Explainer

Now the Public Gets to Decide on Impeachment

Key witnesses will begin testifying before Congress in public for the first time this week. And for both sides, credibility is on the line.

U.S. President Donald Trump addresses a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Feb. 28, 2017.
U.S. President Donald Trump addresses a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Feb. 28, 2017. Jim Lo Scalzo/Pool/Getty Images

The impeachment investigation into U.S. President Donald Trump is set to enter a dramatic new phase as public hearings get underway featuring senior diplomats who will be questioned in detail about alleged efforts by Trump and his lawyer Rudy Giuliani to alter U.S. policy toward Ukraine for political gain.

On Wednesday, William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, and George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, are set to testify before House lawmakers for a second time, although this time their remarks will be beamed to television sets across the country. In their earlier closed-door testimony, Taylor and Kent reportedly corroborated the account of a White House whistleblower who contended that the president was making U.S. policy toward Ukraine contingent on a demand that Kyiv investigate Trump’s potential political rival in the 2020 U.S. presidential election, former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, as well as his son Hunter Biden, over the latter’s involvement in a Ukrainian energy company called Burisma.

Here’s a quick guide to the hearings, which look set to become a watershed in the Trump presidency. 


Why the public hearings?

At the end of October, House lawmakers voted sharply along party lines to lay down ground rules for the rapidly escalating impeachment process that paved the way for the inquiry to move out into the spotlight. 

Public support for impeachment hangs on a razor’s edge with 49 percent supporting impeachment, according to FiveThirtyEight’s impeachment tracker. Democrats are looking to shift the needle on that as they put their evidence to the public by releasing transcripts of testimony given behind closed doors and moving to question those same witnesses live on television. The public hearings will “be an opportunity for the American people to evaluate the witnesses for themselves,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. The move to go public has also been seen as a bid to diffuse a key Republican line of attack, which sought to portray the process as being overly secret and unfair to the president. 


Viewer beware

A witness wish list released on Saturday by Devin Nunes, the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, suggests that Republicans are looking to lean into the conspiracy theories pushed by Giuliani and other allies of the president regarding Joe Biden’s record in Ukraine. While Democrats have focused on whether the Trump team committed an impeachable offense by trying to pressure Ukraine into helping Trump’s electoral chances, Nunes has asked Hunter Biden to appear before the committee, as well as Alexandra Chalupa, a former Democratic National Committee (DNC) contractor, among others. The Republicans will seek to bear out Trump’s claim that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that sought to interfere in the 2016 election at the behest of the DNC, even though this claim has already been debunked by the U.S. intelligence community. It’s not yet clear which, if any, of the witnesses requested by Republicans will be approved by the Democrat-controlled committee. The House resolution passed on Oct. 31 allows for Republicans to call their own witnesses, but their requests must be approved by Democratic lawmakers.

As lawmakers pose their questions, beware false equivalencies and distorted narratives that may attempt to redirect focus to Joe Biden and portray career officials as “Never Trumpers.”


Expect more style than substance

Scenes from the hearings will likely be seared into the American collective consciousness for years to come, but don’t hold your breath for any significant new details as to whether the president sought to use his leverage over Ukraine—including military aid and the offer of a White House visit—to induce Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to announce that his government was investigating the Bidens. The hearings are more likely to provide a platform for preening lawmakers from both parties to try to score sound bites and “gotcha moments” in the battle for public opinion. 

These witnesses are unlikely to say anything they haven’t already said in closed-door testimony, where more than a dozen current and former U.S. officials have all painted a remarkably similar picture of efforts by the president’s allies to carve out a diplomatic back channel to Ukraine. While Democratic lawmakers have been reluctant to commit to a timeline for the impeachment proceedings, they’ve indicated that they would like to wrap up the inquiry before the year is out, suggesting that they feel like they already have enough evidence to build their case against the president—or that they may be nervous about impeachment proceedings dragging on long enough to run smack into the middle of the 2020 electoral campaign. From there, the process moves to the Republican-held Senate, where, save for a dramatic shift in allegiances, lawmakers look unlikely to muster the two-thirds majority required for a guilty verdict. 


What’s the Republican line of defense?

Republican lines of defense have shifted over the weeks as new information has emerged from the closed-door hearings. In the early days, Republicans attacked the process, claiming the Democrat-led inquiry was illegitimate. They’ve tried to paint officials who have testified as part of a shadowy deep-state campaign against the president, which has led them to smear two military veterans as well as career foreign service officers. A memo circulated to Republican lawmakers and seen by the New York Times outlined a strategy to handle the public hearings by arguing that Trump had genuine concerns about corruption in Ukraine and that the move to withhold security aid was “entirely reasonable.” Ultimately though, the president’s die-hard supporters will continue to evolve their defenses no matter what evidence emerges from the hearings. 


The wild card

A lingering question over the impeachment investigation is whether House lawmakers will ever get the opportunity to question White House officials who could lend critical insight into how the U.S. relationship with Ukraine changed after Giuliani got involved. While State Department officials have defied orders by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo not to cooperate with the impeachment investigation, a number of White House officials, including former National Security Advisor John Bolton and his former deputy Charles Kupperman, have called on a judge to determine whether a subpoena from Congress trumps an order from the White House in the constitutional game of rock, paper, scissors. Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney had indicated that he planned to join the suit, putting him in the highly unusual position of suing the president, but on Monday Mulvaney stepped back from the case after facing resistance from Bolton’s lawyers.

Schiff has sought to argue that Trump’s efforts to prevent the officials from testifying could be tantamount to obstruction of justice, which could itself provide the basis for an article of impeachment. 

The judge’s decision is expected mid-December, when the House could be wrapping up its inquiry. Depending on the timeline, the officials who may have the most insight into the situation may successfully manage to run the clock down and avoid testifying. Or, depending on the judge’s decision, they may be hauled in front of Congress to provide new evidence at the 11th hour.

Amy Mackinnon is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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