Day One of the public House impeachment hearings on President Trump is in the books, and nothing that happened will move public opinion in a meaningful way. The folks who have wanted to impeach Trump since he won the presidency still do, and the folks who don’t still don’t.
In other words, it’s a lost day for Democrats.
The burden of proof is on Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank) to do more than secure impeachment, which is all but certain. Their job is to conduct these hearings in a way that moves public opinion to the point that the Senate will convict the president. That means giving Republican senators something that changes their impression of Trump’s conduct of Ukraine foreign policy. What’s alleged may make many members of the GOP uncomfortable, but it doesn’t come remotely close to requiring that the president be removed from office.
The opening-day witnesses — diplomatic officials Bill Taylor and George Kent — testified professionally and with honor, but they failed to deliver a made-for-TV gotcha. Rather, they simply reiterated that they had no firsthand knowledge of the president’s interactions and had not had conversations with the president directly.
“What I can do here for you today is tell you what I heard from people,” Taylor said at one point to the Democratic counsel, which is not exactly compelling evidence if you are trying to convince the American people that what happened is worthy of taking down a presidency. In Taylor’s defense, he said he did not appear as a witness for either side of this debate, but obviously Democrats were hoping people would view him as a witness helpful to their impeachment ambitions.
One of the best defenses Trump has against the allegations at issue is that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has stated publicly that he did not personally feel pressured during his July 25 phone call with Trump. Under questioning by Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas), Taylor said he “had no reason to doubt” what Zelensky said.
Ratcliffe also scored points by asking both witnesses if they had come before the committee to report any offenses stemming from the Trump-Zelensky call that warranted impeachment. Neither would say yes, which for Democrats was a deflating moment.
Taylor did offer one significant element to the drama, related to Trump’s Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, who is slated to testify next week. Taylor claimed that a member of his staff overheard Sondland having a phone conversation with the president (at a public restaurant, no less!) regarding Trump’s desire for an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter.
While Sondland’s appearance before Congress and the public was always sure to be must-see TV, Taylor’s revelation raises the stakes related to his testimony. It will be interesting to see how the White House attacks the comments of its own appointee and someone who apparently does have first-hand knowledge of the president’s conversations and state of mind.
If you listened closely to Wednesday’s testimony — especially New York Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik’s afternoon questioning of the witnesses — you were perhaps compelled to Google the underlying policy issues at play between the United States and Ukraine. If you did, you would have been reminded that Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, during President Obama’s administration.
The invasion was a big deal. The Russians were testing Obama just as they were also embarking on their successful attempts to meddle in our 2016 presidential election. At home and abroad, Obama dithered when confronted with Russian aggression.
For two years, Obama and Biden, supposedly a Ukrainian savant, refused to send our allies lethal aid to beat back the Russians. And we know from the report of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III that they did nothing to stop election meddling. Russia beat Obama on both fronts.
An inconvenient truth is emerging for Democrats: if you are worried about Russian influence, Trump has done a much better job than Obama ever did. Under Trump, we actually sent the Ukrainians lethal aid, a policy that Taylor and Kent admitted is better than it was before. And under Trump, the 2018 midterm election was apparently conducted free from Russian meddling.
Democrats want to overturn an election based on merely a momentary halting of military assistance to Ukraine by Trump’s White House because Trump raised questions about corruption in a notoriously corrupt country. But they never bothered to ask the Obama White House why they held up lethal aid for two years when it was sorely needed.
Democrats claim Trump’s intent was corrupt and an abuse of power, but the net result of Trump’s decisions, by any measure, is a stronger response to the Russians than Obama ever delivered. Question Trump’s judgment in sending people like Sondland and Rudolph W. Giuliani to Europe all you want, but impeachment? Give me a break.
Scott Jennings is former advisor to President George W. Bush and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and a CNN contributor. He is a contributing writer to Opinion. Twitter: @ScottJenningsKY.