As History Plays Out in House and on Twitter, Trump Lays Low
History was too boring to watch. At least, that is what the president of the United States said, and the current front-runner among those trying to replace him seemed to echo the sentiment.
Neither President Trump -- in meetings Wednesday with Turkish leader Recep Erdogan -- nor former Vice President Biden would admit that they watched the first public impeachment hearing since 1998. All the same, their staffs certainly tweeted about it. A lot.
“This sham hearing is not only boring, it is a colossal waste of taxpayer time & money,” complained White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham. Meanwhile the rapid response operation for Biden roared into gear throughout the six hours of testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, culminating with a campaign spokesman tweeting “truth over lies.”
The Republican National Committee put out statements. So did the Democratic National Committee. Sultans of spin on both sides did their best to shape the story before the nightly news. The hearing, which potentially involves the fates of both men, was too important to do otherwise.
Given all that’s gone before it, this kind of high-stakes television had long seemed inevitable. Trump said Democrats were out to get him from Day One of his presidency; he also never moderated his provocative messaging or style once in the White House. Democrats fed off of that and never relented in saying Trump ought to be impeached.
All of this culminated in the joint testimony of William Taylor, former United States ambassador to Ukraine, and George Kent, deputy assistant secretary of state for Eastern Europe and the Caucasus. But before they could talk, top Democrats and Republicans offered diametrically opposed opening statements.
Chairman Adam Schiff insisted that the proceedings “will affect not only the future of this presidency, but the future of the presidency itself, and what kind of conduct or misconduct the American people may come to expect from their commander-in-chief.”
Ranking member Devin Nunes attacked the witnesses for agreeing “wittingly or unwittingly, to participate in a drama. But the main performance, the Russia hoax, has ended, and you’ve been cast in the low-rent Ukrainian sequel.”
Both parties stuck to those roughhewn guideposts throughout, with Republicans attacking the largely second-hand testimony of the witnesses and Democrats insisting that the proceedings had nothing to do with politics but rather constitutionally enshrined principles.
Other than giving members a chance to sink teeth into partisan hides, there was little new in the proceedings aside from a revelation that Democrats described as a bombshell and Republicans dismissed as hearsay.
Taylor told Congress that a government employee overheard a phone call between the president and Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland about “the investigations” Trump wanted his Ukrainian counterpart to order. Taylor didn’t hear it himself, but the unnamed employee told him that he heard that ambassador tell the president that the Ukrainians were “ready to move forward” on a probe involving the Biden family.
The Democrats’ impeachment push is a great big political circus, Republicans insist. The drag queen correspondent there to cover the proceedings, and the therapy dogs there to comfort stressed staffers, lent something to that cynicism. But the testimony was largely offered in measured tones, and even point-of-order exchanges between GOP members of the panel and the chairman were not heated. The witnesses’ most impassioned comments came when Taylor said that without military aid meant to defend against Russians aggression, the delay of money making up the quid-pro-quo allegations meant “more Ukrainians would die."
"READ THE TRANSCRIPT!" the president wrote on Twitter, and the Democratic counsel, Daniel Goldman, obliged more than once. Both diplomats listened to his reading of the July 25 phone call between the president and Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky.
The Republican counsel, Steve Castor, spent his time questioning the pair about Hunter Biden, the son of the former vice president, and about Burisma Holdings, the Ukrainian energy company that paid him $50,000 a month to sit on its board. “My concern was that there was the possibility of a perception of a conflict of interest,” Kent told lawmakers when asked about why he raised an alarm about that in 2015.
He said Wednesday he didn’t know of criminal activity, but told a questioner that the company should be investigated.
Repeatedly during the proceedings, Republicans pushed Democrats on what Schiff knew of the whistleblower, who was in contact with the chairman’s office before filing his official complaint, and when Schiff knew it. They complained that there couldn’t have been a quid pro quo if the Ukrainians didn’t know that the foreign aid in question -- eventually released -- was being withheld. And they tried to dismiss the impeachment effort as part of a coup.
It was a daylong back-and-forth that Democrats hope the public absorbs and Republicans wish the public would ignore. But these hearings, which will continue Friday with testimony from former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, are much different than the hearing that special counsel Robert Mueller sat for. Where the report on allegations of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government was complicated and confusing, the charges of improperly leveraging public office for personal political gain are simpler: Either Trump dangled foreign aid in exchange for a political favor or he didn’t.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi predicted that the proceedings would be over by Christmas and that the House, if it votes to charge the president, would then leave the issue in the hands of the Senate in the New Year. Trump has been expecting the same, a president certain that his opponents never wanted him see a second Election Day.
Despite that premonition, he never acclimated himself to the presidential norms laid down by his predecessors. Trump, in other words, has never stopped being Trump, which has further fueled his opponents’ determination to remove him from office. Now, whether he watches the proceedings or not, they are preparing to serve him the fate he said he always expected.