Democrats’ top priority as they open the first public hearing of the impeachment inquiry into President Trump is to keep it serious and straightforward, but also engaging.
They need to avoid the yawns that followed testimony of former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III in July, the circus that surrounded the testimony of Trump ally Corey Lewandowski in September as he defied lawmakers’ questions and the clownish use of a bucket of fried chicken to mock Atty. Gen. William Barr in May.
They want to prevent Republicans from permanently branding the inquiry as a partisan sham or inquisition of the president.
And their ultimate hope is to allow two career State Department officials who expressed deep concern about Trump’s behavior to tell their story in a way that will resonate with the approximately one-quarter of Americans who haven’t made up their minds about whether he should be removed from office.
Trying to strike that balance will be House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), who has restructured the hearing to try to keep it free of partisan antics and to convey the somber tone befitting the fourth presidential impeachment inquiry in American history.
“The most important thing that will come out in the public hearing is the demeanor and credibility of the witnesses themselves,” Schiff said in an interview on Capitol Hill on Tuesday after participating in mock hearings to prepare. “It’s also an opportunity for the American people to really hear what this president did, why it’s such a serious matter, why it jeopardizes our national security, why they should care about it.”
The stakes are similarly high for Republicans, who stand to benefit if they can undermine the fairness and integrity of the investigation. To that end, GOP lawmakers last month stormed the classified hearing room in which the depositions were previously held to point out that not every member of Congress was allowed to attend. Republican and Democratic members of three congressional committees were permitted to participate, but GOP lawmakers said every American should be represented in such a serious matter.
The two witnesses appearing Wednesday — State Department official George Kent and William B. Taylor Jr., the senior U.S. diplomat in Ukraine — have separately told lawmakers they were troubled by the president and his administration’s pressure on Ukraine to conduct investigations that would benefit Trump politically while holding up congressionally approved military aid to the ally country. Democrats will frame their testimony as part of the president’s extortion of the foreign power and his abuse of power for political gain.
Their testimony is expected to track closely with what they told congressional investigators in closed-door depositions in recent weeks. Kent, based in Washington, and Taylor, who still works in Ukraine, will sit side by side before cameras in an ornate House committee room to convey the story that played out on both continents. Taylor is a Vietnam War veteran and both men are longtime State Department officials who have worked for both Republican and Democratic administrations — bonafides that Democrats hope will make them powerful messengers.
They are the first in what will be a series of public hearings over the next two weeks at least. On Friday, lawmakers will hear from former U.S. Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, who said she was ousted from her job because of a smear campaign against her conducted by Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani.
Democrats on Tuesday announced five hearings next week with eight witnesses, some of whom were requested by Republicans. Among them is Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, who originally said he did not remember telling the Ukrainians that the military aid was conditioned on the political investigation but later recanted his testimony.
Schiff — a former prosecutor who has become the de facto prosecutor and face of the Democrats’ case — said he isn’t worried about a repeat of other high-profile congressional hearings that failed to live up to the hype of the moment.
“These are very different kinds of witnesses than Bob Mueller or Corey Lewandowski. These are fact witnesses who observed meetings and conversations,” he said. “Because they’re firsthand observers of things, they’ll be much more captivating than someone who is giving a summary of what other people saw.”
Democrats have taken steps to try to eliminate the risk of partisan disruptions and to set the solemn tone sought by Schiff and other Democratic leaders such as Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), even if that means quieting some in their own party eager to more aggressively confront Trump.
Significant chunks of time — 45 minutes each — will be given to Schiff and the top Republican on the committee, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare), with the goal of focusing the questioning, instead of flipping back and forth between Republicans and Democrats for hours. Other lawmakers, who are prone to using their time to score partisan points in front of the C-SPAN cameras, are being given five-minute increments as they normally get in hearings.
But many lawmakers, including Schiff and Nunes, are expected to give some of their time to staff lawyers who are better skilled at questioning. That could lend a more serious credence to the questioning.
Schiff has taken other steps to try to keep the proceeding from spiraling out of control. In a letter he circulated to lawmakers Tuesday, he hinted that lawmakers could be subject to an ethics investigation if they utter the name of the whistleblower whose report set off the investigation. Republicans want the person publicly identified, but whistleblower laws say the person’s identity should not be revealed.
Schiff also sternly warned that he would enforce rules that prohibit any lawmakers not on the committee from participating and said he won’t put up with members who try to bring up the “sham investigations into the Bidens or the debunked conspiracies about the 2016 U.S. election interference.” Republicans, including Trump, argue without evidence that former Vice President Joe Biden’s son Hunter engaged in wrongdoing while working for a Ukrainian energy company. Ukrainian officials say there is nothing to suggest he did anything improper.
GOP lawmakers have complained that Democrats unfairly conducted the investigation by keeping it behind closed doors and not allowing all lawmakers to participate. Now that the inquiry is being opened to the public, that claim may not carry as much weight. Still, if the public views the inquiry as overtly partisan, Republicans in Congress may feel little pressure from their constituents to support the articles of impeachment vote that is expected to come to the House floor this year.
Republicans, who also conducted mock hearings in preparation for Wednesday’s event, are expected to focus on the fact that none of the witnesses appearing this week were on the phone call between the president and the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, nor had ever met Trump. Both Trump and Zelensky say there was no pressure campaign and the money was ultimately released, Republicans will argue. The fears the witnesses have expressed, GOP lawmakers recounted in a memo circulated Tuesday, were merely opinions.
Democrats on Capitol Hill have put their faith in Schiff, who entered Congress as a member of the moderate Blue Dog Coalition although he is now a member of a business-oriented group of centrists. For the seven weeks since Pelosi announced the inquiry, Schiff has been at the helm, conducting closed-door depositions with witnesses and strategizing with his fellow Californian, Pelosi, on the path forward.
Schiff’s task is to conduct the fact-finding of the investigation and hold public hearings to tell the story to the American public. In coming weeks, he will hand a majority report to the House Judiciary Committee, which would be tasked with drafting articles of impeachment.
A challenge for Schiff will be to take the witnesses’ copious testimony — transcripts of depositions amounting to hundreds of pages of paper — and turn them into a digestible narrative.
Mieke Eoyang, a former House Intelligence Committee Democratic staffer who is now a national security expert at centrist Democratic group Third Way, compared that challenge to the 1950 movie “Rashomon,” in which one event is witnessed by several people, who all saw it differently.
“The key things to look for are what were the president’s actions,” she said. “The president was trying to bring pressure to bear against a foreign power to coerce them into something that is for his personal political benefit.”