hunter Biden was completely unqualified to be a highly paid board member at a Ukrainian gas company.
They also pointed to the parts of the witness testimony where the information was not first-hand but rather relayed from other sources, including other U.S. officials on the impeachment witness list.
Republicans say these witnesses never spoke directly to Trump or his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, who is argued to have orchestrated negative narratives about Ukraine that drove an “irregular” channel of foreign policy.
In one instance, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, said that Taylor’s understanding that there was a link between the assistance aid and the desired investigations was “obviously wrong.”
“The money was going to get released but not until there was an investigation. And that in fact, didn’t happen. So, what I’m wondering is, where’d you get this clear understanding?” Jordan said.
Jordan cited part of Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland’s testimony:
“Ambassador Taylor recalls that I told Mr. [Tim] Morrison in early September 2019 that the resumption of U.S. aid to Ukraine had become tied to a public statement to be issued by Ukraine agreeing to investigate Burisma. Ambassador Taylor recalls that Mr. Morrison told Ambassador Taylor that I told Mr. Morrison that I had conveyed this message to [Ukrainian aide] Mr. [Andriy] Yermak on September 1, 2019…”
Sondland also said he later remembered that conversation.
“Also, I now do recall a conversation on September 1, 2019, in Warsaw with Mr. Yermak. … I now recall speaking individually with Mr. Yermak, where I said that resumption of U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anti-corruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks…”
“We got six people having four conversations in one sentence, and you just told me this is where you got your clear understanding,” Jordan said.
“And you’re their star witness. You’re their first witness. You’re the guy,” Jordan added later, incredulously.
The GOP lawmakers continued their strategy of trying to undermine the credibility of the witnesses testifying on Wednesday, something they did in the closed-door hearings, including by questioning witnesses’ bias.
When pressed about partisan leanings, Fiona Hill, the former National Security Council senior director for Europe and Russia, referred to the unidentified senior White House official who penned an explosive anti-Trump op-ed in The New York Times. Hill asserted, “I did not write Anonymous. I am not Anonymous” during her closed-door deposition in October.
How Democrats are shaping their argument
House Democratic lawmakers, meanwhile, set out to display evidence to the public that Trump asking Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Biden and his son was not only wrong but also a crime.
Democrats sought to use this hearing to lay the groundwork for the upcoming hearings by displaying how Ukraine policy works from the experience of these two lifetime public officials, and explaining why a good relationship with Ukraine is important for the U.S.
They asked Kent and Taylor whether they thought the plan to withhold the security aid to Ukraine in exchange for these investigations was wrong, to which Taylor simply answered, “Yes.”
As the Republicans tried to undermine the witnesses in the hearing, Democrats countered that in a line of questioning.
Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., asked, “Just about an hour before the two of you sat down to testify today, the president tweeted multiple times about this hearing and he put in all caps, ‘NEVER TRUMPERS.’ Mr. Kent, are you a ‘never Trumper’?”
Kent responded that he is a career public servant “who serves whatever president is duly elected and carries out the foreign policies of that president in the United States, and I’ve done that for 27 years for three Republican presidents and two Democrat presidents.”
In an identical line of questioning, Taylor responded simply, “No, sir.”
Democrats seemingly continued to use some of the GOP members’ own strategies against them.
After shooting down Republicans’ repeated requests to call forward the whistleblower, and voting 13-9 to kill the GOP motion to subpoena them, Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., responded to Rep. Jordan’s demands that the person who started it all, referring to the whistleblower, come and testify.
“I’d be happy to have the guy who started it all come to testify. President Trump is welcome to take a seat,” Welch quipped, gathering laughter in the chamber.
The effort to focus in on Trump was boosted when Taylor delivered new evidence from the day after Trump’s July 25 phone call with Zelensky to lawmakers:
Taylor testified, “Last Friday, a member of my staff told me of events that occurred on July 26th. While Ambassador Volker and I–Volker and I visited the front, this member of my staff accompanied Ambassador Sondland. Ambassador Sondland met with Mr. Yermak. Following that meeting in the presence of my staff at a restaurant, Ambassador Sondland called President Trump and told him of his meetings in Kiev.”
“The member of my staff could hear President Trump on the phone asking Ambassador Sondland about the investigations. Ambassador Sondland told President Trump the Ukrainians were ready to move forward. Following the call with President Trump, the member of my staff asked Ambassador Sondland what President Trump thought about Ukraine. Ambassador Sondland responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden which Giuliani was pressing for,” he continued.
Congressional Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., asked Taylor whether he understood if Sondland’s response meant Trump cares more about the Biden investigations than Ukraine.
To that, Taylor responded, “Yes, sir.”
This new interaction is another point that Democrats will question Sondland about on Tuesday when he is scheduled to testify before the committee.
Democrats also focused on debunking some of the theories that Republicans have been pushing as a means to poke holes in the legitimacy of the inquiry itself.
Kent testified that “there is no factual basis” to the allegation that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election after being asked by the majority’s counsel Daniel Goldman.
When questioned about the factual basis that Biden stopped the prosecution into Burisma to benefit his son, Kent stated there was, “None whatsoever” and that Biden acted “in accordance with official U.S. policy” by firing the prosecutor.
Democrats sought to strengthen their defense against Republican claims that they aren’t relying on witnesses with firsthand evidence by reminding them that Trump’s White House has sought to block a majority of the witnesses who do have firsthand knowledge of the events from testifying, including Trump’s chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney.
Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., asked Kent and Taylor to confirm that both had been asked by the State Department not to appear before the committee. Both said they appeared because they had a legal obligation to do so.
Quigley then addressed Republican committee members regarding other potential witnesses who might have firsthand knowledge of the information but whom he said had been blocked from appearing.
“We were not able to hear testimony by Chief of Staff Mulvaney, John Eisenberg, Michael Ellis, John Bolton, more than a dozen witnesses. So I suspect if you have a problem with hearsay, you’d have a lot more direct testimony and direct evidence if you weren’t blocking that ability. You’d have a lot more documents, documents that you referred to with my colleagues’ questions, that had not yet been turned over by state or any other agency.”