Impeachment scorecard: A House, and nation, still divided
The first phase of the Democratic-led House impeachment inquiry has produced a vivid and fact-studded picture of an American government and diplomatic corps struggling to deal with the whims of a mercurial president while trying to prevent policy toward Ukraine, an ally at war with Russia, from being shoved completely off the rails.
Hours of testimony have indicated that President Donald Trump, at the least, was willing to withhold things Ukrainian leaders wanted until they announced investigations that touched on his political opponents and a discredited theory about Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
This has pushed many Democrats in the House ever closer to voting for President Trump’s impeachment. Such a vote, if not the outcome, now seems foreordained.
Hours of testimony also left holes in the picture. No witness linked the president directly to the most serious impeachment charge: that he withheld much-desired and congressionally authorized military aid, specifically, over a new Ukrainian president’s reluctance to announce politically tinged probes.
Two weeks of public hearings did not move the vote of a single House Republican, it appears. All seem set to say “no” in an impeachment roll call.
The result is a nation where it was before, with Congress split along partisan lines that roughly mirror popular opinion about impeachment, close to a 50-50 cleavage if polls are an accurate guide.
In the last scheduled House Intelligence Committee public hearing, in her opening statement, former White House Russia adviser Fiona Hill eloquently pleaded for Americans to disregard the “fictions” about Ukraine promoted by U.S. adversaries, to focus on the true dangers that face them, and to realize that one of those is anger itself.
“When we are consumed by partisan rancor, we cannot combat these external forces as they seek to divide us against each another, degrade our institutions, and destroy the faith of the American people in our democracy,” Dr. Hill said.
In retrospect, the two weeks of House Intelligence Committee public hearings attempted to present a coherent story about a complicated situation: irregularities in the conduct of American foreign relations with a nation still struggling with the effects of decades of domination as a part of the Soviet Union.
Opening witnesses – the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, William Taylor, and George Kent, the State Department’s top Ukraine official – described their arc of frustration, a growing realization over the summer that a Ukraine foreign-policy back channel centered on Rudy Giuliani, Mr. Trump’s personal attorney, was superseding their own traditional diplomatic efforts.
They were followed by a witness who spoke in personal terms about the power and effects of this back channel effort. Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, described how a “smear campaign” directed by Mr. Giuliani and others convinced President Trump to oust her early from her position.
Then, National Security Council Ukraine expert Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman connected the back channel to the White House. He listened to the now-famous July 25 phone call between Mr. Trump and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, and said publicly that he “did not think it was proper” for the U.S. president to demand that Ukraine investigate an American citizen.
Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, connected the dots and brought the back channel into the Oval Office.
There was a “quid pro quo,” Ambassador Sondland said – it was clear that Ukraine had to announce it was looking at former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden, and the latter’s service on the board of Ukrainian gas company Burisma, if it wanted a prized White House visit for Mr. Zelenskiy.
Mr. Sondland said he presumed this stood for the release of U.S. military aid to Ukraine as well – though he was careful to say he had never heard that from President Trump on any of the many phone calls they had shared.
Dr. Hill, the Russia and Europe expert, concluded by placing the whole affair in a larger context. She described how she had come to understand that in regard to Ukraine, she had been working on national security policy. Mr. Giuliani, Mr. Sondland, and others involved in the separate irregular channel had been “involved in a domestic political errand,” she said.
She also predicted how the affair would progress.
“And I did say to him, Ambassador Sondland, ‘Gordon, I think this is all going to blow up.’ And here we are,” said Dr. Hill, who resigned her White House post July 19.
The national interest
One striking aspect of the testimony as a whole was its unity on the question of Ukraine and core U.S. national interest.
All who testified, including Mr. Sondland and special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker, who had worked the back channel with Mr. Giuliani, made the case that the U.S. needs to give as much financial aid and moral support as possible to a new Ukrainian government struggling to eliminate corruption and uphold democracy in a very dangerous part of the world.
“It is a tragedy for the United States and for Ukraine that our efforts in this area, which were bearing fruit, have now been thrown into disarray,” testified Mr. Volker.
President Trump, in the testimony, comes across as the main and virtually sole person in the executive branch questioning the motives of President Zelenskiy, and Ukraine as a whole. He believes that they had tried to interfere in the 2016 election to defeat him, and that the country is corrupt to the bottom, according to testimony from Mr. Sondland. When officials presented a case in favor of Ukraine, the president waved his hand and said, impatiently, “Talk to Rudy,” Mr. Sondland said.
Another striking aspect of the hearing atmosphere was the extent to which Republican lawmakers defended President Trump by citing the allegations of Ukrainian interference in 2016.
They differed in this from the witnesses. Ranking minority member Devin Nunes of California, in his opening and closing statements, often invoked names that can be a mystery to those outside the conservative news bubble. Among them: Alexandra Chalupa, a Democratic National Committee consultant and former aide who in 2016 researched the activities of Paul Manafort, the now-jailed former Trump campaign chair, in Ukraine.
Dr. Hill pushed back, hard, against these allegations, saying that some have been pushed by Russian intelligence as a means of fomenting division between the U.S. and Ukraine, and within the U.S. It is not just that they are false, she said; it is that even on their face they add up to little compared with the massive interference effort undertaken by Russia itself.
“The impact of the successful 2016 Russian campaign remains evident today. Our nation is being torn apart,” Dr. Hill told the House Intelligence Committee.
What do these public hearings mean for the nation? For one thing, they mean that the House is plummeting toward an impeachment vote that’s likely to be decided along purely partisan lines. No lawmakers have said publicly that they have changed their minds on impeachment one way or another as a result of what they’ve heard over the last two weeks.
This became clear when one of President Trump’s few Republican critics on the Intelligence panel, Rep. Will Hurd of Texas, announced that he would vote against impeachment. While Mr. Trump’s actions may have “undermined our national security,” he said, there remains no direct evidence of his intentions. The military aid was released; Ukrainian investigations into his political rivals have not begun.
“An impeachable offense should be compelling, overwhelmingly clear, and unambiguous,” said Representative Hurd.
A partisan split in the House may make it more likely that the Senate votes the same way in the trial it will hold if impeachment passes. If the Democrats can’t get Representative Hurd, who is retiring and free to speak his mind and vote his conscience, can they get Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah? That is the punditry question of the day.
It’s long been unlikely the Senate would muster the supermajority vote needed to remove President Trump from office. Now that seems more of a lock. Will a few GOP senators defect, resulting in a majority vote for removal that could be embarrassing for the president? Pending further twists in the case, that may now be unlikely.
In these splits, the chambers of Congress reflect the nation. When the public impeachment hearings began, President Trump’s approval rating was 41%, and his disapproval rating was 54.7%, according to FiveThirtyEight’s average of major polls. Two and a half weeks later, his approval rating is 41.9%, and disapproval 53.6%, according to FiveThirtyEight.
In other words, while dramatic testimony has gripped Washington and developments have been breathlessly promoted as positive or negative for the president, public opinion, so far, has stayed very close to the same.