Impeachment hearings day one: Two perspectives
As public hearings get underway in the Democratic-led House impeachment inquiry one conclusion is inescapable: Republicans and Democrats are looking at the process through two very different frames of reference.
They cite different facts, and in some cases question whether the “facts” of the other side are facts at all. They focus on different aspects of U.S. engagement with Ukraine to illustrate different points. They come to very different conclusions about the nature and importance of President Donald Trump’s intentions in regards to a wide range of Ukrainian issues.
During the first break in Wednesday morning’s action, Rep. Mark Meadows, Republican from North Carolina, summed up this split-screen situation.
“I think what happens is, when we start to look at the facts, everybody has their impression of what truth is,” said Representative Meadows to a jostling scrum of reporters. “The ultimate judge will be the American people.”
Here is an attempt to summarize the positions of the two sides as revealed in the first day’s testimony, with some cross-cutting references where they intersect, and differ:
How Democrats see it
Democratic leaders of the impeachment process believe, according to Rep. Adam Schiff of California, Chairman of the Intelligence Committee, that the outline of the events they’re investigating is becoming quite clear.
“The facts in the present inquiry are not seriously contested,” Representative Schiff said in his opening statement.
Ranking committee Republican, Rep. Devin Nunes of California, did not so much dispute this as go off in a different direction, saying the “spectacle” before them was presented in bad faith by Democrats who had failed to topple a president with the Russia investigation of special counsel Robert Mueller.
As leverage, the Trump effort withheld military aid and a promised White House visit for Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy,
To Democrats, the facts say that President Trump, through his lawyer Rudy Giuliani, engaged in a lengthy pressure campaign to convince Ukraine to announce investigations into Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden, who served on the board of Burisma, a large Ukrainian energy corporation.
This effort culminated with, but was certainly not limited to, the now-famous July 25th phone call between Presidents Trump and Zelenskiy, according to the Democrats.
Monday’s 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 Mr. Giuliani was superseding their own traditional diplomatic efforts.
Ukrainian officials were confused and kept asking Mr. Taylor how to handle Mr. Giuliani’s inquiries. Ukraine is a struggling, developing democracy enmeshed in a bitter war in the Donbass region with Russia and Russian-backed separatists. Mr. Taylor and Mr. Kent both testified that it was in U.S. interests to bolster Ukraine against Russian aggression.
Mr. Taylor said on Wednesday that in a text message to the U.S. ambassador to the E.U., Gordon Sondland, “I wrote that withholding security assistance in exchange for help with a domestic political campaign in the United States would be ‘crazy.’ I believed that then, and I believe it now.”
Democrats believe that the biggest news to come out of Wednesday’s hearing was Mr. Taylor’s statement that an aide of his had overhead a phone call from President Trump to Mr. Sondland in which the president checked on “the investigations.”
After the call, Mr. Sondland told the aide the president cared more about investigating the Bidens than other Ukraine issues, Mr. Taylor said.
Democrats believe this could tie President Trump more closely to the Ukrainian decisions than almost any previous revelation. The aide is reportedly scheduled to appear in closed session with the Intelligence Committee later in the week.
Republicans have criticized Democrats for relying on testimony that insofar as the president’s intent is concerned, relies on second- and third-hand accounts. The White House has blocked higher-level cabinet members from testifying.
On Wednesday White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham responded to the latest news by repeating this charge.
“The latest ‘evidence is an anonymous staffer who told someone he overheard someone else taking to POTUS on the phone,” Ms. Grisham said in a statement. “All the ‘evidence’ in this case is second- and third-hand hearsay.”
How Republicans see it
To Republicans, the Democratic description of the alleged chain of events between the president and Ukraine, and its apparent outcome, are a strained effort to connect disparate dots.
“Democrats ... are trying to invent a narrative,” said Rep. Nunes in his opening statement.
GOP members had a number of points they asserted in questioning of witnesses. One was that the Ukraine affair is an attempt at revenge by frustrated members of the permanent bureaucracy. Another was, in essence, “no harm no foul” – that Ukrainian President Zelenskiy said following the July 25 call that he had not felt pressured by President Trump and that the phone call was positive.
Representative Meadows also insisted that the president is not interested in the Bidens and Ukraine as much as he is in the general bribery and corruption that has long occurred in a country famous for such activity.
“The president has a deep-rooted concern about corruption,” Representative Meadows said.
GOP House members also attempted to reframe the debate by focusing on allegations that Ukraine conspired to spy on the Trump campaign in 2016 and aid Hillary Clinton, and on the role Hunter Biden played in Burisma, and his father’s interactions to force a Ukrainian prosecutor out of office.
The spying allegations center on activities of Alexandra Chalupa, a Ukrainian American who worked for the Democratic National Committee for a few months in the summer of 2016. Drawing on a Politico article from 2017, the GOP alleges that Ms. Chalupa received help from the Ukrainian Embassy in the U.S. to investigate Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign manager now serving time in prison for financial crimes related to secret millions he received for consulting for Viktor Yanukovych, who served as Ukrainian president from 2010 until his ouster amidst populist uprisings in 2014.
According to Republicans, Ms. Chalupa passed this “dirt” to the Hillary Clinton campaign.
Ms. Chalupa herself has downplayed her efforts and former Clinton officials say they received no such information. In any case, Democrats say that these allegations pale next to the widespread, sophisticated Russian intervention in the U.S. presidential vote.
As for the Bidens, Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York elicited from Mr. Kent an acknowledgement that he was concerned about the appearance of a conflict of interest in regards to Hunter Biden’s Ukrainian business activities during the period when his father was vice president.
Representative Stefanik asked Mr. Kent whether, when Burisma attempted to sponsor an essay-writing contest with a U.S. government aid agency, he asked the agency to stop it, due to worries about the company.
“You didn’t think it was appropriate for the U.S. government to sponsor something with a bad reputation, correct?” Representative Stefanik asked.
“Yes,” Mr. Kent replied.
Democrats say no evidence has surfaced of either of the Bidens behaving improperly in Ukraine.
President Trump on Wednesday also insisted in blunt terms that the impeachment inquiry is a “scam” – similar rhetoric to the words he used against Mr. Mueller and his Russia probe. Just prior to the hearing’s opening, the White House released a short video in which the president stood in the Rose Garden and inveighed against Democrats, appealing to his staunchest supporters.
“The Democrats want to take away your guns, they want to take away your health care, they want to take away your vote, they want to take away your freedom, they want to take away your judges, they want to take away everything,” President Trump said. “We can never let this happen.”