Trump impeachment hearings: What we've learned and what's next

Trump impeachment hearings: What we've learned and what's next

Week 1 of televised impeachment hearings is over, as the U.S. begins the process of considering whether its president should be removed from office.

The first days of hearings provided some new details — and an abundance of clues about how this historic endeavour might play out.

Here are answers to three key questions, now that we've heard the testimony of ousted U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, her interim replacement, William Taylor, and senior State Department official George Kent.

What did they reveal?

The most significant new detail to emerge from Wednesday's hearing came from Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine. It involved an anecdote that tied President Donald Trump more deeply to an alleged pressure campaign against Ukraine, for which he now faces possible impeachment.

Taylor, the acting ambassador, said his aide overheard a phone call in which Trump pressed for details of "investigations" involving Ukraine. The man at the other end of the line, Trump's envoy to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, supposedly then told the aide Trump cared less about Ukraine policy than about getting Ukraine to investigate his potential opponent in the 2020 presidential election, Joe Biden.

Andrew Harnik/The Associated Press
Andrew Harnik/The Associated Press

Subsequent media reports suggested there might have been additional witnesses for that call between Trump and Sondland. They even offer colourful anecdotes about it.

This news adds to the evidence that Trump delayed legally mandated military aid for Ukraine while he pressed the country's president for two political investigations — one into the 2016 U.S. election, and another into Biden and his son, Hunter.

The evidence had already included Trump's own words to the media, and in a phone call to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, where he requested the investigations.

To the Democrats, it all suggests the president abused his power in order to help himself politically, while undermining the interests of a U.S. ally.

"What he has done is exactly what the founders envisioned as a high crime," said presidential historian Jeffrey Engel, co-author of the book, Impeachment: An American History.

Cleveland-based lawyer James Robenalt, who gives lectures on the impeachment proceedings against Richard Nixon, joked in an interview that this is like Watergate scandal but in reverse: this time, the president's role is emerging at the beginning of the investigation, and the president is encouraging everyone to read the evidence — the transcript of his call with Zelensky.

"It would be like Nixon putting out T-shirts saying, 'Listen to the tape,'" Robenalt said, referring to the secret audio recordings Nixon made of his phone conversations that ultimately led to his resignation, in which he discussed the break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters and the subsequent cover-up by his administration.

During his testimony, Taylor tried drawing attention to the people at the heart of the story: the Ukrainians. He said they're still dying in Russian attacks, and it's in the U.S. interest to help them build a young democracy, and protect the post-Second World War principle of the inviolability of national borders.

What's the defence?

Republicans have thrown many complaints at the impeachment process, and some just won't stick.

A few complaints about the process have already expired. The most common gripes early on, for example, were that the hearings were being held in private (until they weren't), or that Democrats weren't allowing a House vote to formalize the inquiry (until they did).

This week's main complaint? It's all hearsay.

"I've seen church prayer chains that are easier to understand," scoffed Republican lawmaker Jim Jordan, after Taylor described hearing second-hand about a phone call.

Andrew Harnik/The Associated Press
Andrew Harnik/The Associated Press

After Yovanovitch testified about her understanding of why Trump had fired her, Jordan said: "A third witness who has no first-hand knowledge."

Devin Nunes, the top Republican on the intelligence committee, said witnesses overheard the president's views on Ukraine "second-hand, third-hand and fourth-hand from other people."

"In other words, rumours," he said.

The shelf life of this latest Republican complaint could be brief; the next batch of witnesses includes people who did actually have closer contact with Trump. Most notably, Sondland is on next week's roster.

Democrats say the fact the Republicans have gone to great lengths to prevent the witnesses closest to Trump from testifying shows their talking point is disingenuous.

Rep. Peter Welch of Vermont drew some laughs during Wednesday's hearing when he quipped: "I'd be glad to have the person who started it all come in and testify. President Trump is welcome to take a seat right there."

Jim Lo Scalzo/The Associated Press
Jim Lo Scalzo/The Associated Press

The Republicans have other complaints at the ready. They keep asking why the Democrats won't name the original whistleblower in the case, since doing so would allow everyone to evaluate the whistleblower's possible motives.

One of the people levelling that complaint is an emerging GOP star of the hearings, Elise Stefanik, an upstate New York lawmaker who knows Canada well as co-chair of the House's northern border caucus.

Stefanik read a lengthy list of news reports where Democrats had promised to let the whistleblower testify — a promise they appear to have broken.

Democrat Eric Swalwell shot back with a reason for shielding the whistleblower's identity: Trump has mused about charging the whistleblower with treason — or doing even worse.

Here is another Republican criticism of the impeachment inquiry: Everything worked out in the end, so what's the big deal?

Ukraine got the money Congress approved, and it's never had to announce any political investigation on U.S. television, as Trump's team was reportedly pressing for.

Democrats argue that's irrelevant. They say the money for Ukraine was only released after the whistleblower complained — meaning the plot had been exposed. On the committee, Democrat Joaquin Castro said attempts at crimes are still crimes. He asked, rhetorically, "Is attempted murder a crime?"

Another thing the White House kept telling reporters was that the hearings were boring — and Trump was too busy with the serious affairs of government to pay attention.

It's the strategy the Bill Clinton White House employed in the late 1990s — project a sense of calm and separate impeachment from the rest of the government agenda.

Trump's press secretary said it again Friday morning. But Trump was taking a decidedly different approach. He tweeted about the hearings dozens of times. He even took a shot at Yovanovitch, and later admitted he'd been watching Friday's hearing.

Several Republicans defended the longtime diplomat — including Will Hurd, a former CIA officer who recently announced he's leaving Congress.

"You're smart as hell," he told Yovanovitch. "You're an honour to your family. You are an honour to the foreign service. You are an honour to this country."

Democrats described Trump's tweet as witness intimidation — which suggests they could include it in an article of impeachment.

What happens next?

Prepare for a suspenseful moment Wednesday. That's the day Sondland testifies — and everyone will be watching to see whether he confirms Taylor's account of his call with Trump.

The president has denied knowledge of the call.

Earlier in the week, on Tuesday, a Trump White House official, Lt.-Col. Alexander Vindman, is up. He testified privately last month about how he tried sounding the alarm over Trump's actions toward Ukraine.

Andrew Harrer/Pool/Getty Images
Andrew Harrer/Pool/Getty Images

On Thursday, the inquiry will hear from Trump's former Russia adviser, Fiona Hill, who has testified behind closed doors about internal tensions over the Ukraine affair.

There are already ample clues about where this process is likely headed.

Democrats are strongly hinting they favour impeachment. Just check the website for the House's intelligence committee, historically one of the most sober and non-partisan organs in American politics. Democrats, who control the House, are prosecuting a case, not simply raising questions. Republicans, who control the Senate, are aggressively running defence for the president.

If all this behaviour holds, we're inching toward impeachment in the House, and acquittal in the Senate. Trump would become the third U.S. president ever impeached.

He would also achieve an even rarer distinction: if things unfold this way, he could become the first impeached president in the history of the United States to seek re-election in a general election campaign. Andrew Johnson tried, but his party dumped him at the next convention.