Photo: SAUL LOEB/Getty Images
“It’s not as outlandish as it could be.” Ambassador Bill Taylor’s description of the Trump administration’s backchannels to the Ukraine could have just as easily applied to the first day of the impeachment hearings itself.
After three years of Donald Trump laying waste to almost every norm in American politics, the process to remove him started in a comparatively genteel manner. The only disruption from the audience came when policemen had to mildly chastise those taking pictures. The grandstanding from members of Congress was well within the normal quota. Even their beverage input was restrained—during breaks in the hearing,cans of LaCroix were as common as empty coffee cups on the dais where members were seated.
Members of Congress came and went. Several diehard Trump defenders, like Mark Meadows (R-NC), stayed most of the day while others like Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), an ardent left-winger who vowed to “impeach the motherfucker” shortly after taking office, only made cameo appearances.
Louie Gohmert, a strident Trump defender from East Texas, griped about the process from the front row seat he staked out nearly an hour before the hearing started. The nine-term congressman described the witnesses as “gossipmongers and people who don’t have direct evidence but feel like it is worth spreading hearsay to bring down a president.”
Those in the public attending represented a mix of impeachment junkies and simple tourists. Some, like Heather Barnes, a 39-year-old artist from Indiana, were anti-vaccine protesters in Washington for an event this week and looking to fill their day. Others like Richard and Maryanne Hirchar, a retired couple from Melrose, Massachusetts had been following the drama. The two were in Washington for their grandniece’s college dance recital. However, the devout MSNBC viewers, who joked “we have only one channel on our TV” showed up at 7:30 in the morning to see as much of the hearing as they could.
Yet for all the members of Congress in attendance, not to mention the hordes of photographers circling the room, there was only a brief formal nod to the significance of the event when Adam Schiff (D-CA), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, began the hearing by proclaiming “with that now I recognize myself to give an opening statement in the impeachment inquiry into Donald J. Trump, the 45th president of the United States.”
Testimony came from Ambassador Bill Taylor, the top American diplomat in Ukraine and George Kent, a senior State Department official who oversees Ukraine policy.
The two, who only testified after receiving congressional subpoenas, were restrained and mild mannered, even in response to hostile questioning. The proceedings began with the two delivering lengthy opening statements.
Taylor, who spoke with the type of mellifluous voice best suited for PBS documentary narration, went on for 20 printed pages. He laid out his narrative in such exquisite detail that at least one reporter in attendance was asleep by the time he concluded. Although Taylor introduced one new piece of evidence – saying that a staff member overheard President Donald Trump on a phone asking about the progress of “the investigations,” — much of his testimony was a recitation of his past deposition presented in a narrative form for a viewing audience.
After the openings from Kent and Taylor the hearing was divided into two parts. Both Schiff and his Republican counterpart Devin Nunes (R-CA) had 45 minutes for questioning which they could use for themselves or assign to a staff attorney. They mostly yielded their time.
The Democratic attorney Daniel Goldman methodically tried to marshall the witnesses’ testimony to lay out the case for impeachment. Key to this was to establish that Trump withheld hostage military aid to the Ukraine and a White House visit from the former Soviet republic’s president in exchange for a pledge to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, whose son Hunter was on the board of a major Ukrainian energy company.
Steve Castor, the Republican counsel, countered by raising questions about the Bidens and trying to normalize the backchannel maneuvering that Trump engaged in. Castor suggested the division that Taylor made between “regular channels,” which constituted normal diplomatic procedure, and “irregular channels,” which included former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani’s outreach to the Ukraine, “was not outlandish as it could be.” Taylor agreed it could be more outlandish.
Once the hearing moved to the five-minute rounds of questions from the 20 remaining members of the committee, 12 Democrat and eight Republican, it did get a little more outlandish but the televised histrionics rarely exceeded the norms of C-Span. Republican John Ratcliffe of Texas tried to get Taylor to identify an impeachable offense that Trump had committed, while Democrat Eric Swalwell of California followed up on a presidential tweet to ask the witnesses if they were “never Trumpers.”
There was even a moment of genuine laughter in the room when Democrat Peter Welch of Vermont responded to an extended speech by Ohio Republican Jim Jordan bemoaning the fact that the whistleblower who “started it all” would not appear before the committee. Welch retorted, “ I’d be glad to have the person who started it all come in and testify. President Trump is welcome to take a seat right there.”
But the proceedings never made it to the heated level of recent partisan fights on Capitol Hill like the investigation into Benghazi.
Afterwards Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL) told New York ,“I was pleasantly surprised how civil it ended up being.” He added, “I’ve been to other hearings where my colleagues on the other side kind of jump up and down and they make a circus out of some of these proceedings, but I was pleasantly surprised with the tone and tenor and dignity of the hearing.”
However, the first day may not be like the rest. David Bossie, a Trump campaign aide and veteran of the Clinton impeachment, noted, “This is all a learning curve, everything you do people learn from. Both sides will learn from today and make adjustments for Friday and then they’ll do it again and again. Just because today went one way doesn’t mean anything for the future.”