It’s hard to imagine how the past three days could have gone worse for Republicans.
The public impeachment hearings were never going to be a good thing for Trump – given that the proceedings were controlled by the House Democratic majority and we knew, from a series of closed-door depositions over the past month, that the witnesses who would be called had a) expressed deep misgivings about President Donald Trump’s phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on July 25 and b) suggested that there was a not-so-secret quid pro quo in place that unless the Ukrainians announced an investigation into Joe and Hunter Biden they would not get the White House meeting with the President they so desired.
But even by those standards, what happened over the past 72 hours was a disaster the likes of which not even the most pessimistic Republican could have predicted.
The Wednesday testimony of US Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland was obviously the pivot point of the week. Going into Sondland’s testimony, no one was quite sure what he would do. Spill the beans? Plead the Fifth? Something in between? Sondland, who was one of the witnesses that Republicans had pushed for, wound up opting to save himself – at the expense of everyone from presidential lawyer Rudy Giuliani to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to the President himself.
Sondland’s opening statement is one for the history books, as he made clear that not only was there an understood quid pro quo (a White House meeting in exchange for Zelensky announcing an investigation into the Bidens) but that everyone in the Trump inner circle was entirely up to speed on it.
While Sondland’s testimony was the bombshell, the testimony of the likes of former US special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker, National Security Council Ukraine expert Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, former top Trump Russia expert Fiona Hill and Defense Department aide Laura Cooper – among others – served to tell a consistent and compelling story about what happened in and around that July 25 call, and why they believed it to be inappropriate.
With each passing hour, it seemed as though another Republican talking point was exploded by a witness.
Volker, who testified behind closed doors on October 3, acknowledged that much new information had come to light that had forced him to reassess a series of assertions he had initially made. Perhaps the most important: Volker initially said that investigations into Trump’s conspiracy theories and the release of almost $400 million in military aid for Ukraine were not mentioned in a July 10 meeting at the White House. But on Tuesday, Volker said he now knows that the investigations were mentioned.
Cooper, who followed Sondland in testifying on Wednesday, provided a trio of emails that made clear the Ukrainians had begun asking about the $400 million in held-up military aid as soon as July 25 – the same day that Zelensky and Trump talked.
Hill, the star witness on Thursday, went out of her way to debunk the conspiracy theory being pushed by Rep. Devin Nunes (California), the ranking Republican on the Intelligence Committee that Ukraine was, in fact, meddling in the 2016 election to help Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and hurt Trump.
“Based on questions and statements I have heard, some of you on this committee appear to believe that Russia and its security services did not conduct a campaign against our country—and that perhaps, somehow, for some reason, Ukraine did,” Hill said in her opening statement. “This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves.”
Taken together, the three days of public testimony amounted to a series of body blows delivered to both the Trump White House and congressional Republicans. While Trump took to Twitter to insist he had been fully exonerated by Sondland and that the other witnesses were simply operating from hearsay and the likes of Reps. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and John Ratcliffe (R-Texas) tried to poke holes in the witnesses’ testimony, it was abundantly clear to any quasi-neutral observer that these hearings were an absolute rout for Democrats.
How much will what happened over the past three days in Washington change how the public perceives whether Trump deserves to be impeached? Or how Republicans in the House or Senate choose to answer that same question? Who knows – although there’s little debate that many minds were already made up.
The Point: Whether or not the public impeachment hearings move poll numbers – or GOP members votes – there is no question that what we saw on display over the past three days was a nightmare scenario for Republicans that further complicates their already difficult task of continuing to defend this President and his actions.