WASHINGTON — House Democrats will convene open presidential impeachment hearings on Wednesday for only the third time in modern United States history, calling senior American diplomats to testify about President Trump’s attempts to pressure a foreign power to publicly commit to investigate his political rivals.
The hearings in the House Intelligence Committee are a major milestone in the impeachment inquiry the House started this fall. After seven weeks of fact-finding conducted almost exclusively in private, they will offer most Americans their first glimpse of House Democrats’ case against Mr. Trump, and the administration witnesses whose accounts have bolstered it.
They will almost certainly also elevate an ugly partisan fight over the inquiry that threatens to eclipse the facts themselves.
Here is what you need to know before the hearings are gaveled in.
Mr. Trump stands accused of abusing his power.
At its simplist, Democrats’ contention is that Mr. Trump abused the power of the presidency to enlist a foreign power to benefit his re-election campaign. That was the central charge of an anonymous C.I.A. whistle-blower whose complaint about the president’s dealings with Ukraine prompted Speaker Nancy Pelosi to begin the impeachment inquiry
The centerpiece of their case is a reconstructed transcript released by the White House of a July phone call between Mr. Trump and President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine. In it, Mr. Trump asked Mr. Zelensky, Ukraine’s newly elected leader, to “do us a favor” and investigate former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and his son Hunter Biden as well as a conspiracy theory that holds that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 election to help Democrats, not Mr. Trump.
Democrats will use the hearings to explain their case to Americans, while Republicans will try to poke holes.
The hearings are a chance for House Democrats, who have privately pieced together the back story of Mr. Trump’s pressure campaign on Ukraine, to lay it out for the public. They will feature career diplomats with decades of experience describing what they viewed as an improper and dangerous shadow effort to inject Mr. Trump’s political objectives into American foreign policymaking on Ukraine.
In defiance of State Department orders not to cooperate, they are expected to say they know of no precedent for how Mr. Trump marginalized the American foreign policy apparatus in favor of a small group of political appointees and his private lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani, who did his bidding.
The hearings will also give Republicans their first high-profile chance to defend the president. They plan to argue that Mr. Trump did nothing wrong in calling for the investigations, and that his objective was to root out corruption in Ukraine, rather than to bolster his own political fortunes. And Republicans plan to raise doubts about the witnesses, saying they are unelected bureaucrats who disagree with Mr. Trump and are trying to substitute their own judgment for his.
Career diplomats will be the star witnesses.
First up will be a joint session at 10 a.m. Wednesday with William B. Taylor Jr., the top American diplomat in Ukraine, and George P. Kent, a senior State Department official in charge of Ukraine policy. On Friday, the same lawmakers will quiz Marie L. Yovanovitch, the former American ambassador to Kiev who Mr. Trump abruptly recalled to Washington this spring.
Mr. Taylor will testify in gripping terms about how he came to understand from officials speaking to the president this summer that Mr. Trump was escalating a pressure campaign on Ukraine, eventually using a coveted White House meeting for its new president and $391 million in security assistance for the country as leverage to secure the country’s commitment that it would publicly announce investigations into former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and supposed Democratic collusion with Ukraine in 2016.
Mr. Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, watched with similar alarm. He will testify that he saw the push for investigations as “injurious to the rule of law,” in the United States and Ukraine, and damaging to decades of American foreign policy.
Ms. Yovanovitch will offer a more personal account of a smear campaign led by Mr. Giuliani and the corrupt former Ukrainian prosecutor general to portray her as disloyal to Mr. Trump. It worked, and she was abruptly recalled to Washington by Mr. Trump in May, prompting outcry within the State Department and widespread alarm.
These hearings will look different.
Democrats chose the vaulted, columned chambers of the Ways and Means Committee — the House’s grandest hearing room — to serve as the backdrop for the hearings. They intend to take advantage of special rules changing the format of the questioning, too.
The goal is to allow for longer, more detailed lines of questioning better suited to such a complicated and weighty subject than the typical five-minute bursts from lawmakers that make for pithy television sound bites, but yield less substantive responses.
In the hearings beginning Wednesday, Representative Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California and the Intelligence Committee chairman, and Representative Devin Nunes of California, the top Republican, will be able to conduct extended blocks of questioning, up to 45 minutes each. Under the special rules that were adopted late last month for the inquiry by the House, committee leaders can also delegate questioning to their highly trained staff lawyers during those extended chunks of time.
Impeachment investigators will play an outsize role.
Democrats intend to turn to Daniel Goldman, a former federal prosecutor in New York who now serves as the Intelligence Committee’s top investigator. The Republicans will most likely lean on Steve Castor, a congressional investigator who has worked in the House since 2005.
Do not expect to see lawyers for the president on hand. Though the procedures adopted by the House grant Mr. Trump and his counsel the ability to recommend and cross-examine witnesses, as well as mount a defense, those rights only come later in the impeachment process.
Republicans will argue that the evidence is not there.
With the burden of proof on Democrats, the president’s allies on Capitol Hill have a far easier job for now: to distract from and sow doubt about the strength of the evidence to ensure Republicans do not defect. They will do so with zeal.
Staff for the inquiry circulated an 18-page memo to lawmakers on Tuesday laying out the road map for their defense, beginning with an accusation that Mr. Schiff has “broken” a promise to treat Mr. Trump fairly.
They will argue that Mr. Trump never pressured Mr. Zelensky, and that politics had nothing to do with his calls for investigations.
“The body of evidence shows instead that President Trump holds a deep-seated, genuine and reasonable skepticism of Ukraine due to its history of pervasive corruption,” Republicans wrote. “Democrats want to impeach President Trump because unelected and anonymous bureaucrats disagree with the president’s decisions and were discomforted by his phone conversation with President Zelensky.”
There’s still a long way to go before impeachment.
The House is not impeaching Mr. Trump yet.
Lawmakers are still in the investigative phase of their work. Because they are not relying on an independent investigative body, Mr. Schiff’s committee has positioned itself as something akin to a grand jury, collecting the facts to bring charges against the president.
The committee plans to write a report and present it to the House Judiciary Committee, where articles of impeachment are traditionally drafted and debated. Democratic leaders had hoped the Judiciary Committee could complete that work this year, but the timing remains unclear.
If and when the Judiciary Committee receives a report, it could take several weeks to do its work. Ultimately, the committee will vote whether to recommend that the full House impeach Mr. Trump, a penalty the Constitution says is for “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” If the House follows through, then the Senate must hold a trial to determine if Mr. Trump is innocent or guilty, in which case he would be removed.
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