Fiona Hill, the last witness in two weeks of televised impeachment hearings, made the case against her old boss President Donald Trump better than Democrats ever have.
The former National Security Council official on Thursday distilled the fog of shady dealings and competition between Trump appointees and career bureaucrats with a crystal clear condemnation of his rogue foreign policy operation in Ukraine.
And she also effectively warned that the Republican defense of the President — by peddling Ukraine conspiracy theories — was in danger, in itself, of becoming an extension of the 2016 Russian election scheme that is tearing American politics apart and draining public confidence in its democracy.
Hill — a British-born, non-partisan Russia expert who also wrote a book on Vladimir Putin — was the star witness in a day of testimony that brought many of the threads of the Democratic case together and who left the Trump administration earlier this year. Using authoritative and clear language, Hill — who left the Trump administration earlier this year — spelled out her reactions to the pressure campaign unfolding before her eyes. But Hill said she only really began to understand the scandal herself while watching testimony from Trump’s ad hoc messenger to the new government in Kiev Gordon Sondland.
“He was being involved in a domestic political errand. And we were being involved in national security foreign policy. And those two things had just diverged.”
The day’s testimony, from Hill and US embassy official David Holmes who is stationed in Kiev, was a fitting coda to a dramatic week of testimony on Capitol Hill as the impeachment inquiry went under the bright lights of televised public hearings. Democrats are now meeting to decide if they have enough evidence to proceed toward writing articles of impeachment while the GOP appears to be more entrenched than ever in its defense of Trump.
Hill’s comment summed up evidence that build a strong case that Trump — as Sondland put it in an overheard telephone call in July — “didn’t give a s—t” about Ukraine but wanted the vulnerable ex-Soviet state to cough up political favors.
Hill also helped the Democratic case by exposing the core of the defense of Trump built by GOP lawmakers.
She slammed the “fictional” conspiracy theories that Ukraine meddled in the US election that she said were dreamed up by Moscow in another attempt to fulfill Putin’s goal of stoking political division and diminishing America’s prestige.
Such claims were hyped by Republican House members who struggled to counter evidence of abuses of power by the President who demanded Ukraine’s new government investigate Joe Biden.
They also sparked the Ukraine scandal itself — since witnesses have claimed Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani put such stories in Trump’s head, leading the President to wield his authority to set foreign policy not in US interests but for his own political ends.
“I refuse to be part of an effort to legitimize an alternate narrative that the Ukrainian government is a US adversary, and that Ukraine, not Russia, attacked us in 2016,” Hill said.
Republican arguments debunked
Hill’s testimony was a fitting coda to the televised hearings in the House Intelligence Committee as the focus now shifts to an almost certain full House vote to impeach the President.
Two weeks of dramatic hearings starring steely career officials braving the conservative media storm to tell the truth have left Trump’s anti-impeachment offensive in tatters. In recent days, testimony has built a convincing case that Trump directed an effort to force Ukraine into investigating Biden by withholding an Oval Office presidential visit and military aid.
Sondland confirmed that there was a quid pro quo asked of Ukraine in return for a White House visit. He also said that Trump, acting through Giuliani directed the scheme and that other officials including Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo were all in the loop.
Other witnesses called by Republicans, including former Ukraine envoy Kurt Volker, did not as Trump’s supporters hoped, clear the President.
Days of hearings also challenged Republican claims that the case is built on hearsay, that Trump never withheld recognition from Kiev and that its new government didn’t even realize it.
The ultimate effect of all the new evidence is to cast Trump’s call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on July 25, in which he asked for a “favor” in an even more sinister light.
Republicans have managed to land a few blows. They seized for instance on Sondland’s admission that Trump never told him directly to use military aid over Ukraine for political leverage — even though he said he presumed that was what was happening.
Trump and supporters ignored the entirety of the evidence in recent days to seize on that moment — as if an entire court case could be undermined by a single less damning fact.
But the hearings often appeared to deepen Trump’s plight by drawing out the kind of behavior that left him danger of being only third impeached President in the first place. Such antics make Trump difficult to defend among Senate Republicans running in swing states who are in trouble because of an unpopular President.
Trump’s tweeted threats against several witnesses, including the former US Ambassador to Kiev Marie Yovanovitch, who was apparently fired to make way for the corrupt scheme to pressure Ukraine, could be folded into articles of impeachment.
Trump slams Democrats as ‘human scum’
Most often, Republicans were reduced to simply denying there was any evidence against Trump — in a false narrative picked up by conservative media — and attacking the credibility and patriotism of dutiful US public servants.
Their tactic was a sign that at a time of tribal politics and during a presidency that has evolved into a constant assault on the truth, a President shored up by a loyal party may enjoy impunity, no matter how significant the evidence.
“Keep fighting tough, Republicans, you are dealing with human scum who have taken Due Process and all of the Republican Party’s rights away from us during the most unfair hearings in American History,” Trump tweeted on Thursday.
But Adam Schiff, the House Intelligence Committee chairman who steered the hearings, said that a clear case of presidential abuse of power was established.
And he challenged Republicans to take the charges seriously, reasoning that Trump’s alleged offenses were worse than the Watergate crimes that led to Richard Nixon’s resignation.
“What we’re talking about here is the withholding of recognition in that White House meeting, the withholding of military aid to an ally at war. That is beyond anything Nixon did,” Schiff said.
“The difference between then and now is not the difference between Nixon and Trump, it’s the difference between that Congress and this one.”
The next steps
Schiff’s comments served as recognition that another turning point is looming for the impeachment effort.
The question going forward becomes not whether Trump abused his power for political gain — the Democrats who hold a House majority ahead of any impeachment vote say he has.
Impeachment now becomes a debate over whether the evidence amassed by Democrats has reached the bar required to throw the President out of office — less than a year before an election. In effect the American people must make a decision that is critical for impeachment in the short term and the 2020 election more broadly — whether it is permissible for a President to use his vast authority to set foreign policy to demand political favors from another country.
“The evidence is clear that the President — the President has used his office for his own personal gain and in doing so undermined the national security of the United States,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on Thursday.
She accused Trump of helping the Russians by temporarily withholding military assistance to Ukraine and of undermining the integrity of US elections.
“There is something very sad about all of this because the President is undermining and threatening the fabric of our democracy and the patriotism of so many of the American people.”
But Democrats hoping to peel away GOP lawmakers in a House impeachment vote were disappointed to hear the assessment of former CIA operative Will Hurd, who is stepping down at the next election and would be less susceptible to conservative public opinion.
The Texas Republican said that Trump’s call with Zelensky was “inappropriate, misguided foreign policy.”
But he still thinks it’s not impeachable.
“I have not heard evidence proving the President committed bribery or extortion,” Hurd said.
House Intelligence Committee officials are now redoubling the work of writing a report laying out the Democratic case.
After Thanksgiving, the scene is expected to shift to the Democratic-led House Judiciary Committee and hearings that will be used to draw up articles of impeachment against Trump.
Party leaders believe that despite lacking testimony from key players such as Pence, Pompeo and former national security adviser John Bolton they already have sufficient evidence to move ahead.
It may take some time to see whether the dramatic events of recent weeks have done anything to shift public opinion about Trump in a polarized nation. Democrats point to national polls showing a slim majority in favor of impeachment. Republicans brandish state surveys showing majority opposition.
House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy predicted Thursday that his party would lose no votes in an impeachment vote. That’s one reason why the White House is confident that Trump will not be removed from office after a subsequent Senate trial, as reported by CNN’s Jim Acosta Thursday.