An Impeachment Hearing Wrap-Up

Unless Democrats are able to break through the Trump blockade on key witnesses, the Ukraine part of the impeachment hearings ended this week. The Intelligence Committee is preparing its report for the Judiciary Committee, which is responsible for writing articles of impeachment.

Judiciary will almost certainly offer an impeachment resolution with an article on Ukraine. Whether that resolution will be narrowly focused or include additional articles like obstruction of justice (based on Part II of the Mueller Report) or obstruction of Congress (based on the administration’s withholding of evidence and refusal to let officials testify) is still up in the air.

As many people have noted, this investigation has reversed the usual detective story: We knew whodunnit from the beginning. As soon as the White House released the call notes from President Trump’s July 25th phone conversation with Ukrainian President Zelensky, it was obvious that Trump had used the threat of withholding American military aid to pressure Zelensky to announce investigations of “Crowdstrike” (the wacky conspiracy theory that Ukraine and the Democrats framed Russia for interfering in the 2016 election on Trump’s behalf) and “Biden’s son” .

The testimony we’ve heard the last two weeks has mainly done three things:

  • Educated the public on how important US military aid and the public appearance of US support was to Ukraine, which is fighting a war with Russia. Trump really did have Zelensky over a barrel.
  • Detailed just how wide and deep the effort to pressure Ukraine was, and how extremely it differed from the US policy towards Ukraine supported by a large bipartisan majority in Congress. Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani had no official government position, but for months ran a “shadow foreign policy” directly at odds with official US policy. (Fiona Hill put it like this: “[Gordon Sondland] was being involved in a domestic political errand. And we were being involved in national security foreign policy. And those two things had just diverged.”) Official policy wholeheartedly supported Ukraine in its war with Russia; the shadow policy threatened that support in order to create pressure on Ukraine to help Trump’s re-election campaign.
  • Shot down the wide range of unlikely claims by which Trump defenders urged us to ignore what we could see with our own eyes in the call notes. Trump may have spoken in a Mafia-don manner that only hinted at what he wanted, but the Ukrainians and the US personnel involved in the process understood the corrupt bargain Trump was offering. Ambassador Gordon Sondland’s testimony was the most explicit: “Members of this Committee have frequently framed these complicated issues in the form of a simple question: Was there a quid pro quo? As I testified previously, with regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes. … Everyone was in the loop. It was no secret.”

The fourth key point is what the hearings have not done: challenged the basic narrative of Trump shaking down Zelensky. Republicans weren’t allowed to turn the hearings into a circus by calling witnesses against the Bidens or Crowdstrike, but none of the witnesses they were denied had anything to offer relevant to the shakedown narrative. Similarly, Republican questioning of the witnesses offered distractions from the narrative and denigrated either the witnesses themselves or their knowledge, but offered no exculpatory facts.


It’s really kind of amazing just how crazy the “Crowdstrike” conspiracy theory is.

Most conspiracy theories are built on some real coincidence that the theory baselessly casts in a sinister light, but the most basic element of the Crowdstrike theory is just false: Crowdstrike is a California company that has no Ukrainian connection at all. The “suspicious” founder (Dmitri Alperovitch) is an American citizen who was born in Russia, not Ukraine, and has lived in the US since he was a teen-ager. The other founders are George Kurtz (born in New Jersey) and Gregg Marston (whose biography I haven’t been able to google up, but who is never mentioned as an immigrant in articles about the company’s founding).

In his recent Fox & Friends phone call, Trump referred to Crowdstrike as “a company owned by a very wealthy Ukrainian.” Wikipedia lists Crowdstrike’s major non-founder investors: Google, Telstra, March Capital Partners, Rackspace, Accel Partners, and Warburg Pincus. So Trump’s claim appears to be a pure invention. When challenged by F&F co-host Steve Doocy whether he was “sure” that the mythical DNC email server was in Ukraine, Trump said only “That’s what the word is.”


The weakness of the hearings has been the lack of star witnesses that the public already knows. Unlike the Clinton and Nixon impeachment hearings, Trump has successfully blocked his top officials from testifying. Republicans involved in the hearings have repeatedly denigrated witness testimony as “hearsay”, while supporting Trump in blocking the testimony of witnesses who had more direct contact with the President.

