Turn off the hundredth episode of that old soap opera and tune in to the first public hearings on the Trump impeachment. A career diplomat being questioned before a battery of cameras, by legislators from both sides on the House Intelligence Committee, even as the media vied against each other in searching for that perfect adjective to describe the scene at the hearing on Capitol Hill.
For those just coming in through the door, the impeachment process of Donald Trump rests on the allegation that as President of United States, he used military aid and political pressure to get the Ukrainian Government to provide details of the activities of Hunter Biden, son of his main political rival Joseph Biden. That allegation, in turn, rests on a phone call made on 29 June, the transcript of which so outraged an intelligence official that he brought it to the attention of the authorities. That's the simple part of it. The rest of it is incredibly complicated, involving several former and serving officials, and a considerable amount of innuendos on both sides.
The public hearings which began this week follows a series of secret hearings by the Democrats, that were hugely decried by the White House. Those hearings were held in a tiny windowless spy proof room that is called the SCIF ( Sensitive Compartmentalized Information Facility) located deep in the innards of a government building, and which according to those who attended, smelled like nothing less than a 'locker room' in a few days. That room became even more famous, when a group of Republicans barged noisily into the room in a style that can only be described as of Indian origin. There is good logic for holding these hearings 'in camera'. As impartial critics note, this allows the Dems to sift through what they want put out publicly, and what they would rather not. Not to put too fine a point on it, it also allows a good deal of 'prepping' of witnesses, whether it is intended to or not.
The first public hearings ensured that the whole scene will certainly make it to Hollywood. The impassive and stoic former US Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanavitch, the child of Soviet refugees, and a professional of impeccable standing, was classic TV material that could elicit sympathy from a stone. The facts? She actually had little direct knowledge of the allegations since she had left office by that time. All that was left was hearsay.
It also emerged that she would have had full knowledge of the Hunter Biden's activities in Kiev, since she was fully briefed by Obama Administration officials when she left to take up the post of Ambassador. So clearly, there was sufficient data there to make people in Washington concerned. Nobody, among the Democrats at least, seem to have wanted to hear more about that. The top Republican on the Committee Rep David Nunes did try, but was unceremoniously shot down.
Then there is the testimony by a person of equally high repute. William B Taylor, who replaced Yovanavitch, was earlier Executive Vice President of the United States Institute of Peace, a think tank that is funded by the US Congress, and works closely with the Department of State among others. Apart from being a war veteran, and an earlier ambassador to Kyiv, he is known to be as straight talking as they come. At the secret hearings, he was clearly identified as a 'star witness'. His deposition is 324 pages long, and notes his main concern of Ukraine's safety in case the promised military assistance did not materialise despite " and here's the core " the Ukrainian president obligingly providing details publicly of Hunter Biden's activities in the country.
Taylor has long been arguing for better protection for Ukraine against Russia, and would certainly have resigned if that aid had been withheld for any reason. His testimony also makes it abundantly clear that there was a separate and irregular policy making channel that involved advisors like Rudy Giuliani. The reality is that such 'irregular' channels are the norm rather than the exception in diplomacy everywhere " as long as they don't run completely counter to the regular channel. That's where trouble emerged. After initial enthusiastic cooperation, it seemed that this irregular channel was now on a head on collision with the regular one. That emerged when it became clear that badly needed arms assistance was to be held back under the specific instructions of the President's office. The problem is that even the star witness has no actual proof that this was connected to the 'investigations' that President Trump was allegedly demanding in return for arms aid. Most of that is hearsay and deductive with a lot of 'he said' and 'she said'. That's not evidence, but to those reading his testimony, it is clear that there is a connection between the two. Taylor is clarity itself. So is the transcript of his public testimony. It also abundantly shows that Democrats have side stepped 45 years of bipartisan procedures made to ensure a fair impeachment process, including primarily by withholding important documents and access to hearings. The Republicans have right on their side in this matter at least.
There are more testimonies to come, among them being that of Ambassador Sondland, the US representative to the European Union, who is allegedly part of the 'irregular channel' in pushing Ukraine to provide dirt on the Bidens. That should prove pretty explosive. There are yet others, who's testimony will also be hotly debated. But the fate of the impeachment process largely lies in the numbers and the language. In numbers, the Dems have the majority in the House (235-198) to carry forward a simple vote on impeachment. After the House calls for such a motion, the whole moves to the Senate for trial. Here the Republicans have the upper hand (53-45) and can easily block a majority vote to impeach. It's not even worth bothering about at some level since there is absolutely no likelihood at present that some 20 plus Republicans will turn on their President.
Then there is the language. The US Constitution says that an impeachment requires that the President be judged guilty of "Treason, Bribery, or other High Crimes and Misdemeanours." That's why the focus of the trial is on the decision on withholding the arms package. That could be read as bribery. It could also be read as 'national security' or pretty much anything else the administration would like to use. After all, US Presidents for years have turned a blind eye to Pakistan's nuclear program on the grounds of US national interest, which seems to be a pretty flexible concept in times of need. And here's the thing. It's the Trump administration that granted the first tranche of arms aid to Ukraine. The Obama Administration pretty much sat on its hands, while Ukraine was under severe threat from Moscow. That's bound to come up too.
In sum therefore, it seems the Dems are pushing the envelope in trying to break Republican ranks with clear evidence of bribery and misconduct. If that doesn't work, the strategy is probably to at least provide the public with evidence and public discussion enough of a corrupt Presidency. The trouble is that as the impeachment process drags on, - and this could take months together " public interest will flag, and move on to the next tweet or issue or personality. Unless something really explosive can be proved, the much trumped impeachment process may in fact bounce back badly on the Dems. In terms of the Trump image elsewhere, the fact that the Washington media is strongly anti-Trump is only likely to do him good in capitals like Delhi, which now have reason to suspect once respected news sources of rather more than a one eyed perspective. As for Trump himself, he's still tweeting. That of course could go either or any which way.