Will two career diplomats — one wearing a bow tie — be accepted by most of America as patriots and truth-tellers, and will they inspire bipartisan support for the impeachment of President Trump?
No. The usual partisan bonfires will consume Wednesday’s testimony from William Taylor, the US chief envoy to Ukraine, and George Kent, a deputy assistant secretary of state. But that reality says more about the country and where it is today than it does about their credibility as witnesses.
On the first day of the House’s public impeachment hearings, Taylor and the bow-tie bedecked Kent personified dignity, professionalism, and devotion to country and principle. However, such qualities mean nothing to Trump and fellow Republicans who are determined to defend the president, the facts be damned. Indeed, facts have little to do with the Trump defense. It’s all about diverting attention from them, by whining about a Star Chamber run by Democrats. In his opening statement, Republican Representative Devin Nunes of California ranted about that, plus Democrats’ effort to obtain “nude pictures of Trump” and “a carefully orchestrated media smear campaign.”
However, as outlined by Representative Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the Intelligence Committee, the question before the House is whether the president used his office to pressure Ukraine officials for personal gain. “The matter is as simple and as terrible as that,” said Schiff. And so it is.
This impeachment inquiry aims to answer a simple, yet deeply troubling question:— Adam Schiff (@RepAdamSchiff) November 13, 2019
Did the president invite or coerce a foreign nation to interfere in our election for his own political gain?
If the answer is yes, what we do now will have a lasting impact on our democracy. pic.twitter.com/Td0PoCPWMw
Trump’s own words to President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine during a July 25 phone call — “I would like you to do us a favor though” — are a strong part of the evidence against him. During that phone call, Trump asked Zelensky to look into Ukrainian involvement in the 2016 election, as well as into Joe Biden’s involvement in Ukraine when he was vice president and his son served on the board of a Ukrainian energy company that was under investigation for corruption. Since then, assorted officials have testified behind closed doors about concerns that Trump held up military aid to Ukraine because he wanted Zelensky to get dirt on Biden.
In his testimony, Kent explained why that’s wrong: “I do not believe the United States should ask other countries to engage in selective, politically associated investigations or prosecutions against opponents of those in power, because such selective actions undermine the rule of law, regardless of the country.”
Taylor tied Trump more directly and personally to the campaign to pressure Ukraine. He described a phone call that he said was overheard by one of his aides, between Trump and US Ambassador Gordon Sondland, the day after Trump’s phone conversation with Zelensky. During it, the aide said he overheard Trump ask about the status of “investigations” he wanted Ukraine to undertake. When the aide asked Sondland afterward what Trump thought about Ukraine, Sondland told him the president cares “more about the investigations of Biden.” That aide will testify Friday behind closed doors, the Washington Post reported.
Taylor also outlined what he described as “a weird combination of encouraging, confusing, and alarming circumstances” concerning a hold on military aid to Ukraine and pressure for “investigations.” At one point, Taylor said he expressed concerns to John Bolton, the former national security adviser, who recommended Taylor send a first-person cable to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Taylor also texted Sondland, who acted as a go-between for Trump and Ukrainian officials, telling him, “I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance over help for a domestic political campaign.”
Americans should be able to agree that it is “crazy” for a president to hold up military aid to an ally because he wants help in getting dirt on a political rival back at home. But such consensus is hard, if not impossible, to come by. As Republican Representative Mark Meadows of North Carolina told reporters as the hearings were underway, “I think what happens is, when we start to look at the facts, everybody has their impression of what truth is.”
If truth is an “impression,” Taylor and Kent can’t change it to an absolute. Not on their own. More patriots and truth-tellers are needed, especially Sondland and Bolton. And that’s probably not enough to convince Trump’s true believers. They can’t handle the truth.