The public deserves to hear from administration officials like acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, former National Security Adviser John Bolton, and Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, just to name a few. But they have defied subpoenas under Trump’s instructions.

TPM floats an interesting theory about why Democrats are not pushing the courts to enforce these subpoenas. Everyone agrees that if the cases go to the Supreme Court, they might not be resolved until the Court’s term ends in June, when the 2020 conventions will be looming. But an impeachment trial in the Senate might offer a quicker path to the desired testimony.

Under the Senate’s impeachment rules, the House managers will be able to issue subpoenas whose validity will be adjudicated directly by Chief Justice Roberts, who will preside over the trial. Roberts is the swing vote on the Supreme Court anyway, so going straight to a Senate trial will force him to decide in January rather than June.

There are two major objections to this plan, but both seem answerable. First, by majority vote, the Senate could overrule Roberts’ decisions to issue subpoenas. But that would be a very public vote to suppress evidence, and only a few Republican senators would need to defect to uphold Roberts’ decision. Second, Democrats will have no chance to interview the witnesses before they testify. That may produce some false starts and dead ends, but it will also increase the drama of the televised hearings: No one knows what these witnesses will say.

Yesterday, Adam Schiff was asked about this theory by NBC’s Chuck Todd:

I do think that when it comes to documents and witnesses, that if it comes to a trial, and again we’re getting far down the road here, that the Chief Justice will have to make a decision on requests for witnesses and documents.


Gordon Sondland corroborated David Holmes’ account of a phone call Sondland had with Trump while Sondland and Holmes were in a restaurant in Kyiv, but Trump told Fox & Friends “I guarantee you that never took place.” Holmes and Sondland were under oath. Maybe Trump should go under oath before he contradicts them.

Another tantalizing Sondland revelation: Zelensky “had to announce the investigations. He didn’t actually have to do them, as I understood it.”

This blows up the already far-fetched idea that Trump had a legitimate concern for corruption in Ukraine. (Holmes reports Sondland agreeing with the statement that Trump “doesn’t give a shit about Ukraine“. I know no example anywhere of Trump opposing corruption, unless it involved his political opponents.) Trump wanted Ukrainian investigations as a touchstone for lock-him-up chants against Biden, and was not counting on them finding any actual malfeasance.


According to 538’s polling analysis, support for impeachment has been slowly eroding during the hearings. A small plurality 46%-45% currently supports impeachment. Polls that specify removing the president from office are a virtual tie.


At least the hearings changed one person’s mind: Bret Stephens, the conservative columnist of the NYT, who now thinks Trump should be removed from office even though “This isn’t what I thought two months ago, when the impeachment inquiry began.”

What persuaded him isn’t what Trump did to Ukraine, but to politics in the United States.

we’ve been living in a country undergoing its own dismal process of Ukrainianization: of treating fictions as facts; and propaganda as journalism; and political opponents as criminals; and political offices as business ventures; and personal relatives as diplomatic representatives; and legal fixers as shadow cabinet members; and extortion as foreign policy; and toadyism as patriotism; and fellow citizens as “human scum”; and mortal enemies as long-lost friends — and then acting as if all this is perfectly normal. This is more than a high crime. It’s a clear and present danger to our security, institutions, and moral hygiene.


If people aren’t changing their minds about Trump during these hearings, I hope they are changing their minds about Republicans in general. Because it’s been really clear that the Republicans in the room are acting in bad faith. All the patriotism in the room is coming from the witnesses, because the Republicans, one and all, have chosen Trump over America. Again and again, they make ridiculous arguments that they can’t possibly believe themselves.

While complaining about the lack of witnesses who spoke to Trump directly, not one of them has asked Trump to let more witnesses testify. Thursday, Fiona Hill called them out for repeating talking points that originate in the Russian security services, and have been refuted by all American intelligence agencies.

Based on questions and statements I have heard, some of you on this committee appear to believe that Russia and its security services did not conduct a campaign against our country — and that perhaps, somehow, for some reason, Ukraine did. This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetuated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves. … Right now, Russia’s security services and their proxies have geared up to repeat their interference in the 2020 election. We are running out of time to stop them. In the course of this investigation, I would ask that you please not promote politically driven falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interests.

