They were the words of Donald Trump’s former right-hand man Steve Bannon used when describing the tactics deployed by Democrats to impeach Trump and remove him from office.
The US president’s highly anticipated first televised public hearing of a US congressional impeachment inquiry began on Wednesday (local time) with senior Democratic and Republican lawmakers presenting duelling narratives.
The drama unfolded in a hearing of the House of Representatives intelligence committee in which two career US diplomats - William Taylor and George Kent - voiced alarm over the Republican president and those around him pressuring Ukraine to conduct investigations that would benefit Trump politically.
While the Democrats are confident of bringing the president down, far-right political strategist Bannon believes if the “facts come out in the way I think the facts should come out” he will in fact benefit from the hearing as it will “serve as a predicate for people to understand the direction that he’s trying to take the country in.”
What is Donald Trump accused of?
Democrats want to build a strong public case that Trump abused his presidential powers by pressuring Ukraine to launch corruption investigations involving the son of Joe Biden, the former vice president who is vying to be the Democratic nominee to run against Trump in the 2020 presidential elections.
Democrats want the broadest possible public support should they choose to formally impeach Trump, which could happen by December. Any trial would take place in the Senate, which is controlled by Trump’s Republican Party.
Televised hearings will “be an opportunity for the American people to evaluate the witnesses for themselves,” House Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff has said.
Democrats want to present evidence that Trump’s officials delayed security aid to Kiev and, with the help of Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, used the lure of a possible White House meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to try to get Ukrainian compliance with Trump’s demands.
Impeachment hearing revelations
As the hearing began on Wednesday, one revelation in particular drew attention, showing Trump's keen interest in Ukraine investigating political rival Joe Biden.
Taylor said a member of his staff overheard a July 26 phone call between Trump and Gordon Sondland, a former political donor appointed as a senior diplomat, in which the Republican president asked about those investigations and Sondland told him that the Ukrainians were ready to proceed.
Following the call - which occurred a day after Trump had asked Ukraine's president during a phone call to conduct these investigations - the staff member asked Sondland, the US ambassador to the European Union, what Trump thought about Ukraine, said Taylor, the top US diplomat in Ukraine.
"Ambassador Sondland responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden, which Giuliani was pressing for," Taylor testified, referring to Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani.
Asked by Adam Schiff, the committee's Democratic chairman, if that meant Trump cared more about the investigations than about Ukraine, Taylor said, "Yes, sir."
Trump has denied doing anything wrong.
What is the Democrats game plan?
Democrats have invited three diplomats who have previously testified behind closed doors to recount what they knew or heard about Trump and Giuliani’s dealings with Ukraine. These witnesses will be questioned by committee staff attorneys as well as lawmakers including Schiff and the senior Republican on the committee, Devin Nunes.
The Democrats will ask the diplomats to discuss their understanding of events before and after a July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelenskiy. According to a rough White House transcript of that call, the president pressed Zelenskiy to investigate an unsubstantiated conspiracy theory involving the 2016 election and a Democratic Party computer server, as well as a Ukrainian energy company in which Hunter Biden had been a board member.
Democrats are also expected to try to use the hearings to show Trump obstructed Congress – the basis of another possible article of impeachment – by detailing how he has blocked some witnesses from appearing and otherwise refused to cooperate with their probe. The White House has called the inquiry partisan and illegitimate as a basis for not cooperating.
Trump has complained bitterly on Twitter that the process does not allow him to be represented in the intelligence committee. “I get NO LAWYER & NO DUE PROCESS,” he wrote in one tweet.
However, Trump and/or his lawyer would be allowed to attend later hearings before the House Judiciary Committee, which will debate what, if any, articles of impeachment should be filed and sent to the floor for a vote.
Who are the witnesses?
The top US diplomat in Ukraine, William Taylor, is considered a critical witness to the case against Trump. Taylor was upset to find out that security aid to Ukraine, as well as a White House meeting between Trump and Zelenskiy, had been delayed for political reasons.
“It’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign,” Taylor wrote earlier this year in a text message released by House investigators.
Another senior US diplomat, George Kent, will appear with Taylor at Wednesday’s hearing (local time). Kent said in closed-door testimony that he had been alarmed by efforts by Giuliani and others to pressure Ukraine to accede to Trump’s demands.
Former US ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch will testify on Friday. She has said she was ousted from her post after she came under attack by Giuliani, whose associates “may well have believed that their personal financial ambitions were stymied by our anti-corruption policy in Ukraine.”
The Democrats also could call additional witnesses.
Republicans have requested their own witnesses, including Biden’s son and the whistleblower whose complaint triggered the impeachment inquiry into Trump. Democrats can veto Republicans’ witnesses and Schiff suggested he may do so, saying he did not want the hearings to become an investigation of the Bidens or to facilitate retaliation against the whistleblower.
How do Republicans and Trump plan to respond?
Republicans have painted the Democratic-led inquiry as a partisan exercise, with Nunes saying the Democrats were pursuing a “sham impeachment process” that has mistreated Trump. They will seek to provide a different narrative for the millions of Americans expected to watch the hearings, minimising Trump’s role in events and attempting to cast doubt on witness testimony.
Republicans said on Friday Representative Jim Jordan, one of Trump’s most aggressive and tenacious defenders, would move to the intelligence committee for the public hearings phase of the inquiry.
Republicans are already attacking the Democratic witnesses, saying that Yovanovitch’s recall as ambassador was a side issue, and that other witnesses’ knowledge of key events was largely third-hand.
“He (William Taylor) is admitting that he had no first-hand or second-hand knowledge of any of the developments,” one Republican party official told Reuters. “Yet Democrats are presenting him as their star witness for this whole endeavour to impeach the president.”
Republicans can also be expected to argue that Ukrainian officials did not feel pressured because they did not even know the $391 million in security aid had been held up at the time Trump asked them last July for a “favour.” They have also emphasised that the Ukrainians never announced the investigations Trump wanted, and that Zelenskiy said he did not feel “pushed” by Trump.
Some Republicans may also follow the lead of Republican Representative Michael Turner, a member of the intelligence committee who said in September that Trump’s telephone conversation with Zelenskiy was “not OK,” but impeachment would be an “assault” on the electorate.
With Reuters and AAP
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