The first public hearing into President Donald Trump’s impeachment began with a bang. And it proceeded throughout the afternoon into a constellation of two completely different realities. By the time the hours-long testimony was over, you might find yourself having trouble separating truth from conjecture.
Bill Taylor, the interim US ambassador to Ukraine and the star witness of the inquiry, told the panel of a previously unreported phone call between US ambassador to the EU, Gordon Sondland, and president Trump. According to Taylor, one of his aides overheard the conversation, in which Trump was inquiring about the status of Ukraine launching the politically-motivated investigations into the Bidens he was asking for.
To the highly respected career diplomat, this latest news was just more evidence of what he believed was a disturbing corruption of US foreign policy. "By mid-July it was becoming clear to me that the meeting President Zelenskyy wanted [at the White House] was conditioned on the investigations of Burisma and alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections,” Taylor testified.
Other than this breaking news, the hearing went as one might have expected. The two witnesses, Taylor and deputy assistant secretary of state George Kent, were under the lights, cameras rolling, trying to do their best to recollect events that occurred months ago. But in a strange way, the two diplomats were side pieces to a much louder clash of narratives between America’s two largest political parties.
Democratic lawmakers served as the prosecutors, probing the witnesses in order to extract a confession that Trump broke the law, discredited American foreign policy and engaged in the very high crimes and misdemeanours that warranted impeachment under the US Constitution.
Adam Schiff, the California Democrat and chairman of the proceedings (and a former prosecutor himself), engaged in methodical questioning in an attempt to paint Trump as a criminal who abused the power of the presidency for his own personal gain. Taylor and Kent largely helped Schiff build his case, describing their understanding that Volodymyr Zelensky, would only receive £310m ($400m) in US security assistance if the novice Ukrainian president opened an investigation into Joe Biden and his son, Hunter for alleged shady business practices in the country. Taylor categorised Rudy Giuliani as a bad influence on Trump and a destructive wrecking ball to US diplomacy.
Republicans, in turn, were the defendants desperately trying to protect one of their own from being just the third president in US history to be impeached. The GOP strategy was three-fold: attack the Democrats for crafting a false story; attack the credibility of the witnesses; and pretend as if the entire affair was one big, fat, nothingburger.
Steve Scalise, the second-ranking House Republican, called the impeachment inquiry “a sham.” White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham tweeted that none of the witnesses had a direct conversation with Trump and therefore were relying on second and third-order accounts. Trump, always spoiling for a fight, played the victim:
“They're trying to stop me, because I'm fighting for you. And I'll never let that happen.”
Republicans know they have a political problem on their hands, which is why they are pulling out all the bandages to stop the bleeding. Whether it’s asserting that Kiev assisted Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016, that Trump’s request for investigations was perfectly legitimate due to Ukraine’s systemic corruption, or that Zelensky actually received the US military aid he were hoping for, the GOP resembled the balloon-man at a used car lot—flailing around and contorting every which way.
The ironic thing about these impeachment hearings is that most Americans know how the circus is going to end. The Democratic-led House will impeach Trump. The Republican Senate will acquit him. And Trump will survive, using the vindication as he seeks re-election in a race that may very well make the 2016 contest look like sunshine and roses.
The question is the meantime is how much pain and polarisation the country will go through between now and then.