The first public impeachment hearing on Wednesday lived up to the hype, and the daylong affair gave both parties plenty to chew on as the inquiry moves forward.
The senior US diplomat in Ukraine, Bill Taylor, and a senior State Department official overseeing Ukraine policy, George Kent, testified before the House Intelligence Committee for hours in front of cameras. They repeated many of the same points they had made during private depositions last month.
The hearing was the first public display of allegations against President Donald Trump that he abused his powers to seek political favors from the Ukrainian government. Democrats extracted helpful answers from Taylor and Kent that they’ll surely use if they start drafting articles of impeachment against the President.
Republicans also landed some punches, needling both witnesses over their lack of direct contact with Trump. But other players scheduled to tell their stories on Capitol Hill had direct contact with Trump, raising the stakes for their testimony.
Here’s what we learned Wednesday, and what it means for the next steps, as additional witnesses are slated for private interviews and public hearings in the coming days.
New evidence against Trump
Taylor told lawmakers about another conversation when Trump again voiced his desire to push the Ukrainians to publicly announce investigations – which would give his 2020 campaign a boost.
This conversation gets at a key question of the inquiry: What was Trump telling top US diplomats working on Ukraine policy? He was told that Ukrainians were ready to “move forward” on those investigations, during a phone call with US Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, which Taylor’s aide overheard at a restaurant in Kiev and relayed to his boss.
That conversation was on July 26, one day after Trump’s call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, where he pressed Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden.
Taylor said his aide also asked Sondland what Trump thought of Ukraine. Sondland replied that Trump “cares more about the investigations of Biden, which Giuliani was pressing for.”
David Holmes, Taylor’s aide who overheard Trump asking about the investigations and asked Sondland about Trump’s views on Ukraine, will provide closed-door testimony as part of the House impeachment inquiry on Friday.
Trump’s talking points are being contradicted
Trump’s favorite talking points on Ukraine are being disputed. This was clear from earlier deposition transcripts, it happened on Wednesday and will likely continue in future hearings.
Kent testified that Trump was “trying to dig up dirt” on a political rival, rebutting Trump’s claim that he was fighting corruption in Ukraine. Taylor said there was “no good policy reason” and “no good national security reason” for Trump to withhold US military assistance from Ukraine, even though the White House argued there were legitimate reasons to do so over the summer.
The GOP is leaning into conspiracy theories
Rep. Devin Nunes of California, the top Republican on the committee, did what he has done for years and leaned heavily into debunked conspiracy theories during his opening statement. He referenced the Trump-Russia dossier and the opposition research firm Fusion GPS.
He repeatedly stated that Democratic operatives had colluded with Ukraine to meddle in the 2016 election and defeat Trump, though several key witnesses have already testified that this is not true.
The fact-free approach puzzled the witnesses, and didn’t seem effective, though it could gain traction in right-wing outlets that are friendly to the President. Other GOP lawmakers used their time to poke holes in the allegations against Trump and to point out that neither of the witnesses had any firsthand conversations with the President. That looked like a wiser strategy.
Split verdict on staff lawyers’ questioning
High-profile congressional hearings have been something of a subplot to Trump’s presidency: former FBI Director James Comey, Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, special counsel Robert Mueller. Most have been marked by theatrics from lawmakers eager to make a splash during their questioning, rather than suss out information from their witnesses.
Wednesday, at least initially, was different. Democratic and Republican staff lawyers led the questioning, which tamped down the circus-like atmosphere. Daniel Goldman, the Democratic attorney, sought to build out a narrative from the witnesses about the delay in aid to Ukraine. Republican Steve Castor’s questioning was bumpier, drawing sometimes bewildered looks from the witnesses.
Eventually, lawmakers took over — and the dramatics began, particularly from Republicans, who used their time to make extended statements about the whistleblower. By most accounts, the Republican lawmakers fared better than Castor in driving home their points. The question going forward is whether the GOP side will stick to the lawyer strategy or adopt a different approach.
Mulvaney still at the center of the storm
Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney’s name arose at several points in Wednesday’s hearing. He was identified by the witnesses as a central player in the decision to withhold US assistance to Ukraine. And the October news conference in which he acknowledged a quid pro quo was mentioned as well. (Mulvaney later denied he had said that).
It’s an indication Democrats are intent on further probing Mulvaney’s role in the alleged scheme to pressure Ukraine into investigating Trump’s political rivals. Mulvaney has defied a subpoena to appear before the committees, and created internal White House angst at his legal maneuverings to avoid testifying.
As Republicans argue that witnesses like Kent and Taylor are relaying second- and third-hand information, the urgency only increases to hear from witnesses, like Mulvaney, who can get them closer to Trump.
Mulvaney told reporters last month to “get over it,” referring to the alleged quid pro quo, and said “there’s going to be political influence in foreign policy.” But Taylor told lawmakers that in his 50 years of public service, he had never seen another example of foreign aid being conditioned on the personal or political interests of a president.
The stakes are rising for Sondland
Sondland’s direct conversations with Trump will face new scrutiny after Wednesday’s testimony.
Taylor said that his aide had overheard that direct conversation between Sondland and Trump in which the President asked for an update on the Ukrainians announcing investigations. GOP lawmakers repeatedly described Taylor’s testimony as a secondhand retelling of things that he had heard from others – some suggested it wouldn’t be admissible evidence at a criminal trial.
Sondland is known for having a direct line to Trump. It does not appear he discussed the July 26 conversation during his closed-door testimony. He did tell lawmakers about a conversation with Trump before he traveled to Kiev in July. He called it “short” and “nonsubstantive.” He also claimed the conversation “did not encompass any of the substance” of the Trump-Zelensky phone call on July 25.
But there are overlapping elements of the discussions. On the July 25 call, Trump also mentioned the investigations he wanted the Ukrainians to pursue.
Sondland will also be asked about his determination that Trump “cares more” about investigations of Biden than Ukraine policy. Taylor revealed that Sondland had spoken with Trump at least once on his cell phone in a public setting – where they could be overheard by anyone – which may also prompt further questions about Sondland’s tradecraft and digital security.
The Democrats’ case is still complicated
After the Russia investigation wrapped up in March, key Democrats observed that Mueller’s findings and 448-page report were probably too complicated to sell to the American people. There was no groundswell for impeachment among public opinion or in the Democratic ranks.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and others felt that the Ukraine issue was different – a clear and simple abuse of power – and Democrats launched the impeachment inquiry in September.
But the case has become complicated, with thousands of pages of depositions piling up, and public hearings dragging on for hours. Most Americans don’t know the Ukrainians involved. Nothing is simple, and Democrats might struggle to make this digestible again.
CORRECTION: This story has been corrected to make clear the call Gordon Sondland described in his deposition was before the July 25 call between Trump and Ukraine’s leader.