A dummy’s guide to the impeachment hearing



November 14, 2019 - 10:13 AM

WASHINGTON — The public impeachment hearings that start today have been ballyhooed as the greatest threat to President Donald Trump since … well, since special counsel Robert S. Mueller III testified before Congress in July.

We all know how that ended. Mueller refused even to read from his own report.

These hearings won’t produce that kind of belly flop. But they are unlikely to lead to Trump’s removal from office.

The proceedings will be invaluable, however, if they help Congress and the public answer two critical questions and bring coherence to a convoluted story.

First, how many rules of statecraft did Trump break when he asked Ukraine’s president to investigate Joe Biden and the Democratic Party after Trump had blocked U.S. military aid the country desperately needed?

And second, does Trump’s not-so-subtle attempt at extortion justify his impeachment and removal from office?

The first hearing is aimed mainly at laying out Trump’s actions and intentions. What Congress should do about it, which is harder to answer, comes later.

Unless you’ve plugged your ears to avoid the news, don’t expect dramatic revelations. The first two witnesses already testified to the committee behind closed doors, and the transcripts were released.

But now the public will see and hear them for the first time. Two highly regarded diplomats, William B. Taylor Jr. and George Kent, will try to turn the Ukraine saga into a straightforward narrative that Americans can understand.

Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), who will lead the hearing as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, will ask them whether Trump’s actions damaged or endangered U.S. national security given bipartisan support for the struggling democracy as it battles Russian-backed insurgents.

They will say yes, and explain why. That’s why Schiff made them the lead witnesses.

If Schiff and other Democrats can convince viewers — or at least those who haven’t already made up their minds — that Trump blocked Ukraine’s military aid to serve his 2020 reelection campaign, they’ll be halfway to their goal.

If the last few weeks are any guide, the president’s defenders will try to deflect or discredit the damaging narrative. That’s their goal. And they’ll complain about the process, often a tell when you can’t win on the substance.

They may try to sidetrack the proceedings by demanding that Hunter Biden, who landed a dubious $50,000-a-month job with a Ukrainian gas company, be hauled into the dock. Most voters will recognize that as an attempt to change the subject.

If Trump’s defenders are smart, they won’t waste much time claiming that the president wasn’t demanding a quid pro quo from Ukraine; the record on that is too clear.

Instead, they’ll try to buttress their fallback positions.

They’ll ask whether corruption in Ukraine was a valid concern for U.S. officials — and both Taylor and Kent will affirm that yes, corruption was a problem.

That will be intended as groundwork for the argument that Trump was concerned about corruption generally, not the Democrats in particular.

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