After two weeks of public testimony, Americans should have a good sense of why an impeachment inquiry was needed.
In his opening statement on Thursday, the last day of the scheduled public hearings in the House's impeachment inquiry, Devin Nunes, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, expressed his hope that "today's hearing marks the merciful end of this spectacle in the impeachment committee."
One can understand Mr. Nunes's eagerness to be done with this phase of the investigation, which was prompted by allegations that President Trump conditioned certain diplomatic and military support of Ukraine, including nearly $400 million in aid, on the willingness of that nation's president to do his political bidding. Specifically, Mr. Trump wanted Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, to announce an investigation into a debunked conspiracy theory that Ukraine, not Russia, had hacked Democratic computers during the 2016 campaign, along with a second inquiry, into alleged corruption by one of Mr. Trump's 2020 political rivals, former Vice President Joe Biden, and his son Hunter.
Despite Mr. Nunes's fantasyland contentions that the testimony of the past two weeks has served only to expose Democrats' "asinine," "pitiful" attempts to "overthrow a president," in reality the proceedings have produced a number of startling revelations, none of them exonerating the president.
The biggest bombshell came Wednesday, with the appearance of Gordon Sondland, the Trump megadonor turned ambassador to the European Union, who dismantled the top talking points of presidential apologists. Key takeaway: There was a quid pro quo.
Thursday brought only more grief for Mr. Nunes and other Trump defenders. As their closing witnesses, House Democrats called Fiona Hill, formerly the National Security Council's top expert on Russia, and David Holmes, a political officer at the American Embassy in Kyiv, Ukraine.
Mr. Holmes is the official who overheard the July 26 phone call between Mr. Trump and Mr. Sondland in which the president quizzed the ambassador about the status of the investigations he was seeking. Mr. Holmes also recalledMr. Sondland telling him after the call that the president didn't give a fig about Ukraine except for the "big stuff" that directly affected him, such as the "Biden investigation."
Mr. Holmes had more general observations about the impact of playing politics with America's Ukraine policy. Beginning in March, he recalled, "the three priorities of security, economy and justice and our support for Ukrainian democratic resistance to Russian aggression became overshadowed by a political agenda promoted by former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and a cadre of officials operating with a direct channel to the White House." Mr. Holmes explained the confused lines of authority that developed, fueling conflicting agendas and threatening to undermine longstanding policy goals.
"President Zelensky needed to show U.S. support at the highest levels in order to demonstrate to Russian President Putin that he had U.S. backing, as well as to advance his ambitious anticorruption reform agenda at home," said Mr. Holmes.
Dr. Hill was even more pointed with her message, which boiled down to: Republican lawmakers need to stop behaving like Russian stooges.
"Based on questions and statements I have heard, some of you on the committee appear to believe that Russia and its security services did not conduct a campaign against our country — and that perhaps, somehow, for some reason, Ukraine did," she said. "This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves."
Dr. Hill warned that Russia's "goal is to weaken our country" and that indulging such fantasies played into Vladimir Putin's hands. (Dr. Hill, it should be noted, co-wrote a 500-page book analyzing the Russian president's psyche.) She stressed, "These fictions are harmful even if they are deployed for purely domestic political purposes."
Dr. Hill is not one to get intimidated or flustered. This is, after all, a woman who, at age 11, once had a classmate set fire to one of her pigtails. She put out her flaming hair with her bare hands and finished the test she was taking.
With her crisp British accent, she at times came across as an exasperated adult chiding naughty children. "In the course of this investigation, I would ask that you please not promote politically driven falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interests," she said. "If the president, or anyone else, impedes or subverts the national security of the United States in order to further domestic political or personal interests, that is more than worthy of your attention."
Dr. Hill also recalled her frustration over Mr. Sondland working at cross purposes with what she and other colleagues understood to be official United States policy aims. "He was being involved in a domestic political errand, and we were being involved in national security foreign policy, and those two things had just diverged." She acknowledged that Mr. Sondland had not been wrong in feeling "that the National Security Council was always trying to block him. What we were trying to do was block us from straying into domestic or personal politics."
Both witnesses seemed intent on conveying the serious national security implications of the behavior being investigated by the committee. It was a critical message both for the general public and for the assembled lawmakers.
The Republicans' pushback was what we have come to expect. They relied heavily on a swirl of distractions and conspiracy theories, with frequent invocations of the Steele dossier, alleged Ukrainian meddling in the 2016 race and deep-state actors ostensibly intent on bringing down Mr. Trump.
The president hit Twitter to imply that Mr. Holmes was lying about having overheard his phone call with Mr. Sondland. And the White House press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, went with a variation on the "hearsay" defense: "As has been the case throughout the Democrats' impeachment sham, today's witnesses rely heavily on their own presumptions, assumptions and opinions. These two witnesses, just like the rest, have no personal or direct knowledge regarding why U.S. aid was temporarily withheld."
As the hearings wound down, it seemed unlikely that the trajectory of the inquiry had meaningfully shifted. House Democrats appeared all the more convinced that the president has committed impeachable offenses, with House Republicans equally committed to standing by their man.
But the witnesses fulfilled their public duty no less admirably — especially considering Mr. Trump's demands that people not cooperate.
"I believe that those who have information that the Congress deems relevant have a legal and a moral obligation to provide it," said Dr. Hill.
She's not wrong. The first goal of these hearings was to air the facts, with hopes of enabling the public to make sense of the overheated partisan spin. Too bad the president and his defenders had a different goal in mind.
By Michelle Cottle
Ms. Cottle is a member of the editorial board of the New York Times. November 21, 2019.
Voices4America Post Script: This is an Awesome summary of the 5 #ImpeachmentHearings.
Trump has now taken to Twitter & Fox to call #DavidHolmes a liar. This raises a general question.
Who should we believe, those who testified or those who won’t?
Or someone, @Wapo declares, “made 13,435 false or misleading claims over 993 days.”