November 13, 2019

So I was right that today's public impeachment hearings would be performance art... and I was wrong that there would be nothing new in them.

Today the House Intelligence Committee overseeing the impeachment hearings heard testimony from diplomat George Kent and former Ambassador William Taylor, both of whom testified under compulsion by subpoena (that's going to matter in a minute). The two men recounted the history of how Trump, his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, and various others intervened to change established, bipartisan, policy in Ukraine in order to pressure incoming Ukraine President Zelensky to announce to the media he was opening an investigation into the company on whose board Joe Biden's son had accepted a well-paying position. Kent is a key diplomat in charge of Ukrainian affairs, and Taylor is a decorated Army veteran and longtime diplomat, initially appointed as Ambassador to Ukraine by Republican George W. Bush. Their testimony was calm, measured, and stuck closely to what they themselves had heard and seen, refusing to speculate when congressmen asked them to. To me, they sounded not just credible, but... well, sort of boringly factual. Trustworthy. And deeply concerned about American national security and the rule of law. They repeated, again and again, that what they saw was not normal, and not okay and. that it showed the president pressuring a foreign country to help him get reelected.

Here's the performance art piece: The questioning by Republican top lawyer Steven Cantor was actual questioning, and it did not give the Republicans the answers they wanted. But the political questioning, led by Ohio's Jim Jordan, whom Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (who took Russian money from Fruman and Parnas*) put onto the committee to make a scene, was simply grandstanding and attacking Kent and Taylor. Rather than trying to defend the president, Republican congresspeople used their time to make sweeping attacks on the Democrats, on the process, and on the witnesses instead of asking questions. After outlining some outrageous statement, they would demand a yes or no question from the witnesses, trying to badger them into a misleading sound bite, and would cut them off if they tried to give a real answer. Ratcliffe yelling "YES OR NO!" at Taylor's calm, measured answers didn't play well. Republicans, especially Devin Nunes (CA) also repeatedly asked the witnesses to confirm conspiracy theories that have been widely dismissed.

They reminded me of nothing so much as Senator Joe McCarthy (before my time, but I have watched the films) bullying and badgering witnesses in the 1950s in his manufactured hunt for communists in government. Jordan and Texas's John Ratcliffe treated the witnesses with hostility and disdain, which I found especially irritating since the men are longtime respected public servants and had been subpoenaed: by law they had to be there, and were compelled to put up with the congressmen bullying them. It was an unfair power imbalance imposed by law, and the Republican questioners seemed to be happy to take advantage of their artificial upper hand. It seemed clear that they were not trying to figure out what happened, they were trying to provide sound bites, and were playing to their base, or at least to the base of one: Donald Trump, who wants impassioned defenders.

To my mind, the Republicans yelling and bullying did not look good, and stood in contrast to the Democrats, who largely came across well. Led by Adam Schiff, the chair of the Intelligence Committee, a man with a reputation for being measured and careful, the Democrats spoke slowly and clearly, and let the witnesses speak at length. That permitted Kent and Taylor to tell their stories, and they were compelling.

So on the optics front, I thought the Democrats handled the day well and the Republicans did not (so, by the way, did Fox's Chris Wallace, which is a pretty good indicator that I'm not out on a limb). This matters because, no matter how hard the Republicans on the committee are trying to spin this as a partisan fight, what the witnesses kept saying is that this is about the rule of law and the idea that we must not permit presidents to strong arm foreign countries into interfering in our elections. What did well today is the rule of law that underpins our democracy.

If that's the optics, though, I was wrong to expect nothing new today. Taylor's opening statement did indeed contain a bombshell. He said that after testifying before the committee in October, he learned that a member of his staff had been with Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, one of the key figures in the backdoor Ukraine team pressuring Zelensky, on July 26. This was the day after the infamous phone call between Trump and Zelensky, and after Sondland had met with Zelensky's advisor Andrey Yermak. They were in a restaurant, and Sondland called Trump (on an unsecured phone, from a restaurant, in Ukraine where Russian intelligence taps everything!). The staffer could hear the conversation, and heard Trump ask about "the investigations." After the call ended, the staffer asked Sondland what Trump thought about Ukraine, and Sondland answered, He cares more about the Bidens. (I am deliberately not putting that in quotation marks because I have seen it also as, He cares more about Biden.)

This story ties the president directly to the exchange of an announced investigation for previously approved military aid. It was a big talking point today for Republicans that there were no firsthand witnesses to the events in question, (a complaint that irritates me since, of course, Schiff has subpoenaed all the people with firsthand knowledge and they are ignoring the subpoenas). But now there appears to be a direct witness. His name has been released as David Holmes, and he will testify behind closed doors on Friday.

This phone call between Sondland and Trump highlights the difference between official Ukraine policy, endorsed by both parties as key to our national security, and the backdoor negotiations over the investigation announcement to hurt Biden. Sondland and Trump discussed this issue on a freakin' cell phone in a restaurant in a country riddled with Russian intelligence. Experts say it is virtually certain Russia was listening in to the call, and could see American support for Ukraine weakening, something that would dramatically strengthen its hand in the ongoing hot war between the two countries. Our national security, of course, depends on withstanding Russian aggression (which is why Ukraine matters so much). That such amateurs are toying with our national security is appalling.

In other news, today, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg has been hospitalized. She is 86 and has had cancer. If, God forbid, something happens to her, Trump will have the opportunity to appoint a third Supreme Court Justice.

I think that's about it for today. And that's enough, for sure, isn't it?


*SO not going to let this go.