Dazed and confused at the Democrats' impeachment hearing
The best thing that can be said about Wednesday’s impeachment hearing is that at least some people got to drink because of it. The bars in Washington were open early, and members of my profession were able to conduct themselves much as they had in happier times.
I do wonder what George Kent had inside that water bottle. The bow-tied deputy assistant secretary of state doesn’t strike me as the day-drinking type, but you never know. He spent most of the morning sounding like an over-eager president of the George Washington University Model United Nations addressing his peers at an invitation-only conference in Cambridge, but by about 2 p.m. he looked like a broken man.
Who can blame him? Wednesday was a confused and confusing slog for everyone involved. On balance, I would say that the Democrats had a slightly worse day, but only because the contest was unequal. This was supposed to be their chance to sell the American people on impeachment, while all the GOP members had to do was The hearing was televised à la Watergate, and Adam Schiff was supposed to be in his element pretending to be a character from The West Wing.
The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee reminded us why he never made it as a screenwriter. With a few exceptions — the miniature speech from counsel about "quid pro quo, bribery, extortion, abuse of power of the office of the presidency" — he allowed his members to get bogged down in the details of a narrative that almost no one in the room has mastered. The long-winded summaries from both witnesses of the ever-evolving state of relations between the United States, Ukraine, and Russia in the post-Soviet era served mainly to underscore the fact that President Trump has taken Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggressive policies much more seriously than his predecessor ever did. It is difficult to argue that the president is guilty of a hideous crime because he seems to have considered withholding aid that Barack Obama was never willing to offer in the first place.
One sentence in the testimony of William Taylor, the interim chargé d'affaires in Ukraine, is being called "a significant new development" and even a "bombshell." I would be lying if I said I understood its significance vis-à-vis all the other third-hand conversations upon which the serious charges against the president are supposed to rest. Taylor was apparently told that a certain unnamed "staffer" heard Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, talking to Trump about unspecified "investigations," presumably a reference to the abortive probe of the Biden family's activities in Ukraine. This is supposed to have taken place the day after the president's infamous phone call with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine.
Phew. That summary is longer than the actual account Taylor himself gave. If it meaningfully alters your understanding of the underlying issue — whether Trump did anything wrong — then you probably belong to the small class of dedicated observers who already know that the anonymous staffer is likely a man named Donald Holmes. But the point of these hearings was to present unambiguous evidence of wrongdoing to the American people, not to confuse them with (in this case literal) games of telephone involving an entire phone book's worth of names.
Republicans understood all of this perfectly. If you had asked me on Wednesday morning whether it was still worth it for the GOP to bang on about chronology, I would have said no. But Jim Jordan, on loan from the Judiciary Committee, turned the messiness to his advantage: “We have six people having four conversations in one sentence, and you just told me this is where you got your clear understanding?” he said in response to Taylor's allegedly epoch-making revelation. If there is one exchange from the hearing that could work on its own as a soundbite, it must be this one.
This is not to suggest that members of both parties did not find ways to embarrass themselves. When Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas) yelled “Fine!” after being procedurally outmaneuvered by the chairman, he sounded like a 15-year-old boy who is totally not mad about being grounded. Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) might have been making an interesting formal argument about epistemology when he claimed that “Hearsay can be much better evidence than direct,” but for some reason I doubt it. For me the star of the hearing was Rep. Teri Sewell (D-Ala.) who referred to the suddenly all-important Eurasian republic with a definite article. I say this not just because I like old-fashioned place names but because referring to Ukraine in a manner that suggests it is really just Russia's southwest border undercuts the major premise of both parties — namely, that taking Kyiv's side against Putin is a top priority of American foreign policy. If you want proof that national security is epiphenomenal in relation to partisan bickering, look no further.
What about Trump himself, who has insisted that he would not be watching any of the hearings? At his press conference after the end of proceedings, he sounded unusually winded. Is it possible to tweet till you are out of breath? Whatever he was worked up about, it certainly wasn't the prospect of being removed from office by his own party, a never likely possibility that now looks more remote than it has at any point since September.