If the point of Wednesday's public testimony opening impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump were meant to show off credible accounts from straight-laced, super-patriotic, service-oriented diplomats, they were bulls-eyes.
If the point of Republican questionings was to make a mockery of the proceedings, they may have boomeranged—the Republicans are the ones who come across as partisan nitpickers intentionally trying to misdirect the point, underlying meaning and urgency of these proceedings.
If the overall tone, as Democratic leaders insist, was supposed to reflect somber, serious, sober consideration, well, they did that and more. Indeed, they made it downright scary to learn that Donald Trump and his team are running around in ways that show little respect for other nations, no understanding of diplomacy and no ability to actually handle appropriate communications within his team.
The testimony popped with moments such as when seasoned diplomat Bill Taylor learning almost by happenstance that Trump, Ambassador to the E.U. Gordon Sondland and personal attorney Rudy Giuliani were holding up military aid for public commitments to seek political dirt on political foe Joe Biden. The testimony reflected that Taylor, the official liaison to Ukraine, was finding out about the entire Team Trump lobbying of Ukrainians and the multiple details from repeated legations almost by accident.
It made any citizen watching the proceedings wonder why Trump shouldn’t be removed from office because he is incompetent even apart from abuse of office.
A New Phone Call
An hour in, we learned of a new phone call between Trump and Sondland, loud enough on a cell phone for a diplomatic aide to overhear, in which the president personally expressed interest only in an arrangement to get Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to go public with a promise to investigate the Bidens. After the call, the aide asked Sondland what the president thought of Ukraine. The ambassador “responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden, which Giuliani was pressing for.”
What? Sondland, whose ambassadorship does not even include Ukraine, can call the president directly, on an open cell phone, in a restaurant in Kyiv, where the Russians are listening in? Is this how these people operate?
The message was clear and chilling: Whatever else comes out of these hearings, Trump should not be the president of the United States because he doesn’t understand what the job is. Further, it shows that Republicans are so fixated on protecting Trump that they cannot see the forest for the procedural trees.
In addition, there were loads of underlying questions, including why Trump would pursue—and his enablers help achieve—political advantage for himself from a nation at war, but also a policy that would help fan Russian aggression against a European ally.
See Nothing Republican Defense
By contrast with the prim dryness of Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), Ranking Member Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) offered us a sarcastic, flailing and politically partisan rebuttal that led me, as a listener here, to conclude that he, speaking for other Republicans, simply doesn’t want to hear that Trump abused his office.
Instead, we got the sideshow of trying to call the original whistleblower, whose report had gone to Congress via the intelligence community’s Inspector General Michael Atkinson after having been held up by the White House. Whatever you think of the “fairness” of the committee impeachment inquiry, it seems fairly obvious that unveiling the name of the whistleblower at this point, when we have actual fact witnesses before us, is useless as a practical matter. Calling the whistleblower is a deflection.
Nunes and Republicans are correct about one thing: This impeachment process is another in a series of investigations and threats of impeachment by Democrats frustrated by Republican opposition. But what Nunes did not acknowledge is that the series of investigations is directly related to the continuing series of words and deeds by Trump himself.
Trump Brought It On Himself
Let’s be clear that whatever is pursued against Trump is because Trump conducts himself in ways that try to put himself beyond Constitutional review, oversight or law.
The questions from Republicans were odd to my ear, working hard to establish that these two witnesses should have known that Trump had longstanding concerns about Ukraine and political concerns from 2016, based mostly on what the rest of the world has come to see as conspiracy theories or on events years before any of the current players were in office in either country. Rather than attack the credibility of these witnesses, the questions then were aimed at legitimizing Trump's concerns about Ukraine.
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), the designated bulldog, scored a couple of points in questioning the details of when Taylor learned the bulk of his details, but they were details and they were, well, confusing, which may have been the point.
Meanwhile, Republican committee members festooned the hearing room with signs meant to draw attention to unfair Democratic handling of the hearings and general process to this point.
From a concentrated start, the hearings diffused and attention among viewers I talked with dissipated.
The hearing accomplished two things: It re-established that seeing the witnesses publicly can be a powerful persuasion, more than some kind of show. And it makes it obvious that Republicans on the committee, in the House, and especially in the Senate, are sticking their heads in the sand to avoid looking at the mess right in front of them.