What did Americans learn from the first day of open hearings in the impeachment inquiry?
They learned damaging new information, about another witness who reportedly overheard a telephone conversation in which President Trump pressed to find out if the Ukrainians had committed to investigating his top political rival.
They learned they are still served by people of integrity who are committed to advancing the national interest. The day’s two witnesses, George Kent and William Taylor, both deeply experienced diplomats, provided precise, scrupulously nonpartisan and damning testimony about the effort at the center of the inquiry: the secretive shakedown of Ukraine by Mr. Trump and his associates, for the president’s political gain.
And those Americans who tuned in also learned that the Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee have set themselves a degrading task. Rather than engage the facts about Mr. Trump’s Ukrainian escapade, they are twisting them and eliding them and inventing new ones they’d prefer. They spent most of Wednesday stuffing straw men and then ostentatiously knocking them down.
Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio set their tone and pace, apparently betting that a sustained note of incredulity and a motor-mouth delivery could distract listeners from the fragility of his arguments. He insisted the president couldn’t possibly have done anything wrong because, in the end, Ukraine got its money without committing to any investigations.
This point of view has radical implications for America’s system of justice and overcrowded prisons, if Mr. Jordan in fact truly believes that all inmates convicted of attempted crimes are innocent of wrongdoing.
He and his Republican colleagues chose to ignore the bits about how Mr. Trump held up the money for weeks, and released it only after circumstances dramatically changed. First, Politico published a story revealing that the aid was being withheld, generating bipartisan outrage from Congress, and then the public learned of the existence of the whistle-blower complaint that Mr. Trump had linked delivering that aid to the personal “favor” he sought from Ukraine.
As they have in the past, Mr. Trump’s backers piously insisted on Wednesday that the president cared only about rooting out corruption. It is just a coincidence, in this telling, that the prime target of the investigation Mr. Trump was demanding happened to be Joe Biden.
No one who doesn’t mainline Fox News was buying it on Wednesday. The witnesses made clear how far this targeted Trumpian initiative deviated from the systematic, broad-gauge anticorruption efforts American diplomats have been seeking in Ukraine for years.
And the facts, once again, were inconvenient for the argument. For one thing, Rudy Giuliani, Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, has been openly bragging for months about his efforts to get Ukraine to investigate Mr. Biden and his son Hunter for alleged corruption. Now we know that what was being dangled in exchange for that investigation was a coveted visit to the White House for the new Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, and nearly $400 million in military aid that Ukrainians desperately needed in order to defend themselves against Russian aggression.
The regular delivery of this aid has been authorized for years by bipartisan majorities in Congress. But Mr. Trump refused to pay up, Mr. Taylor and Mr. Kent testified, until Mr. Zelensky publicly announced what would be, in effect, a public plug for the president’s re-election campaign. As Mr. Taylor said, “Withholding security assistance in exchange for help with a domestic political campaign in the United States would be crazy.”
Over and over, the Republican members of the House Intelligence Committee attempted to cast the hearings as a sham, a Democratic plot to remove the president. Mr. Taylor and Mr. Kent declined to play along. They came across not as angry Democrats or Deep State conspirators, but as men who have devoted their lives to serving their country, and for whom defending Ukraine against Russian aggression is more important to the national interest than any partisan jockeying.
Pressed at one point by a Republican to agree that a particular offense was not impeachable, Mr. Kent flashed some steely contempt for such political gamesmanship. “I’m here as a fact witness to answer your questions,” he instructed the congressman, John Ratcliffe of Texas. “Your constitutional obligation is to consider the evidence before you.”
At another point, Mr. Taylor said he had been critical of the Obama administration’s reluctance to supply Ukraine with anti-tank missiles and other lethal defensive weapons in its fight with Russia, and that he was pleased when the Trump administration agreed to do so. Republicans who pressed him on this particular view — as though it supplied some sort of “gotcha” revelation — seemed taken aback that a witness so dangerous to Mr. Trump would also forthrightly and calmly criticize a Democrat. But it turns out there are independent- and fair-minded people still, even in Washington.
What clearly concerned both witnesses wasn’t simply the abuse of power by the president, but the harm it inflicted on Ukraine, a critical ally under constant assault by Russian forces. “Even as we sit here today, the Russians are attacking Ukrainian soldiers in their own country and have been for the last four years,” Mr. Taylor said. “I saw this on the front line last week; the day I was there a Ukrainian soldier was killed and four were wounded.”
Mr. Trump’s abandonment of the Ukrainians came out most chillingly in a new piece of evidence Mr. Taylor offered. Last week, he said, one of his staff members told him of a phone call the staffer overheard between Mr. Trump and his ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, which took place in a restaurant on July 26, the day after Mr. Trump told Mr. Zelensky to “do us a favor though” — by announcing investigations into both the Bidens and a debunked conspiracy theory about the Democratic National Committee email server in 2016.
In the call with Mr. Sondland, Mr. Trump asked about “the investigations,” and Mr. Sondland said the Ukrainians were ready to move forward. The staff member then asked Mr. Sondland what Mr. Trump thought about Ukraine, according to Mr. Taylor. He said that Mr. Sondland replied that the president cared more about the investigations of the Bidens.
Republicans on the committee did not seem interested in pursuing this new information.
Another popular Republican argument on Wednesday was that Mr. Taylor and Mr. Kent were offering nothing but hearsay. Of course, this wouldn’t be an issue if Mr. Trump were not obstructing the inquiry by refusing to allow White House officials, including the people who were on the call, to testify. (In fact, one of those officials — Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman — did go before Congress, and Republicans rewarded him by speculating that he was a Ukrainian double agent.)
Perhaps the most telling remark was offered by a Republican staff lawyer, Stephen Castor, who suggested that while the president’s behavior may have been highly irregular, “it’s not as outlandish as it be.” Here’s a tip: When “not as outlandish as it could be” is your strongest defense, it’s time to rethink your position.