Democrats survive Day One of impeachment slog
“I think if the American public was listening — and I guarantee you they were — the Republicans were grasping at straws,” said Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, which spearheaded Wednesday’s hearing. “The arguments that they made were process or procedural. They brought up President [Barack] Obama. Not once did they really deal with the evidence, the substance of the case in front of us today.”
While Trump and the Republicans dismissed the long session in the ice-cold Longworth House Office Building as “boring TV” — the ultimate insult to the president — Democrats believed they had led a somber, serious hearing on why Trump should be removed from office.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she was busy most of Wednesday, but praised House Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff and other Democrats on the panel for their efforts.
“You know what? I’ve been working all day,” Pelosi said in a brief hallway interview. ” But I’m very proud of our Democrats. And I think what has come forth has given us further truth of what happened at the time.”
That it had gone largely to script was perhaps the Democrats’ biggest accomplishment, especially for a caucus still shell-shocked by the anti-climatic end to Mueller’s investigation this summer.
“In boredom, there can be great significance,” Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), who sat in for about half the hearing on Wednesday, said in response to the GOP critiques. “This is of great consequence and gravity. I wouldn’t assign the word ‘exciting’ to it, of course not. But we have a responsibility to pay attention.”
Gone were the shouting matches with combative witnesses, blatant defiance by administration officials and GOP procedural gambits that largely defined Democrats’ efforts to spotlight Mueller’s probe earlier this year.
Most lawmakers and aides across the Democratic Caucus agreed Schiff and his staff achieved nearly everything they wanted in the first day of impeachment hearings under the highest possible stakes. They still, however, face another four days of hearings and nine witnesses.
Democrats secured key sound bites that many believe will tick up support for impeaching Trump in the coming weeks. The two witnesses — acting U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor and senior State Department official George Kent — offered highly detailed accounts of Trump’s attempts to strong-arm Ukraine to damage his own political rival.
And Taylor revealed damaging new evidence against Trump’s involvement — describing how he recently learned his staffer overheard Trump on the phone talking about investigations he wanted, underscoring the president’s intense interest in persuading Ukraine to help damage Biden’s campaign.
Meanwhile, Democrats argue the GOP’s counterattack largely failed to stick, with Republicans, at times, appearing to lack a strategy other than to pick apart the two diplomats’ account and float long-debunked conspiracy theories.
“I thought their testimony was very powerful. Obviously these are two very powerful witnesses who speak from the heart,” Schiff told a swarm of reporters after the hearing.
“We will hear other witnesses who will contribute, I think, much of what you hear today,” Schiff added. “But we don’t expect the facts to really be contested. There wasn’t much of an effort today by Republicans to contest these facts.”
Republicans, however, also felt like they walked away with a clip that Trump and his allies can tout: Both witnesses acknowledged that they never spoke directly to Trump or his acting chief of staff about the Ukraine pressure campaign.
Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, called the hearing “an abject failure” by Democrats and said she was “proud” of her Republican colleagues on the panel.
“I don’t think the Democrats gained anything today,” insisted House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California. “I didn’t get to watch it all. I watched the opening [statements], I watched the interaction there … There was nothing there.”Republicans had done a walk-thru of the hearing on Tuesday, and they carefully scripted how they would go after Taylor and Kent, going so far as identifying who would offer motions and parliamentary inquiries.
But GOP lawmakers hoping for another Mueller flop may find themselves disappointed.
At least three Democratic chairmen who have spent months investigating Trump — including House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (N.Y.), Judiciary Committee Chair Jerry Nadler (N.Y.) and acting House Oversight Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney (N.Y.) — attended at least part of the hearing.
And about a dozen rank-and-file Democrats — many who sat on one or more of those committees — also sat in for some of the hearing. Those members included Reps. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), Madeleine Dean (D-Pa.) and Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas).
But on a busy day of markups and hearings, many Democratic members could do little more than sneak a glimpse of the hearings on CNN or MSNBC, or scan Twitter — largely relying on readouts from staff, as is common for lengthy congressional hearings.
Rep. Elissa Slotkin, a freshman who is part of a key group of centrist Democrats with national security backgrounds, cautioned that Wednesday’s testimony is just one part of the bigger impeachment picture.
“The most important thing to me is not the minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour, tweet-by-tweet conversation on this,” the Michigan lawmaker said. “My constituents expect me to take an objective, stand-back approach that isn’t determined by one hour of testimony.”
There also were lingering concerns that Democrats didn’t present a unified front when it came time for individual members to question the witnesses.
At times, some Democrats on the panel appeared to be going in different directions. Rep. André Carson (D-Ind.) brought up the smear campaign against ousted former Ukraine Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, for example, and Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Ala.) talked about the shadow foreign policy by Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer.
But overall, most worked in concert to build the case over Trump’s alleged abuse of power. And even if Taylor and Kent sometimes offered overly wordy and cautious responses to Democratic questions, the two were largely seen as effective witnesses.
Republicans, meanwhile, had to wait four hours into the hearing to get the clip they were looking for: Taylor saying he never heard directly from Trump that there was a quid pro quo.
The exchange came under questioning from Rep. Jim Jordan. The Ohio representative is one of Trump’s best defenders on Capitol Hill, who was moved to the House Intelligence Committee just for the hearings.
“You’ve never talked with chief of staff Mulvaney?” asked Jordan.
“I never did,” Taylor responded.
“You’ve never met the president?” Jordan continued.
“That’s correct,” he responded.
Jordan shot back: “And you’re their star witness.”
The exchange reflects a key pillar of the GOP defense strategy: undermine the witnesses and paint their testimony as nothing more than hearsay and assumptions. When it comes to defending Trump on substance, Republicans feel like that is their best — and perhaps only — card to play.
But even that strategy carries risks: Taylor said he heard from Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, that the president wanted military aid conditioned upon investigations into his political rivals — and the House Intelligence Committee is scheduled to hear directly from Sondland on Wednesday. And the Trump administration is blocking any of the witnesses with firsthand knowledge who could shed light on Taylor’s testimony.
Still, Republicans uniformly praised Jordan and other lines of questioning as effective, while party groups were quick to blast out memes mocking the witnesses for their second-hand accounts.
While Democrats were bracing for Republicans to whip out some procedural stunts, they held off on using any procedural tactics, besides forcing an unsuccessful vote on a subpoena for the whistleblower.
At the end of the hearing, Schiff even thanked Republicans for civility, noting they participated “in a serious way.”