WASHINGTON — After hours of testimony in the first impeachment hearing in decades, William B. Taylor Jr. on Wednesday afternoon finally got down to the heart of the issue dividing Congress over President Trump’s conduct.
“Holding up of security assistance that would go to a country that is fighting aggression from Russia for no good policy reason, no good substantive reason, no good national security reason is wrong,” Mr. Taylor, the unflappable acting ambassador to Ukraine, said in a commanding voice somehow reminiscent of Walter Cronkite.
Wrong perhaps, but was it sufficiently wrong to justify removing a duly elected president from office? And more to the point, is it enough to persuade Republicans — so far monolithic in their support for Mr. Trump — to break from him over whether he withheld military aid to Ukraine as leverage for investigations into a political rival? For now, the answer appears to be no.
“It all starts to fall apart when you start tracking it back to who actually knew what when,” said Representative Mark Meadows, Republican of North Carolina and one of the president’s fiercest defenders. His sentiment was emblematic of the Republican view.
Despite no sign of cracks in the Republican wall, the view on Capitol Hill was that Democrats mounted a strong performance in their first public impeachment hearing, much more effective than their questioning in July of Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel who investigated Russian interference. That session — featuring a reluctant witness who appeared determined to avoid any dramatic depiction of his damning findings — was largely considered a flop. It led Democrats to all but drop their talk of impeachment until a whistle-blower emerged accusing Mr. Trump of abusing his power to enlist Ukraine’s help in discrediting former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and his younger son, Hunter.
Democrats showed they learned from their previous experience. They staged the hearing differently, allowing committee lawyers to conduct some of the questioning, a move that cut down on the showboating by lawmakers and gave their respective counsels the opportunity to pursue substantive lines of questioning.
Mr. Taylor, like Mr. Mueller a Vietnam combat veteran and career public servant, came across as the anti-Mueller, confidently marshaling his facts from memory and readily offering his observations. In poised testimony, he matter-of-factly laid out how he came to discover that an “irregular channel” — certain to become a Washington buzzword — was working against a regular diplomatic channel enforcing the official American policy of backing Ukraine in its efforts to hold off Russian aggression. Mr. Taylor said he “sat in astonishment” as he learned via conference call that the White House Office of Management and Budget had put a hold on nearly $400 million in military assistance for Ukraine.
He disclosed new information about an aide who overheard a phone call between Mr. Trump and Gordon D. Sondland, a Trump ally who is the United States ambassador to the European Union, in which the president pressed for news about Ukrainian investigations into the Bidens.
Mr. Taylor was able to elevate the investigation above political sniping into a higher realm, one about a life-or-death struggle not just for Ukraine, but also for the United States. While Mr. Trump’s administration withheld the aid, he said, Ukrainians were dying weekly in their conflict with Russian-backed forces, with Moscow ready to pounce on the slightest sign that the United States was pulling away from Ukraine. It was not just about Ukraine’s security, he said, it was about America’s as well.
“That security was so important for Ukraine as well as our own national interests, to withhold that assistance for no good reason other than help with a political campaign made no sense,” he said. “It was counterproductive to all of what we had been trying to do. It was illogical. It could not be explained. It was crazy.”
As for Republican claims that Mr. Biden had operated corruptly in Ukraine, the day’s other witness, the impressively bow-tied George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state and an expert in corruption, said there was no foundation “whatsoever” to those accusations.
Republicans offered an array of defenses, repeatedly challenging the two witnesses on the grounds that they had no direct knowledge of what the president’s orders or ideas were. They said the president was only acting prudently to protect American taxpayer interests by urging investigations into corruption in a nation with a history of self-dealing by top officials before committing American aid.
Mr. Trump’s allies said the military support was eventually approved, so no offense was committed. They ridiculed the idea that Mr. Taylor, the “star witness” for Democrats, had never even met the president, and dismissed his account and those of other witnesses as hearsay. And Republicans insisted that Democrats were seeking a do-over after the Mueller report failed to deliver a knockout blow to the president. They suggested Democrats had fired at the president and missed.
Rather than get into a nasty committee brawl with Democrats that could transfix a television audience, Republicans chose to try to keep the proceedings relatively sedate. They expect that public interest will dissipate after an opening day that Republicans rated as boring and confusing to Americans who have not closely followed developments.
Democrats don’t see it that way. They believe they were successful in creating the framework for drafting articles of impeachment against the president, relying on the opening testimony of two nonpartisan career officials who insisted they were not taking sides in the fight but reporting only what they saw and heard. They anticipate more fireworks to come.
Representative Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California, the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, predicted from the start that Republicans would not be able to challenge the underlying evidence. “We don’t expect the facts are going to be largely contested,” he said.
That suggests that the entire process will turn on the interpretation of those facts. On that score, Republicans and Democrats remain bitterly divided. Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, affirmed again Wednesday that he expected the Senate to conduct a full trial of whatever articles of impeachment emerge from the House. But he also suggested that Republicans had not seen enough to even consider ousting the president.
“My own view is that we should give people an opportunity to put the case on,” Mr. McConnell said. “The House will have presenters. The president will, no doubt, be represented by lawyers as well. On the issue of how long it goes on, it’s really kind of up to the Senate. People will have to conclude are they learning something new? At some point, we’ll get to an end.”
Republicans continue to insist they know what that end is: acquittal of the president by the Senate. Democrats are determined to change that narrative, but they are not there yet.