House Impeachment Inquiry Live Hearings: Day One

Ken AshfordBreaking News, L'Affaire Ukraine, Trump & Administration, Trump ImpeachmentLeave a Comment

This is the fourth time in history that Congress has seriously looked into impeaching a president.

TODAY: Bill Taylor and George Kent. 
FRIDAY: Marie Yovanovitch. 
Tuesday: Pence aide Jennifer Williams … Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman … Kurt Volker … Timothy Morrison. 
Wednesday: Gordon Sondland … Laura Cooper … David Hale. 
Thursday: Fiona Hill.

Today on the dais: George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs, and Bill Taylor, the top diplomat in the U.S. embassy in Ukraine. Both have testified in closed hearings.

Taylor, the chargé d’affaires at the embassy in Kiev, told the committees leading the probe that he came to realize “that one of the key pillars of our strong support for Ukraine was threatened” by an “irregular policy channel” consisting of Rudy Giuliani and several U.S. diplomats.

Kent has testified about an effort by Giuliani and others to oust the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, based on what he called a “fake news driven smear out of Ukraine” and a “classic disinformation operation.” Yovanovitch was recalled from her post three months early, and will testify before the Intelligence Committee on Friday.

Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani penned a Wall Street Journal op-ed today, centering his case for President Donald Trump’s innocence on the dubious logic that Trump only “requested” and did not “demand” that the Ukrainian President make up a Biden scandal.

“Moreover, Mr. Trump requested that Ukraine root out corruption; he didn’t demand it,” he wrote. “His words were cordial, agreeable and free of any element of threat or coercion. Mr. Trump offered nothing in return to Ukraine for cleaning up corruption.”

In fact, many witnesses in the impeachment inquiry have now testified to the fact that military aid to Ukraine was held back as leverage to force Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to go after the Bidens.

However, as spurious as the logic may seem, Giuliani may be getting at the newest Republican talking point to push back against the inquiry, now that their complaints about the private hearings are moot. They seem to be floating a “it wasn’t a crime because it was unsuccessful” kind of approach — that any pressure Trump put on Ukraine didn’t matter, because he ended up releasing the military aid without getting what he wanted in return

An hour before it starts and Trump is rage-tweeting.

Everybody’s live now — ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS — all the cable newsers — NPR and other radio networks — the big news sites are streaming — lots of streaming options on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube — Fox stations have the option of going live.

I’ll have live updates of the hearings, as needed.

Marcy Wheeler, who, as blogger emptywheel, has for nearly two decades closely followed national security and civil liberties issues, pointed out nine lies by Nunes in his opening statement on Twitter. Here’s a selection:

At the outset she noted: “Nunes starts with a lie, that Democrats accused Trump of being an ‘Agent.’” 

  • ”Note: Nunes claims Dems didn’t have more than circumstantial evidence of collusion. Evidence in the Stone trial more than meets Mark Meadows’ definition of collusion.”
  • “In fact, Mueller said there was evidence of conspiracy, which is stronger than collusion. So far, Two lies in the first seconds of Nunes’ speech.”
  • “Nunes claims there were 1-sided leaks. Lie number 3.”
  • “Nunes claims ‘most’ GOP witnesses denied. They got 3 witnesses. Lie number 4.”
  • ”Nunes false says Mark Zaid called for a coup. Lie number 5.”
  • ”Nunes now complaining about projection. Claiming Steele dossier = collusion with Russia, claims Dems defend Hunter Biden having a job. Lies 6 and 7.”
  • ”Note, Nunes claims witnesses don’t know the answers on Hunter Biden. Except a number of witnesses did testify to it. Lie 8.”
  • ”Nunes claims ‘Russian hoax’ has ended. No, the fully predicted investigation into Trump and his flunkies conspiracies with Russia and WikiLeaks has not. Lie 9.”

That’s quite the introduction. 

10:38 am Republicans trying to hit Schiff with points of order about getting testimony from the whistleblower. Trying to rattle Schiff or show a stupid public that whistleblower is relevant (he’s not).

Here’s the full statement:

The section of Taylor’s opening statement where he’s talking about his conversations with Sondland is really, really important. He says Sondland told him that it wasn’t just a White House meeting that hinged on the investigations — “everything” (including security aid) depended on Ukraine’s willingness to publicly announce a probe into the Bidens. Sondland himself hasn’t been an especially reliable witness, though. He had to update his testimony last week after reading about what Taylor and another witness, Tim Morrison, said in closed-door depositions. He now says he did tell Ukrainians that the security assistance likely wouldn’t be released until there was a public announcement about the investigations.

