What We Learned From The 1st Week Of Impeachment Hearings
The first week of Trump impeachment inquiry hearings is in the books.
If you were paying attention to the thousands of pages of closed-door testimonies, you would recognize some of the details that emerged.
But there were some new and important wrinkles from the public hearings with acting U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor; George Kent, a top State Department official with oversight of Ukraine affairs; and Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, who described a plot to oust her led by President Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani.
Here are seven takeaways from this historic and potentially consequential week:
1. It's clear impeachment is shaping up to be a partisan affair
The two sides are pretty dug in. Nothing that got said in the public hearings seemed to move anyone. In fact, one of the more surprising developments might have been the stridency of New York Rep. Elise Stefanik's defense in support of Trump.
"[N]othing in that room today, and nothing in that room earlier this week, nothing rises to the level of impeachable offenses," Stefanik contended after Yovanovitch's hearing Friday, dismissing a question about the president's tweet criticizing Yovanovitch. "This is wishful political thinking by the Democrats."
Stefanik and Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, a member of the archconservative Freedom Caucus, emerged as the president's staunchest and clearest defenders during the two days of testimony. What made Stefanik's role so eye-opening is that Stefanik has frequently criticized Trump as a candidate and as president.
2. The president continues to be his own worst enemy
Nothing sums up Trump's volatility more than the hour between 9 a.m. ET and 10 a.m. ET Friday. A little after 9 a.m. ET, just as Friday's hearing was beginning, the White House released a record of an anodyne April call between Trump and President Volodymyr Zelenskiy of Ukraine.
Intelligence Committee ranking member Devin Nunes read it into the record live on TV, and it appeared that the White House and House Republicans had finally gotten on the same messaging page. That is until an hour later, when Trump fired off a tweet hotly critical of Yovanovitch as she was testifying.
Trump claimed "everywhere" she went "turned bad." He even seemed to blame her for unrest in Somalia, a country she served in as a junior Foreign Service Officer that has a long history of political problems, violence and terrorism.
Some conservatives criticized Trump for it. Ken Starr, the independent counsel whose investigation led to President Bill Clinton's impeachment, said on Fox News that Trump's tweet showed "extraordinarily poor judgment" and was "quite injurious."
Trump later defended himself, saying he has "freedom of speech."
Yovanovitch, responding in almost real time, said the president's attacks were "very intimidating." House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff chalked it up to "witness intimidation," something he said he takes "very, very seriously."
3. "Witness intimidation" and "bribery" emerge as potential articles of impeachment
The president's tweet gives Democrats another arrow in their impeachment quiver. They very well could add witness intimidation or witness tampering to their growing list of potential articles of impeachment.
Another word that emerged this week was "bribery."
"What the President has admitted to and says it's 'perfect,' I've said it's perfectly wrong. It's bribery," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said during her weekly news conference. She was referring to the president saying his now-infamous July 25 call with Zelenskiy was "perfect."
During that call, Trump asks Zelenskiy for a "favor" to investigate a conspiracy theory about Ukraine's involvement in the 2016 election and former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter, who served on the board of a Ukrainian energy company, Burisma.
"Bribery" is important as a word, because it happens to be in the Constitution when referring to reasons a president could be removed from office.
4. A new witness says Trump didn't give a "s***" about Ukraine, only about "big stuff" like the "Biden investigation"
Republicans dismissed the witnesses brought forward as not having firsthand knowledge of presidential wrongdoing and that their testimonies were solely "hearsay." That's not exactly true — Taylor, for example, noted that he witnessed Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland telling a Ukrainian aide to Zelenskiy that military funding was unlikely to come unless the country made a public statement in support of investigations important to Trump.
But a new witness, David Holmes, a political counselor in the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, emerged in Taylor's testimony. Holmes testified behind closed doors Friday. CNN obtained a copy of his opening statement, which NPR has confirmed.
The statement says Holmes heard Trump ask Sondland in a phone call at a Ukrainian restaurant, "So, he's [Zelenskiy] going to do the investigation?"
Sondland reportedly replied, yes, Zelenskiy will do "anything you ask him to."
Holmes also reportedly testified that Sondland said Trump didn't give a "s***" about Ukraine. He only cares about the "big stuff." And the big stuff, according to Sondland, is what "benefits the president" — like the "Biden investigation that Mr. Giuliani was pushing."
5. These were very credible witnesses
It's not uncommon in political brawls for someone's character to be impugned. But that was tough to do with the three witnesses who came forward this week.
They came across as dedicated and serious public servants with deep wells of experience — two U.S. ambassadors to Ukraine, one of whom is a decorated Vietnam veteran and West Point graduate, and a top State Department official with oversight over the country, who, for the past seven years, has overseen efforts to fight corruption in a multipronged way.
Republicans didn't try to attack their character. Instead, they focused on the relevance of the witnesses, given they didn't talk to or know the president. But the inability to dent their character gave the witnesses more credibility.
6. Democrats and Republicans will feel that they accomplished their goals
Democrats can say that the Democratic lawmakers on the committee and the witnesses came across as sober and serious. The witnesses corroborated each other and the whistleblower complaint and showed they had reason for concern about what the official U.S. foreign policy was toward Ukraine. And the witnesses testimony raised serious questions about the president's conduct.
Republicans were able to give their base points to rally around. They were able to sow some doubt about how much the witnesses knew first hand about Trump's role. The GOP effort also tried to show that Trump might have reason to be skeptical of Ukrainians after some Ukrainian officials said negative things about him during the 2016 campaign and that corruption has been rampant in Ukraine, including, and perhaps especially, at Burisma. And Republicans repeatedly hammered home the point that a president can fire an ambassador at will.
7. This is "the beginning of the story"
This was just the first week of public hearings. Schiff stressed there is lots more to come.
"You are the beginning of this story," Schiff said toward the end of Yovanovitch's testimony. "You're not the end of it, but, nonetheless, the beginning is important, because the beginning of the story is an effort to get you out of the way ... because they felt you were an impediment to these political investigations the president so desperately wanted."
And next week, eight more key officials are scheduled to testify publicly. On Tuesday, it will be Jennifer Williams, an aide to Vice President Pence; Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman; U.S. special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker; and former National Security Council official Tim Morrison. (Republicans requested that Volker and Morrison testify.)
On Wednesday, it's Sondland and then Laura Cooper, a Defense Department official, and David Hale, the undersecretary of state for political affairs. And on Thursday, Fiona Hill, a former NSC official close to former national security adviser John Bolton, will appear before the committee.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.