This coming Wednesday marks the official start of the impeachment hearings against Donald Trump in the House Intelligence Committee, the public beginning of what the historian Jon Meacham rightfully calls “a test for the country.” The allegations of abuse of power are striking and unprecedented: a President seeking to privatize American foreign policy for his personal political benefit. The hearings on Trump’s extortionate Ukraine scheme will be quickly followed by the drawing up of articles of impeachment, a House vote, a Senate trial—the mechanisms of the constitutional process. All the indications are, however, that we already know the outcome of this test. For Trump and his defenders, it is a coup, a show trial, a witch hunt. When that is the starting point, there is no place for the facts, no process that can satisfy, no way to split the difference. It’s the reason why a key Trump ally in the Senate, Lindsey Graham, introduced a resolution condemning the House’s proceedings for lacking transparency, and then refused to read the evidence from closed-door depositions this week now that it is being made public. The impeachment investigation is a “joke” and a “political vendetta,” Graham told reporters, so why bother?
In such a politically divided moment, Graham is merely saying out loud what has become increasingly obvious: the President has successfully rendered the investigation irrelevant, at least for his most fervent supporters (and that apparently includes virtually all of the Republican elected officials in both the House and the Senate). There is no evidence, no testimony, no revelatory text message, that can sway them. There is a justification for anything that has come out, and for anything that might still be revealed. Trump has framed the impeachment case, as with all the other challenges to his controversial actions over the past few years, as a purely partisan matter of loyalty and legitimacy.
It is not just Trump-loving Republicans who may react to the actual details of the investigation with indifference. Polls suggest that there is now nearly a complete partisan gulf between how Americans view the impeachment matter, with Democrats and independents in favor and Republicans against, in a way that makes the inquiry itself almost beside the point. How much does anyone—on either side of this yawning national divide—care about the evidence if they know in advance how they plan to interpret it? And, of course, the sense of constant crisis is overwhelming. How can Americans bother to keep track of who said what to whom about Ukraine when there will soon be another scandal, another cast of characters, another alarming development to monitor? On Tuesday, Trump’s longtime friend Roger Stone went on trial for lying to Congress, and prosecutors said that he did so to protect the President. On Thursday, a New York court ordered Trump to pay two million dollars in damages for illegally misusing his Trump Foundation to help his 2016 campaign. Who knows what tomorrow will bring? There is already a Trump-era precedent that shows that engagement with the facts revealed by impeachment may be less than robust. After the release, this spring, of the four-hundred-and-forty-eight-page Mueller report, even many members of Congress confessed to not having read it, but that did not stop them from pronouncing their opinion on what it did or did not say regarding President Trump’s culpability.
Nonetheless, there is an actual investigation, with actual testimony. There are facts and even, in this post-truth age, truths. Since Monday, the House Intelligence Committee has released more than a thousand pages of transcripts from its private depositions with six of the diplomats who were caught up in Trump’s scheme to pressure the Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky, to open investigations into a political rival of Trump’s, former Vice-President Joe Biden, and into the debunked conspiracy theory that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 U.S. election. The depositions both confirm and expand upon what is known about the Ukraine affair, and how directly it points back to actions undertaken by Trump himself and by his private attorney Rudy Giuliani.
The most significant new information of the week comes from the revised testimony of Trump’s Ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, released by the committee. After press reports of other witnesses’ testimony contradicted him, Sondland told the panel that “I now recall” two vital points differently. Not only was there an explicit quid pro quo between the withholding of nearly four hundred million dollars in U.S. military assistance to Ukraine and Ukraine’s willingness to publicly investigate Biden, but Sondland himself had made the linkage, in a September 1st conversation with a top Ukrainian official. Somehow, he failed to remember this in his initial testimony.