Americans might not care about foreign policy, but Taylor sure as hell is going to try to make them. He ended his opening statement on national television to make a case for why Ukraine is important to U.S. security interests.

Trump at this moment is not tweeting, but re-tweeting — mostly a lot of Fox clips. The White House spokesperson says he is not watching the hearings.

One thing I think the testimony has done well so far is to emphasize the power differential between Ukraine and the U.S. — and by extension, Zelensky and Trump. Zelensky was a new political leader eagerly looking for the legitimacy that a meeting with Trump would give him. His country was at war with Russia and desperately in need of security assistance. This context helps clarify why the Ukrainians couldn’t just shrug off the pressure from Trump’s allies, despite advice from many people not to get involved in U.S. politics — they were really in a precarious situation.

And we’re back. Nunes opening the Republicans’ line of inquiry.

This current Nunes line of questioning — the president was concerned about foreign interference, hence everything here is fine and normal — might be Republicans’ best line of defense. There’s not any evidence to support it, and it doesn’t really pass the smell test, but how do you prove what was in Trump’s head? You just end up in an empirical dead end of sorts.

Steve Castor is Republican counsel.

Castor is laying out reasons why Trump might have felt like he was threatened by Ukraine and trying to get Taylor to agree with them. He says that Trump may have reasonably perceived that some parts of the Ukrainian establishment were “out to get him.” It quickly devolved into a debate among members about whether Castor is asserting facts that aren’t in evidence and may not be correct.

It looks like the direction we are now going in is: What did Burisma do and (possibly) what was Hunter Biden’s role there? Just laying that out in clear terms might help the GOP case a little if they can make the whole thing look dirty. To be clear, while we don’t have evidence of wrongdoing, Hunter Biden’s role at least seems like an opportunity that came about because he has a powerful father and potentially not because of his qualifications per se.

Kent said in his closed-door testimony that he tried to raise the alarm about Hunter Biden’s appointment to Burisma’s board back in 2015, because it could create the impression of a conflict of interest. This was an obvious breadcrumb for Republicans, so it’s not surprising to see Castor starting to seize on it.

Counsel questioning is over. Now to the members.

Yes. The corruption in Ukraine was WAAAAAY more involved than jut Burisma.

Real-time feedback indicates this is not going well for GOP:

So far the Republican members of the committee are yielding their time to two favorite GOP attack dogs, Jordan and Ratcliffe. Ratcliffe, as you may remember, is such a Trump favorite that the president initially proposed him to succeed Dan Coats as director of national intelligence. That plan was scrapped when questions arose about Ratcliffe’s résumé.

Jim Jordan’s argument is that Taylor was evidently wrong that Trump’s intent was to condition the aid release on an announcement of investigations into the Bidens, since that didn’t end up happening: Trump ultimately released the aid without an announcement. Jordan’s argument is seemingly vulnerable to the fact that circumstances significantly changed in the interim (bipartisan congressional pressure, the filing of the whistleblower complaint). So it’s interesting that Jordan is opting with that tactic, rather than arguing that there would be nothing wrong with Trump conditioning aid on the announcement.

2:05 pm — Is the Republican Party argument really that Taylor and Kent misunderstood something …that the president also indicated in the phone call that was released in public. I, like Kent and Taylor, have never met Donald Trump. Yet, I have some evidence that he wanted the Bidens investigated and was trying that to working with Ukraine.

If Republicans are leaning into the argument that Taylor and Kent misunderstood what was going on, they’re going to have to make it again, and again, and again. Multiple witnesses who are slated for testimony have all said it was clear to them that the aid and meeting were contingent on the investigations, including Sondland, who actually spoke to Trump. It’s very hard, as Perry said, to credibly dispute that aspect of Democrats’ evidence.

A lot of the defense by the GOP is that Zelensky said there was “no pressure,: a ridiculous thing to rely because what else is Zelensky going to say when he has to rely on Trump for continuing aid?

We have not heard many process arguments from Republicans today — the idea that this impeachment inquiry is illegal or tantamount to a coup. That’s something we’ve heard plenty of from strident defenders of the president up until now. The arguments today have been more focused on disproving any wrongdoing by the president.

Meanwhile.,.,,. something is afoot:

Could be something to do with Erdogon though, who is visiting.

Yeah, it’s Erdogon.

Schiff also notes that the inspector general for the intelligence agencies informed Congress on Sept. 9 that the whistle-blower complaint was withheld by the administration, and it was less than 48 hours later that the aid was released.

3:35pm Taylor and Kent are dismissed after 5.5 hours of testimony.