Trump impeachment hearings begin before a deeply divided audience

November 15, 2019
In The News

WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) — The first day of public impeachment hearings for President Donald Trump drew praise from Democrats and yawns from Republicans, as two diplomats provided insight into the administration’s handling of military aid to Ukraine, but some experts say it is unlikely anything coming out of the inquiry in the weeks ahead will sway public opinion much one way or the other.

“Between the transcripts and what we saw today in the hearing before the Intelligence Committee, I’d say it’s pretty boring,” said Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Ala., Wednesday afternoon. “They really don’t have anything.”

Bill Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, and State Department official George Kent testified before the House Intelligence Committee for more than five hours Wednesday. Their accounts laid the foundation for Democrats’ allegation that President Trump withheld $400 million in much-needed aid from Ukraine because he wanted President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to announce politically beneficial investigations involving former Vice President Joe Biden and claims of Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election.

Democrats maintain Trump attempted to use the power of his office to advance his 2020 reelection campaign by casting a cloud of suspicion over his opponents. Republicans insist the president was genuinely concerned about rampant corruption in Ukraine and they dismiss inferences about his motives made by bureaucrats who never spoke to Trump.

Byrne echoed Republicans on the Intelligence Committee who hammered several key points: there was no quid pro quo discussed in the leaders’ July 25 phone call, Zelenskiy did not know the aid was being withheld at the time, the money was eventually released, and none of the witnesses have direct knowledge of President Trump’s actions.

“It’s really almost worse than hearsay,” he said. “It’s ‘I heard from this guy who heard from this guy who heard from this guy.’ I call that office gossip. None of them talked to the president.”

Democrats countered that the president has barred officials with firsthand information from testifying, and they argued much of what Taylor and Kent said has been corroborated by other witnesses.

“It was a serious moment to see two very senior diplomats, both ambassadors, both members of this Trump administration, depict for the committee the story of a president who was trying to incite a foreign government to interfere in an election,” said Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich.

Many Republicans viewed the hearing as a partisan stunt orchestrated by Democrats who have been searching for an excuse to impeach Trump for three years and have repeatedly failed.

“A lot of these Democrats that are leading this impeachment can’t get over the fact that President Trump was elected,” said Rep. Darin LaHood, R-Ill. “They’re doing everything they can to try to destroy him.”

As Republicans questioned the credibility of secondhand accounts, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi claimed Thursday the president’s public statements have amounted to an admission of bribery, notably shifting language from the often-used “quid pro quo” to a more blunt allegation of a crime.

“The bribe is to grant or withhold military assistance in return for a public statement of a fake investigation into the elections. That's bribery,” Pelosi said at her weekly press conference, adding that bribery is specifically mentioned in the Constitution as an impeachable offense.

The aggressive pushback by Republicans and the forceful defense of the hearings by Democrats reflected the high stakes of an impeachment inquiry that has so far played out along purely partisan lines. Nobody on either side appeared to be swayed from their talking points by the testimony.

“It’s just based on a bunch of hearsay of people who have a personal bias against our president,” said Rep. Fred Keller, R-Penn. Though President Trump declared the witnesses “NEVER TRUMPERS” on Twitter, both rejected that label during the hearing.

The proceedings opened with some bickering between Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., and committee Republicans over rules and his refusal to identify the whistleblower whose complaint triggered the inquiry. However, the relatively subdued testimony from two career foreign service officials did not deliver the fireworks some pundits expected from what could be a historic moment.

“The first round felt more like the dress rehearsal for a serious one-act play than opening night for a hit Broadway musical,” Jonathan Allen wrote in an NBC News analysis, complaining the hearing lacked “pizazz.”

Wednesday’s testimony sounded familiar because most of it was. Lawmakers previously interviewed Taylor and Kent in closed-door depositions last month. Some details of their accounts leaked soon afterward and full transcripts were released last week, making much of what they had to say old news for those following the Ukraine story.

“Let’s be very plainly clear: Democrats really need a smoking gun in order to impeach this president and there have not been any smoking guns,” said Gianno Caldwell, a Republican strategist and author of “Taken for Granted: How Conservativism Can Win Back the Americans That Liberalism Failed.”

Democratic strategist Scott Ferson acknowledged the hearing provided few bombshell moments, but he argued Taylor and Kent made a compelling case that helped establish a narrative for the rest of the hearings. The early Watergate testimony was similarly dry but necessary to tell the larger story.

“You can’t get to the Alexander Butterfields if you don’t go through the frontline administrative assistants,” Ferson said, referring to the aide to President Richard Nixon who confirmed the recording of Oval Office conversations in 1973.

There was one significant new revelation Wednesday: in his opening statement, Taylor disclosed a conversation with a staffer last week who claimed to have overheard Gordon Sondland, ambassador to the European Union, speaking to President Trump by phone in a Kyiv restaurant on July 26. The staffer heard them discuss “the investigations,” and Sondland allegedly commented afterward that Trump cared more about a probe of Biden than Ukraine.

