4 takeaways from the first impeachment hearing

Top US diplomat to Ukraine William B. Taylor Jr. (center) and Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs George P. Kent (second from right) arrive before the House Intelligence Committee on November 13, 2019. | Win McNamee/Getty Images

Bill Taylor revealed new information, and Democrats tried a new format.

The first public impeachment hearing is in the books and, overall, it achieved what Democrats were hoping for.

Two witnesses, State Department officials Bill Taylor and George Kent, testified to the House Intelligence Committee Wednesday about how they grew increasingly concerned over the summer about how Ukraine was being urged to launch political investigations President Donald Trump wanted in exchange for either a White House meeting or military aid.

Procedural shenanigans were kept to a relative minimum, and a new format Democrats were experimenting with — front-loading the hearings with lengthier periods of focused questioning from staff attorneys — proved fruitful.

The hearing even revealed some new information: Taylor disclosed that just last week, one of his staff members informed him of a new phone call involving President Trump and one key player in the scandal, making clear that the fact-gathering phase of the inquiry isn’t quite over.

Meanwhile, Republicans found their footing when going after the Bidens but otherwise struggled to mount a coherent defense of President Trump’s conduct — mixing misleading talking points, conspiracy theories, and attempts to change the subject.

There are still many more hearings — public and otherwise — to come, but Day 1 of Democrats’ bid to convince the American public that Trump should be impeached went surprisingly smoothly. Here are the key takeaways from the hearing.

Bill Taylor dropped a bombshell early on

Since both witnesses, Taylor and Kent, already testified behind closed doors at great length last month on this matter, it wasn’t clear Wednesday’s open hearing would deliver any new substantive information. Some Democrats were hoping so, but it seemed like a stretch.

Toward the end of Taylor’s opening statement, though, the diplomat made the surprising revelation that he’d learned new information from a staff member, just last week — about a heretofore unknown phone call involving President Donald Trump.

Taylor, the top US diplomat to Ukraine, did not name the staff member but described that person’s account of going to a restaurant with Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland on July 26. The staffer witnessed Sondland call Trump and heard Trump ask Sondland, over the phone, about “investigations.” Sondland said the Ukrainians were ready to move forward with them.

After the call, according to the staff member, Sondland said that Trump’s interest in Ukraine was primarily about investigations of Biden that Rudy Giuliani was pushing for.

 Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images
Bill Taylor, the top diplomat in the US embassy in Ukraine, arrives to testify before the House Intelligence Committee on November 13, 2019.

All this is a big deal because it suggests that Trump was even more personally involved in the pressure campaign on the Ukrainians than we previously knew. And the staff member who witnessed this call is reportedly David Holmes — who Democrats just announced will give a closed-door deposition to impeachment investigators this Friday.

The format was a big improvement for Democrats

Once Democrats retook control of the House of Representatives in last year’s midterm elections, great expectations were placed on their new ability to hold public hearings to probe the Trump administration’s malfeasance. But through most of the year, Democrats have struggled to deliver on that promise, presenting hearings that have often been awkward and messy.

This first impeachment hearing was different; it was, on the whole, an effective and professional production. It was widely viewed as Democrats’ most successful hearing all year.

Key to the improvement was a change in the format. The traditional congressional committee process has been to trade off five-minute blocks of time for questioning between lawmakers from each party. That’s designed to let every representative on the committee have their time in the spotlight — but it comes at the expense of focus and coherence and allows for few follow-up questions.

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Daniel Goldman (left), attorney and director of investigations with the House Intelligence Committee; House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (center) (D-CA); and House Intelligence Committee ranking member Rep. Devin Nunes (right) (R-CA) begin impeachment hearings on November 13, 2019.

So Schiff did something different. After beginning the hearing with the typical opening statements (from him, the committee’s top Republican Devin Nunes, and both witnesses), he then allotted a 45 minute block of time to each party. Schiff asked questions for part of that, but his staffer Daniel Goldman (a former prosecutor) took over the questioning for most of it. Then, Nunes and his staffer Steve Castor got their own 45 minutes to do the same. This allowed both sides to have ample time to make their point without the usual disjointed feel.

Another improvement for Democrats was that, in contrast to past witnesses, Taylor and Kent were clearly happy to answer questions. Robert Mueller was reluctant and reticent when he appeared in July, and Corey Lewandowski was antagonistic for his own testimony in September, and both of those hearings were busts. But though Taylor and Kent were technically appearing under subpoena, they were very clearly eager to talk about what they had seen.

Republicans haven’t really figured out how to defend Trump

The committee’s Republicans, for their part, offered a hodgepodge of conspiracy theories, distractions, and misleading arguments — but couldn’t really put together a defense of Trump’s conduct on the merits.

Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), in his opening statement, went on a grand tour of Fox News rabbit holes, from DNC consultant Alexandra Chalupa to the Steele Dossier to prank callers who offered Schiff “nude pictures” of Trump two years ago.

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) then tried to convince Taylor that he was entirely wrong to conclude that Trump was linking military aid for the Ukrainians to investigations — even though Sondland told him Trump was doing just that. Jordan kept trying to hammer home the point that Trump eventually did let the aid through, even though the Ukrainians hadn’t made an announcement about the investigations.

 Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
House Intelligence Committee member Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) (second from right) speaks during the impeachment inquiry on November 13, 2019.

But of course, it’s entirely possible that Trump did link military aid to the investigations — but then backed off when that fact was about to be publicly exposed.

And there’s a lot of circumstantial evidence suggesting that’s the case. Several things happened in the days before Trump released the aid on September 11: An inspector general wrote to Schiff about the whistleblower complaint, Schiff announced an investigation into Rudy Giuliani’s influence on Ukraine policy, Taylor put his concerns in writing, and John Bolton resigned as national security adviser.

Republicans are on their strongest ground when talking about Hunter Biden

Republicans drew the most blood when they focused their questions on Hunter Biden’s service on the board of Burisma.

George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, testified that, back during President Barack Obama’s administration, he did indeed raise concerns that Hunter’s board seat could create “the appearance of a conflict” with Vice President Biden’s role in Ukraine policy.

And Steve Castor, the GOP staff attorney, hammered home how improper this looked. “He’s getting paid $50,000 a month but we don’t know whether he had any experience, he had any — he spoke the language or whether he moved to Ukraine, correct?”

 Saul Loeb-Pool/Getty Images
Republican Counsel Steve Castor questions witnesses as ranking Member Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) listens during the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence hearing, on November 13, 2019.

Kent acknowledged that Burisma’s “reputation is mixed” but he was unwilling to say much about Hunter Biden. “I work for the government. I don’t work in the corporate sector,” he said. “So I believe that companies build their boards with a variety of reasons — not only to promote their business plans.”

Republicans struggled, however, to connect this seeming impropriety with policy under the Obama administration. For instance, Trump has advanced the theory that Biden helped oust Ukraine’s prosecutor general Viktor Shokin to help Burisma. But Kent insisted Shokin was known to be corrupt and Biden’s push for his ouster was part of a broader US anti-corruption initiative — and that there was no impropriety here.


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This episode of Today, Explained, Vox’s daily explainer podcast, focuses on the most important takeaways from the first public impeachment hearing on November 12.

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