Some thoughts about the first impeachment hearing


The first public impeachment hearing on Wednesday went exactly as I predicted it would. Democrats approached the proceedings with a high degree of sobriety and seriousness. Republicans engaged in disruption, distraction, and disinformation in an effort to undermine the credibility of the proceedings. They only served to undermine their own credibility.

The State Department experts on Ukraine, who are fact witnesses, laid out a concise statement of the facts of why they were “concerned” about President Trump extorting the president of Ukraine to open an investigation into unfounded conspiracy theories about Ukraine interference in the 2016 election, and unfounded conspiracy theories about Joe Biden, in exchange for (quid pro quo) a White House visit and the release of security assistance approved by Congress but delayed by the White House to exert leverage over Ukraine to get the investigations that Trump wanted.

Ambassador William Taylor, in particular, provided a detailed chronology of the events and explanation for his concerns. In his opening statement Taylor told members of Congress that President Donald Trump directed officials to tie foreign aid to his demands that Ukraine open an investigation into the Biden family and the 2016 election.

Ambassador Taylor added one “bombshell” detail not previously discussed in his earlier deposition, because he only recently learned of it. Impeachment hearings begin with new evidence of phone call implicating Trump in Ukraine controversy:

The call, overheard by one of Taylor’s aides, puts the president more squarely in the middle of the swirling Ukraine scandal … “The member of my staff could hear President Trump on the phone, asking Ambassador Sondland about ‘the investigations,’ ” Taylor told lawmakers, adding that he understood that they were following up on the matter a day after Trump spoke with Ukraine’s new leader, Volodymyr Zelensky. “Ambassador Sondland told President Trump that the Ukrainians were ready to move forward.” Taylor said that at the conclusion of the call, his aide asked Sondland what Trump thought of Ukraine and Sondland responded that “President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden.”

David Holmes, the Counselor for Political Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, and the aide referred to by Ambassador William Taylor, is expected to testify in a closed session deposition on Friday.

UPDATE: The AP reports, Second US official in Kyiv heard Trump call: The second diplomatic staffer also at the table was Suriya Jayanti, a foreign service officer based in Kyiv. Jayanti was in Washington last month and scheduled for a closed-door interview with impeachment investigators. But the deposition was canceled because of the funeral for former House Oversight Chair Elijah Cummings and has not yet been rescheduled.

This blows up one of the Republican defenses that this was a “rogue operation” by Rudy Giuliani, Gordon Sondland, and possibly Mick Mulvaney. Republicans Want to Throw Giuliani and Sondland Under the Bus. Their Plan Is Ridiculous. Taylor draws a direct line to President Trump as the director of this scheme.

And by the way, Ambassador Sondland’s cellphone call to Trump from Kyiv restaurant was a stunning breach of security exposing the conversation to surveillance by foreign intelligence services, including Russia’s, former U.S. officials said. (It is almost a certainty that U.S. intelligence surveillance also intercepts all cell phone calls in Ukraine.)

“The security ramifications are insane — using an open cellphone to communicate with the president of the United States,” said Larry Pfeiffer, a former senior director of the White House Situation Room and a former chief of staff to the CIA director. “In a country that is so wired with Russian intelligence, you can almost take it to the bank that the Russians were listening in on the call.”

[It] is also noteworthy in that ambassadors typically don’t just pick up the phone and call presidents. “They never do so to discuss Ukraine policy,” former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul said in a tweet. “Doing so on a cellphone from Kyiv means [the] whole world was listening in.”

Calling a president from a cellphone violates protocols set up to protect senior administration officials’ communications.

“Trump has been known to give his personal cellphone number to world leaders, despite aides’ warnings that his cellphone calls are not secure. Russia and China in particular have targeted his personal cellphone calls, the New York Times reported.”

Then there were the Republicans, who did not controvert any of the facts testified to by the witnesses or offer any exculpatory evidence. The best Republicans could do is suggest that the witnesses may be “mistaken” because they heard it from others and not the president himself. “Gym” Jordan hysterically yelled “It’s hearsay!

As Ambassador Taylor responded, he is not “mistaken” about what he knows and what others told him. If Republicans want to cross-examine what others told the witnesses, then call them as witnesses (Ambassador Sondland will be testifying next week).

The House Intelligence Committee wants to hear from these other persons, but the White House has instructed them not to cooperate with the impeachment proceedings, and has instructed the State Department and Justice Department to not produce any documents to the committee (this is obstruction of Congress).

Rep. “Gym” Jordan no doubt thought he was being oh-so-clever. But his complaints about hearsay only strengthened the committee’s position for enforcement of its subpoenas for the documents and for first-person fact witnesses, i.e., Mike Pompeo, Mick Mulvaney, John Bolton, Rudy Giulliani, etc., as necessary to its impeachment investigation. You made the case for the Democrats! Republican complaints about hearsay ring hollow when the White House is actively engaged in obstruction of justice.

And by the way “Gym,” hearsay evidence is admissible and is frequently the best evidence. It’s almost as if Republicans have never heard of the Rules of Evidence, Rule 803. Exceptions to the Rule Against Hearsay. Oh, they know it alright, but Trump apologists just want to confuse and mislead a gullible public who do not know the intricacies of the law.

