President Trump talks to the media before leaving the White House [File: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP Photo]
Washington, DC – The United States House of Representatives will enter a new and critical phase in the impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump on Wednesday with the first public hearings set to begin.
The House Intelligence Committee will hear from William Taylor, the top diplomat in Ukraine, and George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs.
Democrats have accused Trump of abusing the power of the presidency by withholding political support and US security assistance from Ukraine until President Volodymyr Zelenskyy agreed to announce investigations involving Trump’s political opponents.
The stakes are high for all players, with the 2020 elections less than a year away.
The scandal exploded in September after a US intelligence community whistle-blower filed a confidential internal complaint that came to light when the White House tried to block Congress from seeing it.
The US president has denied there was any quid pro quo (Latin for “favour for a favour”) in his dealings with Zelenskyy and the White House released a summary of the July 25 phone between the US and Ukrainian leaders that Trump claims was a “perfect” conversation.
In the call, Trump pushes Zelenskyy to open an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden, a top 2020 Democratic presidential contender, and his son, Hunter, who had served on the board of a Ukrainian gas company. There has been no evidence of any wrongdoing by the Bidens.
Just weeks before the call, Trump ordered his administration to freeze nearly $400m in military aid to Ukraine. The money was eventually released.
Since the launch of the inquiry, the House Intelligence Committee and the Oversight and Foreign Affairs committees have jointly called witnesses behind closed doors. According to transcripts of their testimony, current and former US officials have described what appears to be a campaign to pressure Ukraine into agreeing to launch the investigation.
Wednesday’s hearings will take place in a live, televised format.
Taylor stepped in to serve as the diplomat in Ukraine after Trump recalled Marie Yovanovitch, who was serving as ambassador to the Eastern European country. Yovanovitch is scheduled to testify on Friday.
“Collectively these three diplomats bring decades of dedicated and exemplary service to our nation, and I believe it is vitally important that the American people and all members of Congress hear in their own words what they experienced and witnessed,” Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff wrote in a letter to colleagues on Tuesday.
Eight additional witnesses have been scheduled for public hearings next week. A request by Republicans to call Hunter Biden and the whistle-blower to appear before the impeachment hearings was refused by Schiff.
Republicans and Democrats in Congress are competing to sell their own very different narratives in the impeachment process. Republicans are calling the witness testimony hearsay and arguing that while some may conclude Trump did in fact push Ukraine for political investigations that do not warrant impeachment.
Schiff told the US’s National Public Radio (NPR) on Tuesday that he believes Trump committed a form of “bribery” that rises to the level of “high crimes and misdemeanors” defined in the Constitution as impeachable offences.
“Bribery, first of all, as the founders understood bribery it was not as we understand it in law today. It was much broader,” Schiff told NPR. “It connoted the breach of the public trust in a way where you’re offering official acts for some personal or political reason, not in the nation’s interest.”
Taylor told House impeachment investigators in earlier closed-door testimony that Trump set up an irregular side channel for communicating with Zelenskyy by ordering three high-ranking officials to work with Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani on Ukraine.
The three officials were Energy Secretary Rick Perry, US Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland and Ambassador Kurt Volker, the special envoy to the Ukraine-Russia peace talks. Sondland and Volker are among the witnesses scheduled to appear next week. Perry has refused so far to cooperate with the inquiry.
On orders of the president, Sondland and Volker working with Giuliani subsequently cut out the usual State Department and White House officials involved in Ukraine, setting off alarms among career diplomats.
In closed-door testimony, Taylor and Kent described how they believed Trump was asking for political favours from Zelenskyy in exchange for the US aid against Russia, according to transcripts released by the committee.
“That was my clear understanding, security assistance money would not come until the president (of Ukraine) committed to pursue the investigation,” Taylor told House investigators on October 22.
Further, Trump wanted an official Ukrainian investigation launched of unfounded claims promoted by Giuliani that Ukraine, not Russia, had hacked US Democratic Party emails in 2016, according testimony transcripts.
US intelligence services and former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation have stated Russian state actors committed the hacks, which damaged Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaign at the time.
Trump “wanted nothing less than President Zelenskyy to go to a microphone and say, investigations, Biden and Clinton”, Kent told investigators on October 15, according to a transcript.
Democrats hope the public hearings will move American public opinion, which has been split between Democratic voters who largely favour impeachment and Republicans who do not.
“There is a war of narratives and so information is mediated by interpretation,” said Shibley Telhami, a political science professor and pollster at the University of Maryland.
“Now Republicans and those who are supporting the president are launching their own campaign of interpretation because even though the public has already been exposed to information, the graphic representations from direct testimony, shifts people’s minds because people find it more compelling,” Telhami told Al Jazeera.
A tipping point?
The latest from RealClearPolitics, which shows an average of credible public polls on impeachment, reveals 48.5 percent of US voters favour impeachment and think the president should be removed, and 45.7 percent do not agree.
Whether public opinion will reach a tipping point after the upcoming hearings remains to be seen as Democrats hope is key political question surrounding the hearings.
“More exposure is likely to have a measurable impact,” Telhami said. Telhami’s survey work in October showed that when voters were aware of the information about Trump’s handling of Ukraine, they tended to form more negative views of the president.
“In the poll, we have conducted, we see that the public is somewhat responsive to information,” Telhami added.
The White House has hired former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi and former Treasury spokesman Tony Sayegh to work on what the West Wing calls “proactive impeachment messaging”, according to US media.
Since the onset of the impeachment inquiry, Trump has largely limited his efforts to objecting to the process surrounding the investigation and attacking the career public servants involved as “Never Trumpers”.
“It seems that nobody has any first-hand knowledge,” the president said last week.
White House officials are coordinating with the Republican National Committee and congressional Republicans on rapid response, aiming to shine a spotlight on moments they believe are exculpatory for the president or damaging to his opposition, according to the Associated Press news agency.