Americans get to see the damning evidence in impeachment inquiry

By John Diaz
San Francisco Chronicle

Democratic Counsel Daniel Goldman questions Marie Yovanovitch, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, next to House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA) during a House Intelligence Committee hearing as part of the impeachment inquiry into U.S. President Donald Trump on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., November 15, 2019. (Joshua Roberts/REUTERS/Pool/Abaca Press/TNS)

William Taylor proved the ultimate witness for the prosecution. He arrived on Capitol Hill for the impeachment hearing with unimpeachable credentials: West Point graduate, Vietnam veteran, career diplomat with some of the more challenging assignments on the planet. He was unflappable in his testimony: measured, serious and highly credible.

If only President Trump — who claimed to have not seen a minute, believable only if you dare to suspend disbelief about the media-obsessed tweeter-in-chief — had watched and seen what the integrity of the finest of his administration’s appointees looks and sounds like.

This point cannot be emphasized enough: Taylor was not a conspirator from a phantom “deep state” or a Democratic loyalist. He was recruited out of retirement at age 72 by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to become this nation’s top diplomat in Ukraine. He took the post, against his wife’s objections, out of a sense of duty to country.

If Americans were watching with an open mind, they saw dedicated public servants describe how out of whack it is for a president to condition $391 million in military aid on a foreign nation’s investigation of Trump’s political rival, and the ominous implications for a fledgling democracy and U.S. ally that is under siege from Russia.

But the big questions: Were Americans watching? How many are of truly open mind? Will the first televised hearing of the impeachment inquiry make a difference?

“We’ll have to see the Nielsen ratings,” Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, quipped in a phone interview Thursday.

Speier, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, credited Taylor and George Kent, a deputy assistant secretary of state, as patriots who delivered “extraordinarily detailed evidence” about the “alternative channel” that undermined U.S. policy of supporting Ukraine against Russian aggression.

The narrative was damning, even if much of it was not surprising because of its consistency with previous disclosures.

What must not get lost in the sometimes-arcane give-and-take in the hearings is the significance for America’s national security of a new Ukrainian president wondering if the U.S. president was wavering his in support — and knowing that Russia was watching intently with the same question.

“If Ukraine is to fall or Russia is going to succeed in its imperialistic interest, that means that Poland may be next,” Speier said. “And then you have the 70 years of peace that have been orchestrated fall apart and NATO falls apart … all of which is in the game plan of (Russian President) Vladimir Putin.”

George Kent, left, Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, and William B. Taylor, right, Char’ Affaires Ad Interim, Kyiv, Ukraine, swear in to the House Intelligence Committee’s first public inquiry into the interaction between President Donald Trump and the government of Ukraine at the US Capitol in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, November 13, 2019. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/Sipa USA/TNS)

Speier and Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Dublin, have been on point with their questions in the opening hearings. Swalwell had a pair of cut-to-the-chase moments on Wednesday when he asked Taylor and Kent about Trump’s allegation on Twitter (in all caps) that they were “Never Trumpers.”

Each said he was not.

Later, Swalwell asked Taylor if he concurred with White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney’s claim that politics are part of foreign policy and presidents “all the time” put conditions on aid. “Get over it,” Mulvaney said at a news conference.

“Prior to this administration, is this something we would do all the time?” Swalwell asked.

“No sir,” Taylor replied.

Swalwell and Speier hold critical supporting roles in this impeachment process.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, of course, has a lead role. For the longest time she kept the reins on her Democratic colleagues who had been eager to move ahead on impeachment long before the Mueller Report came out. She is no longer restrained but, as always, is calculated in her words

“I am saying that what the president has admitted to and says, ‘It’s perfect,’ I say it’s perfectly wrong,” Pelosi told reporters Thursday. “It’s bribery.”

Bribery is one of two crimes — treason being the other — listed in the Constitution, along with the more amorphous “other high crimes and misdemeanors,” as grounds for impeachment. It’s clear where House Democrats are headed: impeachment, with the case going to the Republican-controlled Senate for a trial on whether to remove Trump from office.

Less clear is where public opinion is headed. This is not 1973, when three broadcast networks dominated the airwaves and televised the Watergate hearings gavel to gavel. Today’s media landscape is more diffuse, and many Americans in this deeply polarized society get their news from social-media feeds or news organizations that validate their preconceptions. Deflection and disinformation flood channels that never make the Nielsen ratings.

In a bizarre yet chilling twist Friday, President Trump was trashing Marie Yovanovitch, the Ukraine ambassador he ousted, even as she was testifying about how official U.S. policy was being whipsawed by an impulsive president and his freelancing associates.

Rep. Adam Schiff, the committee chair, called it “witness intimidation in real time.” A reminder: Witness intimidation is a crime.

What is striking is that the key facts remain undisputed in any substantive way: The president of the United States withheld $391 million in military aid (and a White House visit) from a strategic ally in armed conflict with a U.S. adversary — Russia — while pressuring its new government to investigate a political opponent.

Confusion and exhaustion seem to be the president’s surest safety nets.

“We have an obligation to lay this out for the American people,” Speier said. “It’s not hyperbole to say our democracy is at risk if we basically turn our heads and don’t prosecute impeachment when bribery is involved.”

Patriots, turn your heads — toward the hearings that continue this week.

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