Tension and drama as Trump impeachment public hearings begin
Both sides refrain from aggression in cagey opening as president affects disinterest
As the 22 members of the House intelligence committee filed into one of the oldest committee rooms in Congress on Wednesday, a new chapter in US history began.
“There are few actions as consequential as the impeachment of a president,” said chairman Adam Schiff as he opened the first public hearings in the impeachment inquiry into Donald Trump.
Outside the committee room a long queue had formed since early morning. Ed Ingber, from Saratoga, California, began waiting outside the US Congress at 3am. He had extended his east-coast holiday to attend the hearings.
“I think Donald Trump should be impeached,” he said. “It’s important for our democracy.”
Inside, two state department employees took an oath beneath the ornate ceiling of the committee room, becoming the first public witnesses in the inquiry, which was prompted by a July phone call between Trump and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy, during which the US president requested his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate political rival Joe Biden.
Bill Taylor, the current US ambassador to Ukraine, and George Kent, a long-serving official, were questioned for almost six hours by Democrats and Republicans, both sides conscious that the live televised hearings would be crucial in shaping public opinion on the validity of impeaching the president.
Neither witness added much to their private depositions last month, which recounted their growing alarm at the shadow foreign policy being carried out by Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, in particular.
There was new information, however, when Taylor told lawmakers than an aide overheard Trump asking the US ambassador to the EU, Gordon Sondland, about the investigations in a phone call on July 26th.
Taylor said his aide asked Sondland what Trump thought about Ukraine. “Ambassador Sondland responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden, which Giuliani was pressing for,” Taylor said.
With a highly polarised atmosphere in Washington, the mood inside the room was tense, though both sides refrained from aggressive questioning, conscious perhaps of accusations of grandstanding.
Democrats, who outsourced much of their questioning to a committee lawyer, focused on the content of Trump’s July 25th call with Zelenskiy and the specifics of the move to freeze military aide to Ukraine.
Republicans sought to characterise the exercise as a “televised theatrical performance, staged by the Democrats”, and argued that the two witnesses had no direct evidence of Trump’s actions, and no proof of a quid pro quo.
The hearings resume on Friday. For his part, Trump dismissed the process as a “witch hunt” that he was “too busy to watch” – despite tweeting multiple times during the hearings.