House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) precisely outlined the stakes, announcing the opening of the impeachment proceedings for Trump. The weightiness of the moment was unmistakable. In simple and concise fashion, Schiff outlined the basic factual narrative, facts that Republicans have yet to contradict let alone disprove. He recounted the July 25 call between Trump and Ukraine’s president wherein Trump famously responded to a reaffirmation of Ukraine’s willingness to buy Javelin antitank weapons: "I would like you to do us a favor, though.” Schiff continued:
Trump then requested that Zelensky investigate the discredited 2016 “Crowdstrike” conspiracy theory, and even more ominously, look into the Bidens. ...President Trump wanted Mr. Zelensky “in a public box.” “President Trump is a businessman,” Sondland said later. “When a businessman is about to sign a check to someone who owes him something, the businessman asks that person to pay up before signing the check.”
In his somber introduction, Schiff asked, “The issue that we confront is the one posed by the president’s acting chief of staff when he challenged Americans to ‘get over it.’ If we find that the president of the United States abused his power and invited foreign interference in our elections, or if he sought to condition, coerce, extort, or bribe an ally into conducting investigations to aid his reelection campaign and did so by withholding official acts — a White House meeting or hundreds of millions of dollars of needed military aid — must we simply ‘get over it’? Is that what Americans should now expect from their president? If this is not impeachable conduct, what is?”
Schiff was followed by a meandering and incoherent opening statement strewn with conspiratorial accusations from Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the committee’s top Republican. Nunes ignored the factual account Schiff laid out, and the contrast between the two sides — one relying on facts, and the other resorting to blather and hysteria — was clear. The complete absence of any factual or legal defense was telling. (One must ask Senate Republicans: Is this the example you wish to follow? If there is no factual defense for the president, do you still plan to acquit?)
The witnesses sat stoically throughout the introductory remarks. Before the testimony began, Republicans started spewing a flurry of demands for the whistleblower to be unmasked. Schiff politely shut them down.
Kent started by reciting his and his family’s decades of public service in war and peace. Intentionally or not, his biography and respectful demeanor put Republicans’ unprofessional and slimy conduct in perspective. Without naming Rudolph W. Giuliani specifically or Trump’s other cohorts (or Trump!), Kent declared, “It was unexpected, and most unfortunate, to watch some Americans — including those who allied themselves with corrupt Ukrainians in pursuit of private agendas — launch attacks on dedicated public servants.”
He dryly suggested, “I do not believe the United States should ask other countries to engage in selective, politically associated investigations or prosecutions against opponents of those in power, because such selective actions undermine the rule of law regardless of the country.” He movingly concluded with a tribute to foreign-born colleagues: “They all made the professional choice to serve the U.S. as public officials, helping shape our national security policy, towards Russia in particular. And we and our national security are the better for it.”
Taylor took up from there, stressing the strategic interest in preventing Russian aggression. He repeated his closed-door testimony that he thought it is “crazy” to hold up security assistance to a vital ally against Russia in order to obtain “help with a domestic political campaign in the United States.” He recalled the “weird” developments he witnessed in Kiev after being dispatched by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who assured him U.S. policy would continue to support Ukraine against Russian aggression.
Taylor also described an “irregular” channel manned by Ambassador to the E.U. Gordon Sondland, special envoy Kurt Volker, acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and Energy Secretary Rick Perry, and Taylor shared his discovery that a meeting with Trump was conditioned on investigations into Burisma and a debunked conspiracy concerning the 2016 election. He also recounted being told by an Office of Management and Budget staffer that aid was being held up by Mulvaney and the president despite repeated, unanimous recommendations by national security advisers that aid should be released. Over and over again, members of the “irregular channel” confirmed that Ukraine needed to conduct political investigations and Zelensky’s concern about being used in American political machinations. He also stressed that withholding aid would result in Ukrainian deaths. There was no doubt that Ukraine knew it was being squeezed for U.S. political purposes. He also testified that Sondland told him that all aid was dependent on a public announcement of investigation into the Bidens.
Taylor also dropped a new fact bomb: A staffer had overheard Sondland talking to Trump about “investigations." The staffer asked Sondland what Trump thought of Ukraine, and Sondland told him Trump cared less about Ukraine than about the investigations into Biden.
In response to questions from Schiff after this bombshell, Taylor reiterated that security assistance had allowed Ukraine to defend against Russian measures. He also confirmed that withholding aid would weaken Ukraine’s ability to negotiate an end to the war and removal of U.S. troops. He underscored that Russia is an adversary violating treaties that have kept the peace in Europe, which if “we do not push back” will affect us, our children and “the kind of world we want to live in."
The Democrats’ lead lawyer, Daniel S. Goldman, asked Taylor if he ever heard, in all his years of service, of military aid being withheld for the personal or political benefit of the president. “No, Mr. Goldman, I have not,” he said simply. He later said, “It is one thing to leverage a meeting in the White House; it is another thing to leverage security assistance. ... It was much more alarming.”
Taylor also reiterated that he took notes of the conversations he had with officials, including Sondland. Taylor’s exceptional detail in his testimony was possible because of these contemporary notes, further adding to his credibility. Taylor recounted that Sondland made clear “everything” (the White House meeting and aid) was dependent on the Biden investigations. Taylor heard from Ukrainians the “clear concern, the urgent concern” Ukraine had about the holdup in security assistance. Goldman asked: Regardless of what you call it (“bribery”), was Ukraine not going to get aid or a meeting unless the investigations were announced? Taylor said that he was told this by Sondland, and moreover, in early September Ukraine felt pressure to commence investigations in order to get security assistance.
There will be much more to say as these hearings continue. At this point, though, aside from antics and conspiracy theories, Republicans have no factual rebuttal to the damning testimony that Trump put Ukraine at risk by withholding critical security assistance unless Ukraine helped his reelection effort. Nothing could be more impeachable than that.