And then there was Rep. Devin Midnight Run Nunes, a co-conspirator and accessory to Donald Trump’s obstruction of Congress and obstruction of justice. After chairman Adam Schiff finished his opening remarks, it was Nunes’ turn. Holy shit!

Out of his mouth spewed every debunked conspiracy theory from QAnon, Infowars, Sean Hannity and Trump TV. For the uninitiated in right-wing conspiracy theories, Nunes’s claims require some explanation. Devin Nunes’s opening statement at the public impeachment hearing, annotated.

By the way, Thomas P. Bossert, President Trump’s first homeland security adviser, Repeatedly Warned Trump That The Ukraine Conspiracy Theory Was ‘Completely Debunked’ long before the president pressed Ukraine this summer to investigate his Democratic rivals. Bossert told the president there was no basis to the conspiracy theory that Ukraine, not Russia, intervened in the 2016 election and did so on behalf of the Democrats. And yet, this fool persisted.

Nunes’s theory appears to be that because he and Donald Trump “genuinely believe” these debunked conspiracy theories, that it was “reasonable” for Trump to ask President Zelensky to investigate these conspiracy theories. Only the diseased minds mired in the muck of the fever swamps of right-wing conspiracy theories would believe this a “defense.” It’s not a defense recognized at law.

George Kent, the State Department’s foremost expert on Ukraine, testifying alongside Ambassador William Taylor, helped Democrats debunk the GOP conspiracy theories:

Kent emerged as a forceful debunker of some of the most frequently cited assertions and conspiracy theories among President Trump’s allies.

Under questioning from Democrats, Kent said there was “no factual basis” of allegations that Ukraine intervened in the 2016 election, something that Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate when he brought up the computer security company CrowdStrike in the leaders’ July 25 phone call.

“I think it’s amply clear that Russian interference was at the heart of the interference in the 2016 election cycle,” Kent said, echoing the assessment of every U.S. intelligence agency, and every Trump-appointed head of those agencies.

Kent also dispelled some lesser-known theories and talking points taken up by Trump’s defenders.

For instance, Democrats asked him to comment on the claim by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) that Trump’s threat to withhold aid to Ukraine was “exactly” the same tactic used by then-Vice President Biden when he threatened to withhold aid if Ukrainian prosecutor general Viktor Shokin wasn’t fired.

“I do not think they are the same thing,” Kent said. What Biden requested, Kent said, was the removal of “a corrupt prosecutor general . . . who had undermined a system of criminal investigation that we built with American money to build corruption cases.” Shokin, Kent said, had “destroyed the entire ecosystem that we were trying to create,” and he credited Biden for leading a U.S. effort to combat corruption in Ukraine.

Democrats also questioned Kent about the campaign waged by Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, to oust the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch. Giuliani and Ukraine’s ex-chief prosecutor, Yuri Lutsenko, have accused Yovanovitch of providing a “do not prosecute list” to Ukrainian officials to protect Biden and others.

Kent adamantly rejected those allegations, saying, “I have every reason to believe it is not true.” He described Lutsenko as a “corrupt” prosecutor with questionable motives and defended Yovanovitch as “dedicated, as is every U.S. government official in Ukraine, to help Ukrainians overcome the legacy of corruption.”

And Kent testified, “I did not witness any efforts by any U.S. official to shield Burisma from scrutiny. In fact, I and other U.S. officials consistently advocated reinstituting a scuttled investigation of [Mykola] Zlochevsky, Burisma’s founder, as well as holding the corrupt prosecutors who closed the case to account.”

Take that, swamp creatures!

As Aaron Blake of The Post says, GOP begins impeachment hearings by grasping at a series of illogical straws, and his colleague Greg Sargent says At hearing, Republicans carry forward Trump’s effort to make lies into truths:

Again and again, one Republican after another used up their time returning to a suite of discredited conspiracy theories about supposed Ukrainian-Democratic collusion in 2016 and floating claims about the Bidens that have been completely debunked.

This created an amusing disconnect that in one sense actually served to undercut the defense of Trump — at least, in the real world outside the Fox News bubble in which those conspiracy theories and lies are taken as gospel truths.

* * *

One reason Republicans kept returning to those examples, of course, is because they are supposed to exonerate Trump. The argument is supposed to be that pressuring Zelensky to investigate those things was justified, because they constitute actual examples of Ukrainian corruption that Trump was concerned about.

In reality, these things don’t justify what Trump did, since both are inventions. But beyond this, the very fact that Republicans kept stressing them itself actually bolsters the case against Trump.

That’s because these performances, which were intended to please the Audience of One, illustrate once again that the only examples of “corruption” Trump truly cared about were the very ones Trump and his henchmen invented for the express purpose of carrying out his twin political goals — absolving Russia of sabotaging 2016 on his behalf and smearing Joe Biden going into 2020.

And it’s precisely because Trump still remains as adamant as ever about carrying out those goals that Republicans kept returning to those things during the hearing. They were simply carrying forward that project.

The Party of Trump has been reduced to propagandists peddling conspiracy theories and lies. It is a political party entirely unfit to govern. They all need to go.

The Post’s fact checker Glenn Kessler breaks down the lies in two reports, Fact-checking the opening day of the Trump impeachment hearings, and A quick guide to Trump’s false claims about Ukraine and the Bidens.