Sondland is a key witness not easily dismissed by the White House: a Trump appointee who gave a million dollars to the Trump Inauguration and was rewarded with the E.U. ambassadorship, he was seen by the other witnesses as a direct conduit to the President. “He had a relationship with President Trump I did not have,” Kurt Volker, the former special envoy for Ukraine, testified. “He felt he could call the President and that they could have conversations.” The depositions released this week make clear why Sondland had little choice but to change his testimony. William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, testified about Sondland’s September 1st meeting with the Ukrainians and the ultimatum it contained. George Kent, the State Department Deputy Assistant Secretary responsible for Ukraine, also pointed a finger at Sondland, saying that he “had talked to the President, POTUS in sort of shorthand, and POTUS wanted nothing less than President Zelensky to go to the microphone and say ‘investigations,’ ‘Biden,’ and ‘Clinton.’ ”
I learned these and other notable details from reading the transcripts. They make for gripping reading, documenting the ways, large and small, that the “irregular channel” of Trump and Giuliani, as Taylor calls it, took over from the regular foreign-policy work of the Administration. There is Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch’s dawning realization that she is under attack from factions in Ukraine and Washington that she is barely aware of. “Watch my back,” a Ukrainian minister tells her at one point. When Giuliani and Donald Trump, Jr., publicly attack her, State Department intermediaries try to get Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to help by calling the Fox News host and Trump confidant Sean Hannity. (Hannity, for his part, has denied discussing Ukraine with Pompeo.) But soon enough Yovanovitch is fired anyway, ordered in a late-night phone call to take the next plane back to Washington and removed from her post without cause on Trump’s order. Although she served decades in the Foreign Service, Pompeo refuses to speak with her or issue a statement in her defense. Kent calls her ouster the result of a “campaign of lies” by Giuliani. Taylor, who reluctantly agrees to temporarily succeed Yovanovitch at the U.S. Embassy in Kiev, picks up the story of the Washington “snake pit,” as he terms it, in his deposition, a detailed accounting of facts made all the more powerful by his testimony to the committee that he is a compulsive note-taker, who brings his small, spiral-bound notebook to key meetings at which the President’s Ukraine quid pro quos were discussed.
On Wednesday, Taylor and Kent will be the two lead witnesses at the impeachment hearings. Reading their sharp, compelling testimony, it is clear why Democrats have chosen them for this role. They come across as patriotic, nonpartisan, and alternately stunned and appalled by events as they unfold over the spring and summer of 2019. But will it matter?
As Trump awaited the opening of what he called “next weeks Fake Hearing,” the President attacked Taylor and Kent as “Never Trumpers” and held a series of rallies in bedrock-Republican parts of America, appearing alongside would-be Senate jurors who, like Graham, have made it clear that they do not need to see or hear more evidence to establish their view of the case against Trump. On Wednesday night, in Louisiana, Trump stood onstage with one of the state’s Republican senators, John Kennedy, who, in Trumpian fashion, used his turn at the microphone to mock House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for opening the impeachment probe in the first place. “I don’t mean any disrespect,” he shouted into the microphone, to cheers from the audience and a grin from the President, “but it must suck to be that dumb.”
Michael Luo on what House Republicans can learn from the bipartisan effort to impeach Nixon.
Earlier in the day, at the Capitol, Kennedy had weighed in on the impeachment inquiry, telling reporters, “The quid pro quo is a red herring unless you make a distinction between a legal quid pro quo and an illegal quid pro quo,” Kennedy said. This did not seem like legal brilliance on the part of Kennedy, or even to make much sense at all. But it was revealing as an example of the latest form of political self-preservation being offered by Senate Republicans, who seem to be responding to the emergence of inconvenient impeachment facts even if they deny that they are doing so. Given that the evidence so strongly shows that Trump withheld U.S. aid and an Oval Office meeting unless the Ukrainians agreed to make a public statement about the investigations that the President wanted, Kennedy and other Senate Republicans have been publicly floating the idea that it’s perfectly within the President’s power to do so and, even if improper, hardly rises to the level of an impeachable offense.
Graham offered a slightly different variant this week: while insisting that he would not read the evidence, he also told reporters that the whole mess was a matter of Trump Administration incompetence and incoherence in its Ukraine policy. “They seem to be incapable of forming a quid pro quo,” he said. Neither of these rationales for Trump’s behavior is the robust defense of the President’s “perfect” dealings with Ukraine that Trump has demanded of his allies. But both speak to the willingness to endlessly accommodate a President who has convinced his supporters to make even nonsensical arguments on his behalf. The “stupid” defense; the “yeah, so what?” defense; the “Democrats are bad, so never mind” defense. There will be more. Trump has defined winning impeachment as keeping it partisan, so for him this is what winning looks like.
On Wednesday, a few hours after Taylor’s deposition was released, Trump appeared at the Louisiana rally with Kennedy. He did not address the revelations from the nine hours of testimony, or even bother with an explanation of his actions. He simply told the crowd that “corrupt politicians, Nancy Pelosi and Shifty Adam Schiff and the crooked media have launched the deranged, delusional, destructive, and hyper-partisan impeachment witch hunt.” The crowd cheered. The defense, at least for that night, had rested its case.
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