The first public impeachment hearings for President Donald Trump will begin on Wednesday, as Congress launches a high-profile interrogation of a critical question: Did Trump withhold military aid from Ukraine in an effort to force the country’s government to open an investigation into his political rival Joe Biden?
The televised hearings will start off with top officials who have previously testified to House impeachment investigators behind closed doors, and who added support to an anonymous whistleblower complaint from August that alleged the Trump administration attempted to engage in a quid pro quo arrangement with Ukraine. It may also be a stage for Republicans to take extreme measures to push back against impeachment, as they did weeks earlier when they tried to storm the private impeachment hearings.
Who Is Testifying?
Acting ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor, former US ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch and senior State Department official George Kent will all testify this week. Taylor and Kent will be first up on Wednesday, followed by Yovanovitch on Friday.
The House Intelligence Committee, led by Representative Adam Schiff, will hold the hearings. Both Schiff and ranking Republican member of the committee Representative Devin Nunes will make opening statements before questioning witnesses. Schiff and Nunes will each get 45-minute periods to ask witnesses as many questions as they want. Once these are over, other committee members will get five minutes to ask their own questions.
Taylor, a career diplomat who Democrats are presenting as a star witness, will be the first to testify. His testimony during the closed-door impeachment inquiry was one of the most damning for Trump, and he has served under both Republican and Democratic administrations. Taylor was the top official in Ukraine during the alleged quid pro quo scandal and Trump’s pressuring of Ukrainian officials.
Taylor effectively told investigators that the Trump administration had pursued a quid pro quo arrangement, saying that he had learned from other top officials that Trump was withholding $391 million in military aid and a White House visit unless Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky publicly committed to investigating Biden and his son.
“Security assistance money would not come until the president [of Ukraine] committed to pursue the investigation,” Taylor said in his initial testimony.
House Democrats also released a series of text messages last month in which Taylor told US ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland that “it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.”
Kent is a deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs who oversaw the State Department’s Ukraine policy. He testified during private hearings that Trump and his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani were running a shadow policy in Ukraine that excluded State Department officials and undermined US interests. Kent alleged that Trump wanted Zelensky to “go to the microphone” and explicitly mention an investigation into Biden. He alleged that Giuliani had led a smear campaign against Yovanovitch to force her ouster.
Yovanovitch is the former ambassador to Ukraine who alleged that Trump abruptly ousted her from the position in April after a “concerted campaign” against her from Trump allies including Giuliani. Although Yovanovitch lost her ambassador position in April, before the whistleblower complaint, her initial testimony provided information on Giuliani’s growing involvement in Ukraine and the campaign to oust her.
What’s The Republican Defense?
Republicans have struggled to settle on a coherent defense against many of the allegations facing Trump and White House officials, but conservative lawmakers and pundits have found a few consistent talking points as the public hearings are set to begin.
A common line of attack has been to try and discredit witnesses as either politically motivated or only working with secondhand knowledge of events. Republicans have also focused on trying to undermine the anonymous whistleblower, accusing them of bias against Trump.
Republicans also shuffled the lineup of the House Intelligence Committee to add Representative Jim Jordan in preparation for the hearings. Jordan is an outspoken Trump defender who has repeatedly attacked the impeachment inquiry and additionally called for the anonymous whistleblower’s name to be made public.
The Constitution doesn’t give those facing impeachment the same rights as criminal defendants. The worst punishment Trump could face is losing his job. Trump’s attorneys will be allowed to take on more of a role once the proceeding moves to the House Judiciary Committee once the House Intelligence Committee’s hearings are finished. Trump will also have a chance to defend himself during any proceeding in the Senate, the Republican-controlled body which will ultimately decide on whether to remove the president from office.
Although a lot of this information is already known, it’s a chance for Democrats to highlight what Trump has done wrong and simplify a byzantine story. And it will be only the third time in modern American history that the US holds public presidential impeachment hearings.
Ryan Reilly contributed reporting to this article.