The House Ways and Means Committee hearing room, where the first public session will be held. Photo: Associated Press

Ukraine impeachment inquiry enters a new phase

By Robert C. Jones Jr.

Ukraine impeachment inquiry enters a new phase

By Robert C. Jones Jr.
With public impeachment hearings set to begin Wednesday, University of Miami experts weigh in on what to expect.

So far, everything has played out behind closed doors, with more than a dozen witnesses appearing before Congressional committees to share what they know about President Donald Trump’s dealings with Ukraine. News reports and published witness transcripts have provided the only preview.

But on Wednesday, it all goes live, when two days of public hearings begin in what marks only the fourth time in U.S. history that the House of Representatives has started a presidential impeachment inquiry.

Bill Taylor, the top American diplomat in Ukraine, who told investigators that Trump directed officials to withhold military aid to Ukraine until that country’s leader, Volodymyr Zelensky, agreed to investigate the President’s political rivals, will testify Wednesday, as will George Kent, the deputy assistant Secretary of State who oversaw Ukraine policy. Former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch is scheduled to testify Friday.

The public hearings should prove to be “interesting political theater,” but whether they will significantly tilt the scales in the direction of those either for or against impeachment is another matter altogether, said Casey Klofstad, an associate professor of political science in the University of Miami’s College of Arts and Sciences.

“The country is already evenly and deeply divided on both the Trump presidency and impeachment,” said Klofstad.

Only a slight majority of Americans—52 percent—support the impeachment and removal of Trump from office, a Gallup poll released in mid-October revealed.

“Let’s table removal for the moment because the hearings are only immediately germane to the impeachment process,” Klofstad continued. “To wit, the public hearings are not likely to sway large blocks of voters one way or the other. This said, congressional Republicans and Democrats will use this political theater to continue to make their case to their constituencies and to attempt to persuade the relatively small number of Americans who are undecided on the matter.”

The public hearings, then, will serve are a vehicle “to provide information to the public, to allow the public to see the witnesses and to hear their testimony and to think about the evidence presented,” said Frances R. Hill, professor of law and Dean’s Distinguished Scholar for the Profession in the University’s School of Law.

Impeachment, said Hill, does not constitute a criminal trial, but is “a determination on whether a public official has discharged his or her duties as the Constitution requires or whether an official has abused the authority which the people have given him or her to promote personal goals of enrichment or aggrandizement inconsistent with the oath of office.”

With the stage set for the hearings, Republicans want to hear from other witnesses, most notably the anonymous government whistleblower who ignited the inquiry. However, House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, who will gavel the sessions, has said that the Ukraine whistleblower will not testify in the impeachment inquiry, arguing that the individual’s testimony would be “redundant and unnecessary.”

“A stunt by either side, but in this case the Republicans, to try and out this individual would be just that—a stunt. It would be a way to get, at least from their perspective, to the very foundation of this process because it was initiated with that whistleblower complaint,” explained Klofstad.

“And if they can find a way to out that person, to get them to testify publicly, it would be chaos,” he said. “The Republicans would be attempting to undermine that person, impugn their character, anything that they could do to say the entire foundation of this entire exercise over the past couple of months was based on false pretenses by a corrupter attempting to overthrow the president.”

Gregory Koger, professor and chair of the Department of Political Science, provides a short impeachment inquiry 101:

Witnesses have already been interviewed behind closed doors. What do Democrats hope to accomplish with this public phase of the inquiry?

The House Democrats are re-interviewing witnesses in public committee hearings to help educate the public about the Trump Administration’s Ukraine policy. U.S. policy toward this critical country was distorted by the President’s personal lawyer and others pressuring Ukraine to open investigations into the 2016 hacking of the Democratic National Committee and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden. Democrats expect that public hearings with credible witnesses—many with long backgrounds in public service and conservative politics—will portray Trump’s policy toward Ukraine as irregular, corrupt, and dangerous. This publicity may help convince Senate Republicans that, after impeachment by the U.S. House of Representatives and a trial in the Senate, they should vote to remove President Trump from office. In addition, holding public hearings may motivate reluctant witnesses like Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney that they should testify to Congress in order to clear their own names and deny breaking any laws.

How will Republicans attempt to poke holes in the Democrats’ case against the president?

The Democrats claim the President’s policy and remarks amount to solicitation of a bribe, solicitation of campaign assistance from a foreign country, and extortion. The White House and President Trump’s supporters in Congress have not coordinated on a clear response strategy. President Trump continues to assert that his phone call to Ukraine President Zelensky was “perfect” and doubters should “read the transcript”—referring to a summary of the July 25 phone call released on Sept. 26, 2019. This response ignores the concerns of those who have read the memorandum and believe it portrays the President as extorting a foreign nation for campaign assistance. Other Republicans have thus tried a range of responses that reflect the concerns raised by the White House memorandum and string of witnesses testifying that, in fact, President Trump and his informal allies did seek to coerce Ukraine into launching investigations that benefited Trump personally. Thus they have claimed a) that it is common in diplomacy to attach conditions to U.S. aid and favors, b) that Ukraine suffered no harm because the military aid funds were eventually released, c) that Ukraine did not know it was being extorted, or d) that President Trump was unaware of the illicit behavior of his personal lawyer and several administration officials. None of these arguments has been adopted as a long-term response by the President’s defenders.