They didn’t care. Devin Nunes in particular just kept repeating those same Russian talking points. So did Trump himself: “Don’t forget. Ukraine hated me. They were after me in the election.” (That was part of a long interview that included “at least 18 false statements“.) And here’s Senator Kennedy of Louisiana yesterday on Fox News Sunday:

CHRIS WALLACE: Senator Kennedy, who do you believe was responsible for hacking the DNC & Clinton campaign? Russia or Ukraine?

KENNEDY: I don’t know. Nor do you.

W: The entire intel community says it was Russia.

K: Right. But it could be Ukraine. Fiona Hill is entitled to her opinion

 

The goal of the Republican leadership is to make impeachment a party-line vote, with no Republicans crossing over. But I wonder if that might not rebound against them in 2020. That willingness to ignore all the evidence will underline that there are no “reasonable” Republicans. Whatever the candidate in your district might sound like, when push comes to shove, all Republicans are Trump.

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Comments

  • SamuraiArtGuy  On November 25, 2019 at 5:10 pm

    I suspect – or fear – that it ultimately DOES NOT MATTER. It is almost not worth following the proceedings except for keeping track.

    What the President has done or not done, OR what you or I, or the media, think about it, his guilt is irrelevant at this point. The outcome most likely will be the same. The Democrats in the House will almost certainly choose to impeach, and the GOP dominated Senate will almost assuredly acquit, regardless of evidence presented or not. The only question is will McConnell choose a swift disposal of the Articles, or make it a drawn out media spectacle to hammer democrats with and generate sound bites for the 2020 descent into election hell. Trump will use the vindication as am election theme to hammer Democrats.

    The Republicans will NOT suddenly discover their ideals or convictions. They will NOT rescue us. The institutional guard rails are swiftly becoming rusted scrap. The Republic’s only hope is that if people VOTE better people into office, even if the best we can do is “less worse”. And Democrats better get a clue that piling up margins in Sky Blue states means NOTHING if they lose by .01% in Purple Ones. Just. Like. Last. Time. It doesn’t mean kicking progressives to the curb, but also means not going out of their way to alienate wage class voters throughout the middle of America.

    Ultimately, I expect it will be destructive to both parties, only increasing citizen’s disenchantment with governance and institutions. It also likely also won’t much make much difference to electoral outcomes, as both sides are at this point pretty entrenched in their opinions, and the needle does not seem to be moving much. But it does solidify partisan division, and inch us ever closer to full breakdown of governance.

    • nicknielsensc  On November 25, 2019 at 8:52 pm

      Well said.

    • Guest  On November 26, 2019 at 12:13 pm

      Really hope people don’t write your post off as cynicism, Samurai, as Democrats repeating the mistakes of 2016 (and 2004, and 2000) is plausible. There is plenty of partisan division and disenchantment with governance and institutions as it is, so predicting that trend continuing is no risky bet. I just don’t see how that trend favors establishment/centrist candidates in any way. Just the opposite, in the presidential it would favor Sanders who uniquely among D’s can transcend partisan divisions and disenchantment, or, on the flip side, the trend probably helps Trump against any other D candidate.

      To your point on taking Purple States, the latest Emerson polling shows Bernie beating Trump in the Midwest and South, and beating him overall (Biden and Warren show as losing to Trump head to head…yes, usual caveats of a single poll, polling this early, etc all apply). If beating Trump is your top priority, don’t see how you can ignore this stuff. What exactly is the argument for NOT firing up your populist/idealistic base while winning moderates/undecideds/folks who don’t typically vote? It worked for Trump. The question then becomes, after picking wrong in 2016, will D primary voters finally be able to take “yes!” for an answer. TBD.

      That said, I’m not as pessimistic about impeachment. Would I rather some focus be brought to, say, crimes against humanity at the border, or self-enrichment from Saudi Arabia triggering weapons deals to fuel war crimes in Yemen? Absolutely. Mueller had the all the scope of an eye of a needle, and the Ukraine myopia could present similar problems. However, when it comes to impeachment rather than investigations, Nixon proved that even a president with a seemingly intractable base of support can be ousted, and Clinton proved that even if impeachment falls short of conviction, serious damage can be done for the next election cycle.

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