The impeachment inquiry into whether President Trump improperly withheld aid to a foreign government in exchange for help with his re-election bid is entering an important phase this week, as the first public hearings are held by the House Intelligence Committee.
Up until now, House investigators have held closed-door depositions with key Trump officials as they gather information and documents on the allegations.
What can we expect from these hearings? Here’s a look at the format, the witnesses, and what we might learn.
Who is participating this week?
Wednesday’s hearing will feature a top diplomat to Ukraine, William Taylor, and a State Department official, George Kent. Friday’s hearing will feature former Ukraine Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch.
William Taylor is a career diplomat who has served under every presidential administration since Ronald Reagan, according to a New York Times profile that quoted colleagues who described him as “universally respected.”
Taylor became a key witness after becoming the first to testify to Congressional investigators last month that release of military aid promised to Ukraine was contingent on Ukraine declaring publicly that it was investigating Trump’s political rivals.
George Kent, who oversees Ukraine policy at the State Department, testified that it was his understanding that Trump wanted the investigations done as a condition of releasing the aid, based on conversations with other administration officials.
Kent also corroborates testimony from Taylor that there were two channels of diplomacy toward Ukraine, an official channel headed by the State Department, and an unofficial channel led by Rudy Giuliani, who was acting as Trump’s personal lawyer.
Kent testified that he was told to “keep my head down and lower my profile in Ukraine.”
Marie Yovanovitch was the subject of a smear campaign by Giuliani and other Trump allies and was eventually recalled from her ambassadorship by the State Department. Yovanovitch was singled out by Trump in his infamous July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, cryptically telling the Ukrainian leader Yovanovitch was about to “go through some things.”
What time do the hearings start? Can I watch it live?
The hearing for Taylor and Kent is scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. Wednesday, and the Yovanovitch hearing will begin at 9 a.m. on Friday. BostonGlobe.com will carry a livestream of all the testimony.
Do we know anything about what could be said at Wednesday’s hearing?
Taylor will undoubtedly be asked by Democrats to expand on a key moment in his closed-door testimony, when he told lawmakers that Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland told a Ukrainian official that US military aid would be held up until Zelensky committed to investigating Burisma, the company that employed Hunter Biden. Taylor’s account was later backed up by Sondland in his revised testimony.
Kent is likely to be questioned about the conversations that led him to testify that it was Trump’s wish to hold up aid until Ukraine announced investigations into Burisma and the 2016 election.
Republicans are likely to counter that neither official directly heard the president himself issue a directive to hold up the aid in exchange for the investigations, and ask questions that highlight this point.
Additionally, as someone who has visited the front lines of the war in Ukraine, Taylor could provide critical context about the importance of military aid to soldiers fighting Russia. In the years following the annexation of Crimea, the conflict has often dropped out of the headlines, and some have described it as an “invisible war.” In his opening statement last month, Taylor offered a glimpse of the situation on the front lines:
“Ambassador Volker and I could see the armed and hostile Russian-led forces on the other side of the damaged bridge across the line of contact. Over 13,000 Ukrainians had been killed in the war, one or two a week. More Ukrainians would undoubtedly die without the US assistance.”
What is the format of the hearings? How does it differ from regular Congressional hearings?
The hearings will be different from recent hearings (like the testimony of Robert Mueller) in that Representative Adam Schiff and ranking minority member Representative Devin Nunes will each have the opportunity to conduct lengthy questioning at the outset of the hearing, before it returns to the traditional format of five minutes of questioning per member.
Committee staff members will also be allowed to ask questions, another departure from the typical format.
Those rules were laid out in a House resolution passed at the end of October formalizing the inquiry and establishing the process.
In another unusual move, Republicans have taken the step of adding Representative Jim Jordan to the House Intelligence Committee, replacing Representative Rick Crawford, so Jordan can question witnesses.
Despite loud complaints that they have not been given full access to the hearings, Politico reported last week that some House GOP members were expressing frustration that members who were allowed in were not participating in all of the depositions.