Thirty-eight minutes into his opening statement during Wednesday’s impeachment hearing, Amb. Bill Taylor, the career foreign service officer and top US diplomat to Ukraine, paused, took a drink of water, and delivered the day’s biggest bombshell.
Less than a week earlier, Taylor learned that a member of his staff had overheard President Donald Trump discussing “the investigations” in Ukraine while on the phone with EU ambassador Gordon Sondland. That newly disclosed call took place on July 26, one day after the now infamous call between Trump and new Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky.
“The member of my staff could hear President Trump on the phone, asking Ambassador Sondland about ‘the investigations.’ Ambassador Sondland told President Trump that the Ukrainians were ready to move forward,” Taylor testified.
He also said that after the call, the staffer asked Sondland what Trump thought about Ukraine. Sondland apparently told the staffer that Trump “cares more about the investigations” of Joe Biden.
To Democrats, the news was a revelation, one that directly ties the President to the proposed quid pro quo with the Ukrainians. But for Republicans, Taylor’s story was just more of the same – a second-hand account of conversations about other conversations that prove nothing except that the President’s opponents will use anything to get rid of him.
The divergent reactions illustrate the gaping divide between Republicans and Democrats on impeachment. Democrats crowed over how clear the evidence is, while Republicans were left wondering what all the fuss is about.
After the first day of televised impeachment testimony, the political battle lines had not moved an inch.
A civil start to public hearings
For a hearing featuring two relatively unknown senior diplomats, the hype surrounding it was unmatched. Limited seating inside the Capitol Hill hearing room pushed would-be observers into the hallways outside. The voices of Democratic chairman Rep. Adam Schiff and ranking Republican Rep. Devin Nunes bounced around the crowded corridor as people watched the proceedings on their phones.
But despite some expectations for an ugly partisan fight, Wednesday’s hearing did not dissolve into much bomb-throwing or political stunts. A trio of posters behind some of the Republican members that suggested the Democratic majority was being unfair (“93 Days Since Adam Schiff Learned The Identity of the Whistleblower” read one) got relatively little exposure on the TV cameras.
A handful of parliamentary inquiries from Republican members early on interrupted the proceedings, but only temporarily. There were no protests, no repeat, for instance, of the storming of a closed-door hearing last month by a group of Republican House members.
Democratic Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi told reporters afterward that he was surprised with how civil it ended up being.
“I’ve been to other hearings where my colleagues on the other side kind of jump up and down and they make a circus out of some of these proceedings. So I was a little concerned, but I was pleasantly surprised with the tone and the tenor and dignity of the hearing,” Krishnamoorthi said.
’Stunning’ or ‘secondhand’?
From the outset, Democrats seized on Taylor’s story, with Rep. Adam Schiff using his time for questions to have the ambassador repeat its details. In a post-hearing press conference, flanked by several somber-looking Democrats, Schiff said the details of the phone call speak for themselves.
“What this call indicates as other testimony has likewise indicated is that the instructions are coming from the President on down,” said Schiff, who added that the committee has already moved to depose Taylor’s staff member.
Other Democratic members of the committee zeroed in on Taylor’s new testimony.
“That was stunning news that just showed the intense engagement by the President in the investigations,” Rep. Peter Welch told reporters.
Krishnamoorthi concurred. “Donald Trump was even more involved than we even thought before,” he said.
For Republicans, however, it was as if Taylor’s big reveal never happened. None of them asked Taylor substantive questions about the Sondland-Trump phone call, and after the hearing dismissed its importance.
“I think it’s secondhand,” said Rep. Chris Stewart, a Republican member of the committee, when asked about the phone call. “I don’t know how in the world this person can claim listening to a conversation when the guy’s got the phone pressed to his ear.”
When asked about the call later that day during a press conference with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, President Trump said he knew, “nothing about that.” The President also dismissed Taylor’s testimony as “more secondhand information.”
Dismissing the ‘star witness’
Rep. Jim Jordan, a recent GOP addition to the Intelligence committee, led the most aggressive questioning on Wednesday. A close ally of Trump’s, Jordan laid out a case that Taylor’s testimony relies on several levels of hearsay.
Reading from a recent addendum to Sondland’s testimony, Jordan mocked the convoluted lines of communication supporting Taylor’s claim that it a quid pro quo was “clear.”
“‘Ambassador Taylor recalls that Mr. Morrison told Ambassador Taylor that I told Mr. Morrison that I conveyed this message to Mr. Yermak on September 1, 2019 in connection to Vice President Pence’s visit to Warsaw and a meeting with President Zelensky.’ 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?”
“That Jordan moment was big,” one House Republican aide told CNN. “Hammers home our message in a nutshell and, for all the noise, distilling that was key.”
At a post-hearing press conference, Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik summed up the GOP argument against impeachment.
“The key facts here are as follows— One, Ukraine got the aid. Two, there was no investigation into the Bidens,” she said. “Those facts speak for themselves.”
Will anyone change their mind?
At the beginning of what will be several more weeks of hearings, arguments, and debate on Capitol Hill, it’s anyone’s guess where the public will land when it’s all said and done.
“You know I’ve been saying for a couple weeks there isn’t much drama there. There aren’t any bombshells. And [it’s] probably not going to change anyone’s mind,” said Republican Rep. Chris Stewart.
Rep. Mike Quigley, a Democrat on the committee, was cautiously optimistic the hearing moved the ball forward with the American people. “It’s a process. Give it time,” Quigley told CNN. “Wait till they hear the complete story. They do have a lot of the information before them in the public domain.”
The leaders in both parties were more insistent Wednesday was a good day for their agenda. Schiff noted that Republicans didn’t try to contest many of the facts offered by the witnesses.
“I think most people watching today probably thought at the end of this ‘I should be the one deciding who the President’s going to be and not some unelected bureaucrat in Washington, or Adam Schiff or Nancy Pelosi,’” said Rep. Steve Scalise, the Republican whip.
But what about Senate Republicans, who hold the majority and could help determine whether an impeached President Trump is convicted or acquitted? One GOP aide said that while the TVs in Senate offices were tuned to the hearing, it was unlikely many were paying close attention,
“There’s a low, single-digit number [of senators] who think they are undecided,” said the aide.
CNN’s Holmes Lybrand, Alex Rogers, and Haley Byrd contributed to this story.