I have spent (a lot of) hours over the past two weeks listening to testimony in the Trump impeachment inquiry.
I was particularly impressed with Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, and Dr. Fiona Hill. They were all knowledgeable and forthright, despite attacks on them personally by the president and his allies. The White House instructed nearly all the witnesses not to testify, even though they were under Congressional subpoenas. It was brave of them to appear, first in closed door depositions and later in public testimony.
Some of the Republicans complained about the closed door depositions, but they proved to be very valuable. It meant that each witness could share what they knew without being influenced by another person’s testimony. As it turned out, most of the witnesses’ recollections jibed with all the others, except for EU Ambassador Sondland, who amended his deposition after reading some of the others’ when they were released publicly. For the record, it is not true that Republicans were shut out of the depositions. There were three committees involved and the Republican members and their legal counsel had equal opportunity to question the witnesses. Some also complained that the White House lawyers were not involved, but their role will come later, if there is a trial in the Senate. The House is investigating possible articles of impeachment, which are like an indictment in the courts. The House committees are, essentially, acting as a grand jury would in gathering evidence and deciding to bring charges or not. Defense lawyers do not take part in grand jury proceedings.
Because the (hours and hours of) deposition transcripts were released prior to the public hearings, it was assumed that the hearings would be pretty routine, highlighting certain aspects of the depositions. However, new information emerged. One noteworthy incidence of this was when Ambassador Bill Taylor testified that a member of his staff had told him that he had overheard a phone call dealing with Ukraine between Ambassador Sondland and President Trump. This led to the staff member, David Holmes, flying from Kyiv to Washington to give a deposition and public testimony about it.
Another big surprise was when Ambassador Sondland acknowledged very plainly that there had been a quid pro quo; the administration in the US had withheld military aid and a promised White House meeting for the new Ukrainian president in order to get him to announce in public that he was launching an investigation of former US vice-president Joe Biden and his son Hunter, as well as an investigation of Ukrainian interference in the 2016 US presidential election, despite abundant evidence and indictments of Russian, not Ukrainian, operatives. The president and many of his allies have been saying for weeks that there was no quid pro quo, so such a frank admission from Sondland was startling.
Sondland was full of surprises. Another big one was that he implicated President Trump, Vice-president Pence, acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as all being “in the loop” about the situation. He also said that the president was directing their actions, which demolished the theory that some individuals were doing these things as rogue elements.
It would be helpful if documents, such as memos, contemporaneous notes, and call records, were available to the committees, but the White House is refusing all requests for documents, as well as blocking witnesses from testifying. This is bad. It seem like a coverup and obstruction of Congress/justice. Obstruction appeared in articles of impeachment for presidents Nixon and Clinton.
I was also perturbed by some of the statements and questions from the Republican members of the committee. They sometimes listed as facts things that are not. They kept asking about things that are not relevant to the impeachment inquiry and already debunked conspiracy theories. They also insulted some of the witnesses by asking questions about unpatriotic behavior without any basis in fact. I remember during the Watergate hearings that there were Republican members of Congress who took their responsibilities very seriously, even though Nixon was also a Republican. In particular, I remember Senator Howard Baker.
Interestingly, Intelligence Committee chair Representative Adam Schiff in his at times impassioned closing remarks asked “Where is Howard Baker?” At the moment, no Republican members of Congress appear to be fulfilling their Constitutional role to discover and act on the truth, as Howard Baker did. Rep. Schiff concludes his remarks invoking the recently deceased Representative Elijah Cummings, “We are better than that.”
I hope we, as a country, are still able to uphold the Constitution and our highest ethical principles. If Republicans can’t imagine themselves as above partisanship, perhaps they can imagine how they would have reacted had President Obama acted the way President Trump has and then lied about it. During the eight different Congressional investigations into what happened in Benghazi, the Obama administration provided documents and testimony over and over, even after it was clear there was no conspiracy or crime involved. How would Congressional Republicans have acted if the Obama administration had stopped cooperating? Are they treating the Trump administration’s lack of cooperation in the same way? If the answer is no, they need to look at their duties to the country and their oath of office and consider if they are fulfilling them.