Jules Witcover (copy) (copy) (copy) (copy)

Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- With the Trump impeachment now fully before the public through gavel-to-gavel national television coverage, House Democrats have begun serving up credible live testimony from seasoned U.S. foreign policy officials in the Ukraine scandal over an alleged quid pro quo.

In opening day testimony, Acting Ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent repeated at length their versions of the deal between President Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, wherein nearly $400 million in critical military aid -- which Congress had appropriated and Trump had held up -- was to be released in exchange for a Ukrainian investigation into Joe Biden and his son Hunter, as well as into the cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike. The investigation demanded by Trump did not happen, and the aid funds were released to Ukraine.

House Republicans in the opening hearing fell back on the president's defense that no impeachable crime was committed, since the deal was never completed.

But both Taylor and Kent confirmed that Zelensky got the money only after assuring Trump he would initiate the requested investigation into the giant Burisma energy firm, where Hunter Biden formerly was a board member and allegedly collected a monthly salary of $50,000.

Both Taylor and Kent testified they were strongly opposed to any such quid pro quo, as a violation of U.S. policy.

The Republicans on the special impeachment committee chaired by Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff of California bolstered their side by adding pro-Trump firebrand Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio to lead their nothing-to-see-here defense of Trump.

Schiff and his allies meanwhile focused on the Taylor and Kent testimony, especially Taylor's report that an aide had overheard Trump confidant Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union and not a career diplomat, speaking with Trump in a phone conversation -- while dining in a Kyiv restaurant -- about the state of the investigations of Biden.

When the aide asked Sondland the day after that phone call what he thought Trump was interested in about Ukraine, Sondland replied, according to Taylor, "that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden, which (Trump lawyer Rudy) Giuliani was pressing for."

As the Democrats seized on that observation to characterize Trump as more motivated by politics than by policy, Jordan and other Republicans grabbed on to it to reinforce their contention that the whole impeachment case against the president was based on mere "hearsay" evidence.

Trump himself called the first round of hearings "a sham" that "should not be allowed." He added that Congress should focus on the identity the insider whistleblower who first reported impeachable activities by Trump. "I want to find out who is the whistleblower," he said.

One Republican impeachment committee member, Rep. Mike Conaway of Texas, called for issuing a subpoena for the unidentified whistleblower, but Schiff brushed him off. Jordan has accused the chairman of knowing who the whistleblower is, but Schiff has denied it, stating he would defend his or her secrecy under the federal whistleblower protection law.

White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham also embraced the "hearsay" defense, declaring in a statement: "The latest 'evidence' is an anonymous staffer who told someone he overheard someone else talking to POTUS on the phone. 'All the evidence' in this case is second and third-hand hearsay."

In the end, however, the calm and specific recollections to Taylor and Kent, two veteran foreign-policy experts, brought particular credibility to their appearances. When Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell of California asked Kent whether White House Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney was correct in saying such quid pro quos in foreign policy occurred "all the time," he disagreed.

Whether this opening salvo of challenge to the Trump defense of "nothing to see here" will materially affect broad public opinion watching the hearings is questionable. The House Democrats already appear to have the votes to impeach the sitting president.

The real question is whether taking the case against him to the wide television audience will be enough to crack Trump's hold on his Senate defenders and produce the two-thirds vote against him to convict him in that GOP-held body. In 1974, Richard Nixon had no such fervent backing in his own party, and he resigned.

In Trump's case, his monarchical behavior poses a much more serious threat to the integrity of our democratic system. Accordingly, he is not the only one on trial. So is our democratic republic, whose fate, as Benjamin Franklin said so long ago, depends on whether we can keep it.

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