The first day of public hearings in the House impeachment inquiry acquainted television viewers who haven’t followed this complicated story with two realities.
One is that there is significant if not yet conclusive evidence that President Trump grossly abused the power of his office by leaning on Ukraine, a country dependent on U.S. military aid, to conduct investigations that would help him politically, including one aimed at former Vice President Joe Biden. William B. Taylor Jr., the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, testified that Ukrainian leaders were told they would not receive hundreds of millions of desperately needed dollars unless Trump’s demands were met.
The other reality is that House Republicans are determined to close ranks behind the president at all costs.
Anyone inclined to indulge the Republican narrative that Trump is being victimized by a sinister “deep state” should watch Wednesday’s testimony by Taylor and George Kent, a deputy assistant secretary of State specializing in Ukrainian matters.
Taylor was thoughtful, clear, even-handed and seemingly nonpartisan. “I am not here to take one side or the other or to advocate for any particular outcome,” he said. Kent emphasized that he had served under both Democratic and Republican presidents. He said he was motivated not by partisanship but by a concern that Trump lawyer Rudolph W. “Giuliani’s efforts to gin up politically motivated investigations were now infecting U.S. engagement with Ukraine.” Both declined to be drawn into the question of whether the president deserved to be impeached.
Taylor offered one tantalizing new piece of information in Wednesday’s hearing that may shore up the idea that U.S. policy toward Ukraine, a friendly nation under siege by Russia, was perverted by Trump’s political interests.
Taylor said that he recently had learned that a member of his staff overheard part of a July 26 phone call between Trump and Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union. In that call, Trump reportedly asked Sondland about “the investigations.” After the conversation, Taylor testified, the staff member asked Sondland what Trump thought about Ukraine. Taylor said the response was that Trump cared more about “the investigations of Biden.” (Sondland, who already has had to amend his original deposition, will testify publicly next week.)
Confronted with this testimony, Republicans mounted a shotgun defense of the president. Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio pressed Taylor about why, if there was a link between releasing military aid and investigations by Ukraine, the topic didn’t come up at meetings between Taylor and Zelensky. Rep. Michael R. Turner, also of Ohio, emphasized that neither Taylor nor Kent had spoken to Trump. His point was that their testimony was hearsay, but if anything, that is just a stronger argument for pressing for testimony from those with firsthand knowledge, including acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and former national security advisor John Bolton, who have defied subpoenas at Trump’s behest and are refusing to testify.
Several Republicans suggested that there was no problem because the military aid for Ukraine eventually was released. But that happened after Congress raised questions about the holdup.
The public phase of the impeachment inquiry has just begun. So far the testimony more than justifies the decision of House Democrats to move forward.