That staffer is now scheduled to testify in private Friday, and The Associated Press reported Thursday a second embassy official also heard Sondland talking to Trump. The president said Wednesday he does not remember such a phone call.

The former ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, is set to testify Friday, with more hearings set for next week. All the scheduled witnesses testified in depositions last month, so they may lack surprises and excitement as well. Taylor’s new allegation could create difficult questions for Sondland when he is sworn in, though.

“Democrats need to continue to show that President Trump knowingly put his interest ahead of the United States. Mr. Taylor’s and Mr. Kent’s testimony added to that process,” said Jason Mollica, a strategic communication professional and lecturer at American University.

While the political media followed Wednesday’s hearing closely, Joshua Darr, an assistant professor of political communication at Louisiana State University, stressed that the public’s impression of Democrats’ handling of the impeachment effort will be formed by the sum of weeks of testimony and the eventual articles of impeachment, not just the first day.

“The House acts as a grand jury, finding and presenting facts before handing accusations, the articles of impeachment, to the Senate for the trial,” Darr said. “So, they need to do just that: credibly bring witnesses who can testify to the facts, culminating in clear, understandable, straightforward articles of impeachment, if they are warranted.”

Caldwell warned rules established by Democrats that limit Republicans’ ability to call witnesses and pursue lines of questioning could backfire as the hearings progress and fuel the president’s argument that this is a partisan witch hunt.

“If you’re going to have a legitimate impeachment inquiry, it needs to be as fair as possible because you don’t want the American people to believe you’re acting in a partisan way to acquire power,” he said.

Not that there are a lot of voters left to persuade. A Politico/Morning Consult poll released earlier this week found 62% of voters said there is no chance anything will change their minds about impeachment, and 19% said there is a small chance their views could change. Only about a quarter of respondents said they were “very likely” to watch the hearings.

The same poll showed half of voters support the impeachment inquiry and 48% support removing Trump from office, while 42% oppose it. Still, a plurality of 46% said they disapprove of how House Democrats are handling the probe.

Other recent surveys have similarly found the nation closely divided on impeachment but slightly more Americans supporting it than not. A FiveThirtyEight average of current polling shows 47.1% are in favor of impeaching Trump and removing him from office and 44.7% are opposed, and those numbers have held relatively steady since early October.

Americans’ reactions to the proceedings may vary drastically depending on where they get their information about them. Those watching Fox News Wednesday night heard about what seemed to be a completely different hearing from the one discussed on CNN and MSNBC.

Fox host Sean Hannity declared the hearing “a lousy day for the corrupt, do-nothing-for-three-years, radical extreme socialist Democrats,” while other networks highlighted Taylor’s testimony as new evidence linking Trump to the effort to pressure Ukraine to announce the investigations.

“These so-called ‘media bubbles’ can affect public opinion, but the people watching them likely already have their minds made up,” Darr said. “Their audiences are also a fairly small portion of the electorate.”

Lawmakers on both sides were active on social media throughout the day, tweeting out clips that reinforced their positions to their followers, and President Trump retweeted many Republicans’ comments. Despite the focus on tweet-worthy moments, Mollica said members would be mistaken if they attempt to play to the Twitter audience.

“We don’t need a ‘social media moment,’ even if many are getting their information from social and digital media,” he said. “It’s important to be transparent and provide the facts, even if it is longer than those on social want right now.”

Republicans stayed studiously on message Wednesday, but Ferson predicted their current arguments could become untenable as evidence builds and witnesses with more firsthand knowledge testify. He recently watched a video of a July 29, 1974, House Judiciary Committee hearing—10 days before President Nixon resigned in disgrace—and the Republican arguments downplaying his actions sounded familiar.

“They made largely the same case that [ranking GOP member] Devin Nunes made yesterday,” he said.

However, Mollica said there is an audience Nunes’ rhetoric will resonate with, and that is President Trump’s base.

“He ranted against the corrupt media and partisan bureaucrats, as well as the three-year operation by the Democrats,” he said. “This isn’t going to change Democrats’ minds, but it could solidify those minds on the right.”

Caldwell credited Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio—who Republicans added to the Intelligence Committee to defend Trump in the hearings—with making the strongest point for the GOP Wednesday in a widely-shared clip where he underscored the lack of direct evidence against the president.

“If this was Barack Obama, Republicans would not have had an impeachment hearing on this subject because there’s nothing conclusive there,” Caldwell said. “They would be laughed out of the Capitol and rightfully so.”

According to Darr, Republicans face one major challenge lawmakers supporting Nixon and President Bill Clinton against impeachment inquiries did not. Their messaging is beholden to the seemingly impulsive and sometimes contradictory tweets of an unpredictable president.

“When the president tweets, Republicans will have to adjust their strategies accordingly,” he said. “Republican voters are likely to remain with the president, but a unified response would help Republican politicians’ efforts to keep them there.”