The problem (for Republicans, anyway) on Day 1 of the public impeachment hearings was that the two witnesses — Bill Taylor and George Kent — were the two most believable and knowledgeable people in the room.
And worse (for Republicans, anyway), they shared that knowledge in calm, even-handed, unruffled testimony. The test now — more like a final exam, really — is whether calm, even-handed, knowledgeable testimony can possibly carry the day in our hyper-partisan, everyone-has-their-own-impression-of-truth time.
Neither Taylor nor Kent said Donald Trump was a bad (or worse) president or that he had colluded with Russians or that he’s got a thing for dictators or that he’s taught us the definition of “emoluments,” or that he cheats at golf or that he should be impeached.
Whatever Trump says, they aren’t deep-staters and they aren’t Never Trumpers, but they have spent long years working for Republican and Democratic presidents alike. They freely admitted they had not talked directly to Trump about Ukraine or anything else, but wondered what that had to with the information they shared about the country and about its relationship to the United States. These are not fringe players. Taylor and Kent are directly in the loop and bring to the discussion the kinds of resumes that some parents would apparently pay a million bucks to fake for their kids.
In their testimony, they didn’t say more than they knew. They said what they did know and, judging from their long experience in foreign diplomacy, how unorthodox — or “crazy” as Taylor put it — it was for Rudy Giuliani to be conducting foreign policy and how unseemly (and much worse) it was for a president to be holding up critical financial aid in order to force a foreign nation to engage in digging up dirt on a political rival. As Taylor — the reluctant ambassador to Ukraine who was persuaded to take the job by Trump’s Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo —described it: Ukrainians were dying on the front lines fighting Russian-supported troops while the aid was being held up. He said he witnessed the dying with his own eyes.
In other words, Kent — the State Department official in charge of Ukraine — and Taylor were everything as witnesses that Bob Mueller was not. Unlike Mueller, they were willing to explain in full their observations and conclusions. They didn’t worry about seeming partisan because that’s not how their job works.
This was a mismatch. Democrats have all the evidence on their side. What they don’t have at this point — and probably never will — are enough votes in the Senate to do anything when/if the House votes to impeach.
If you watched Wednesday, you saw the Republicans fail to turn the hearing into a circus, although they did send in a few clowns (I’m talking to you, Devin Nunes, and, of course, to you, Jim Jordan). Nunes brought up as many conspiracy theories as he could think of — which Taylor and Kent calmly swatted away, one after the other. Jordan tried to make the case that since the $390 million in military aid eventually did go to Ukraine, there was no harm, no foul. Of course, Trump didn’t release the aid until he knew of the whistleblower report — after which he had no choice.
And it wasn’t high drama either, or certainly not overwrought drama. The description of the overheard Gordon Sondland to Donald Trump phone call — the bombshell, as everyone wanted to describe it — was told almost in passing by Taylor, and if you didn’t follow these things closely, you might have missed it altogther.
So, here’s the test. How many people are paying attention to more than Kent’s bow tie? And how many of those paying attention have an open mind? We’ll have a few more weeks of these public hearings, some more important than others. My guess is that few Republicans in Congress will openly change their minds on Trump unless a vast majority of Americans somehow shame them into doing it.
But you can sum up the Republican predicament in one moment from the hearing. It came when GOP counsel Steve Castor brought up Giuliani and the irregular diplomatic channel led by the so-called Three Amigos. He asked Taylor: “In fairness, this irregular channel of diplomacy, it’s not as outlandish as it could be, is that correct?”
Taylor laughed in wonder. He was often either bemused or amused by the GOP line of questioning. And so, Taylor agreed. “It’s not as outlandish as it could be.”
We all know the plot by now, as laid out by Kent and Taylor. And also as laid out by Adam Schiff and Nancy Pelosi, both of whom were reluctant to to move toward full-blown impeachment until the Ukraine scandal was laid in their laps by the whistleblower and then confirmed by the rough transcript of the infamous Trump-Zelensky July 25 presidential phone call.
What came to light on Wednesday was news of a phone call on July 26, the day after the Trump-Zelensky, “do us a favor” call. Sondland apparently called Trump on his cell phone from a restaurant in Ukraine. (It could be more outlandish, I guess. Or it could have been, as some intelligence officials have suggested, that the Russians could easily have been listening in on that unsecured call.)
One of Taylor’s aides overheard the conversation and told Taylor about it just last week. It is now being reported that another of Taylor’s aides also overheard the conversation, in which Trump apparently asked about the investigations and, according to Taylor’s account, “Ambassador Sondland told President Trump that the Ukrainians were ready to move forward.”
The aide said he asked Sondland — the European Union ambassador whose expertise on Ukraine may be limited to the $1 million donation he made to Trump’s inauguration — about Trump’s views on Ukraine. Taylor testified that the aide told him, “Ambassador Sondland responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden, which Giuliani was pressing for.”
The first aide is apparently David Holmes, who is scheduled to be deposed behind closed doors on Friday. What do Republicans do if Holmes says that Sondland, who did talk directly to Trump, told him it was all about Biden and directed by Giuliani? What will Sondland, who has already amended his deposition once, say when he testifies next week?
I’ll guess, and in language I know Trump can understand. I don’t know about the truth, but the TV ratings should be through the roof.