After weeks of Republican complaints about the secret “Soviet-style” hearings, there was something deliciously ironic about watching Devin Nunes pivoting to complain that Wednesday’s public impeachment hearing was a “televised theatrical performance.”
But he had a point; the impeachment is now televised, and thus a show. And it turned out to be a surprisingly entertaining one. Herewith ten takeaways from the opening day.
(1) It went badly for Trump. “This hearing” noted Jon Favreau, “is everything people hoped the Mueller hearing would be and more.”
The witnesses, William Taylor and George Kent, were impressive, succinct, unflappable, and damaging to the president, tying Trump directly to the efforts to pressure Ukraine to dig up dirt on his political opponents.
“The member of my staff could hear President Trump on the phone asking Ambassador Sondland about ‘the investigations.’ Ambassador Sondland told President Trump that the Ukrainians were ready to move forward,” Taylor testified. “Following the call with President Trump, the member of my staff asked Ambassador Sondland what President Trump thought about Ukraine. Ambassador Sondland responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of [Joe] Biden, which Giuliani was pressing for.”
While it was hardly the most important part of the story, Trump’s use of the cell phone to call an ambassador raised eyebrows because . . . you know . . . her emails.
“The security ramifications are insane—using an open cellphone to communicate with the president of the United States,” Larry Pfeiffer, a former senior director of the White House Situation Room and a former chief of staff to the CIA director told the Washington Post. “In a country that is so wired with Russian intelligence, you can almost take it to the bank that the Russians were listening in on the call.”
(2) The GOP questioning was . . . awful. At one point, the hapless GOP counsel actually asked: “In fairness, this irregular channel of diplomacy—it’s not as outlandish as it could be, is that correct?”
A Republican operative who texted Bloomberg’s Sahil Kapur was more direct:
(3) The bored teenager response is a tactic, but also a tell. Trump World is loudly complaining that it is already booooooored, by this whole impeachment thing. As Susan Glasser wrote afterward, “[N]ot a single Republican made the case for Presidential perfection. Instead, they decided on a safer course: trying to convince the country to tune out.”
So we got the underworked White House press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, tweeting out that the “sham hearing” was “boring” and a waste of taxpayer money. Mark Meadows snarked “I don’t know about you, but it’s hard for me to stay awake and listen to all of this.”
And, indeed, the GOP seemed to do their very best to drain the hearing of drama by making it as confusing and inane as possible. But their efforts to get America to tune out also suggests they understood that the show was not helping their guy.
(4) It was a bad day for conspiracy theories. Some of the GOP committee members seemed intent on venturing deep into the rabbit hole of the various conspiracy theories that have been floated about Ukraine. As David Corn noted, Nunes himself “set the table with an opening statement that was a stream-of-consciousness collection of FoxWorld buzzwords: Russia hoax, Steele dossier, Ukrainian meddling, the whistleblower.”
He claimed the impeachment process was itself a conspiracy mounted by the Democrats in a “cultlike” manner within a “star chamber” atmosphere. And going even further, Nunes denounced the FBI, “elements of the Justice Department,” and “now the State Department” for plotting against Trump. He was essentially accusing Taylor and Kent of joining the never-ending deep state scheme to destroy Trump. (At about the same moment, Trump sent out a fundraising email that claimed that Wednesday’s impeachment proceeding was a “Scam” and “a complete Fake Hearing (trial) to interview Never Trumpers.”
Kent was having none of it. As the Washington Post noted, the bow-tied diplomat, “emerged as a forceful debunker of some of the most frequently cited assertions and conspiracy theories among Trump’s allies.”
Under questioning from Democrats, Kent said there was “no factual basis” of allegations that Ukraine intervened in the 2016 election, something that Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate when he brought up the computer security company CrowdStrike in the leaders’ July 25 phone call.
“To your knowledge, is there any factual basis to support the allegation that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election?” Goldman asked, to which Kent replied, “To my knowledge, there is no factual basis, no. … I think it’s amply clear that Russian interference was at the heart of the interference.”
Kent also said he wasn’t even familiar with the company Trump cited on his call with Zelensky as being involved in the proposed investigation.
“To be honest, I had not heard of CrowdStrike until I read this transcript on Sept. 25,” Kent said.
(5) The complaints about “hearsay” were lame. Republicans complained that the first two witnesses had no direct contact with Trump and that much of their testimony was based on second-hand information. As former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara noted, this seemed like a poor tactic. “The dumb thing about Republicans huffing and puffing about Taylor’s lack of firsthand knowledge about some things,” he noted, “is that the people with first-hand knowledge will be coming up.”
The complaints also served to remind viewers that Trump is aggressively blocking the testimony of aides who did have direct contact with the president. His obstruction of that testimony is likely to constitute a separate article of impeachment.
(6) Elise Stefanik is no Margaret Chase Smith. We’re used to disappointment, so it probably should not have come as a particular surprise when the young New York congresswoman decided that she would take Nikki Haley’s line on impeachment. “For the million of Americans viewing today, the two most important facts are the following,” she said. “Number one, Ukraine received the aid. Number two, there was in fact no investigation of the Bidens.”
They ought to have given her better talking points.
As we now know, the aid was released only after the administration had been busted by the whistleblower and President Zelensky was making plans to publicly announce the investigations when the story blew up.
(7) No harm no foul? The other threadbare talking point on display was the argument that since the military aid was eventually released, there was no harm and therefore no misconduct. Ambassador Taylor seemed to address that directly when he said: “Even as we sit here today, the Russians are attacking Ukrainian soldiers in their own country and have been for the last four years. I saw this on the front line last week; the day I was there a Ukrainian soldier was killed and four were wounded.”
(8) Character matters. Wednesday’s testimony provided the country with a stark choice. Matt Lewis tweeted:
(9) The cringe worthiness of the House GOP was on full display.
“What was on display on Capitol Hill on Wednesday was not simply an impeachment inquiry into an unscrupulous president,” writes Pete Wehner. “It was the on-going, deepening complicity and corruption of the party he leads.”
And it was embarrassing.
John Ratcliffe, who was actually once in line to be named Director of National Intelligence said: “If they impeach President Trump for blackmail or extortion or making threats or demands, they have to call President Trump a liar to do it.”
(10) It probably won’t move the needle. We still live in two alternate realities As Oliver Darcy notes: “Don’t expect viewers, listeners, and readers of right-wing media to walk away from Wednesday’s impeachment hearings with a different opinion of President Trump’s behavior. In fact, it’s possible they might be more convinced than ever that Trump did nothing wrong. Why? Because right-wing media has largely—and unsurprisingly—focused on the moments in the hearing favorable to its preferred narrative.”