Democrats set stage for Watergate-style TV hearings

The trio of witnesses called to testify next week in the first public impeachment hearings are some of the biggest names and most significant players in the Democrats' sprawling six-week probe into allegations President TrumpDonald John TrumpFive landmark moments of testimony to Congress Lindsey Graham basks in the impeachment spotlight Democrats sharpen their message on impeachment MORE pressured a foreign power to investigate his political rivals.

House Democrats know that millions of Americans will be tuning in to watch the impeachment inquiry for the first time now that weeks of closed-door depositions are giving way to televised Watergate-style hearings that are set for next Wednesday and Friday.

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The hearings could be held in one of the Capitol complex's larger rooms, such as the cavernous Ways and Means hearing room.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffDemocrats sharpen their message on impeachment White House struggles to get in sync on impeachment Hillicon Valley: Microsoft pushes for DACA fix ahead of court hearing | Twitter seeks feedback on 'deepfakes' | Trump officials unveil plan to notify public of 2020 interference MORE (Calif.) and fellow Democrats have chosen three current and former State Department officials to go before the cameras first because they view them as credible, nonpartisan witnesses who will be able to walk the public through exactly how Trump and his allies engaged in wrongdoing in their dealings with Ukraine.

The three witnesses — William Taylor, the top diplomat in Ukraine; George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs; and Marie Yovanovitch, the former ambassador to Ukraine — are all veteran career foreign service officials who have served in both Democratic and Republican administrations.

“You will see throughout the course of the testimony ... the most important facts are largely not contested,” Schiff told reporters Wednesday as he announced the first public hearings of the impeachment inquiry.

“We are getting an increasing appreciation for just what took place during the course of the last year and the degree to which the president enlisted whole departments of government in the illicit aim of trying to get the Ukraine to dig up dirt on a political opponent as well as further a conspiracy theory about the 2016 election that he thought would be beneficial to his campaign,” Schiff added.

Taylor and Kent will testify before the Intelligence Committee in a public hearing on Wednesday. Yovanovitch, the ousted U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, will testify two days later.

“You want to have as big of a blockbuster coming out of the gate as possible,” said a senior Democratic aide close to the impeachment probe. “The benefit of these guys is they can tell the totality of events; they can tell the whole story.”

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Congressional investigators are expected to wrap up the last of their private depositions by the end of this week, Schiff said. But more closed-door testimony could occur if key witnesses such as former national security adviser John BoltonJohn BoltonTop diplomat said request for specific probes in Ukraine was 'contrary' to US policy White House struggles to get in sync on impeachment House Democrats, ex-Bolton aide ask judge to block Mulvaney from joining lawsuit MORE, Energy Secretary Rick PerryRick PerryOvernight Energy: BLM may boost staff numbers at new Colorado headquarters | Perry backers reportedly got Ukraine gas deal after he met with president | Paris exit toughens US path to green future Perry backers secured lucrative Ukraine gas deal after his meeting with new president: report The Hill's Morning Report - Impeachment drama will dominate this week MORE or acting White House chief of staff Mick MulvaneyJohn (Mick) Michael MulvaneyMulvaney to file separate suit to fight impeachment subpoena Trump circuit court nominee in jeopardy amid GOP opposition White House struggles to get in sync on impeachment MORE reverse course and agree to testify in private.

Taylor, the chargé d’affaires for Ukraine, will be up first — and that’s not by coincidence. Early in the probe, text messages between Taylor and other diplomats showed that he sounded the alarm about a possible quid pro quo, warning it was “crazy” for Trump to withhold nearly $400 million in security aid until Ukraine agreed to launch investigations that would be politically beneficial to Trump.

Last month, Taylor testified that he was extremely concerned about the “highly irregular” shadow foreign policy campaign — led by the president’s personal attorney Rudy GiulianiRudy GiulianiTop diplomat said request for specific probes in Ukraine was 'contrary' to US policy Press: Another billionaire need not apply Condoleezza Rice says reports of an unofficial US policy in Ukraine are 'deeply troubling' MORE and other Trump allies — demanding that Kiev investigate the Bidens and the 2016 election before receiving the military aid and a one-on-one meeting with Trump.

On Wednesday, Democrats released the 324-page transcript of Taylor’s private deposition, which showed that he stated it was his “clear understanding” there had been a quid pro quo.

The televised hearings, Schiff said, will be an opportunity for the public to hear from witnesses firsthand and evaluate their credibility. He described Taylor as a “dedicated public servant.”

“Ambassador Taylor is somebody who graduated from West Point, somebody who served in Vietnam,” Schiff said, “someone who is performing another vital service to the country in relating the facts, the very disturbing facts, that came to his attention.”

Kent, a State Department official since 1992, also testified about the pressure campaign on Ukraine, telling House investigators that he had raised concerns about Giuliani’s contacts with the country as early as March, prompting a supervisor to tell him to lay low. Kent also provided details about the efforts of Trump allies to oust Yovanovitch as ambassador to Ukraine.

Yovanovitch personally experienced those events. She was recalled from Kiev in May after Giuliani and other Trump allies mounted what Democrats have labeled a “smear campaign” against her. Democrats say Trump, Giuliani and others saw Yovanovitch as a major obstacle to the political Ukraine investigations.

“We are bringing forward the people who were direct witnesses and actors in the president’s Ukraine shakedown,” Rep. Jamie RaskinJamin (Jamie) Ben RaskinOvernight Defense: Protests at Trump's NYC Veterans Day speech | House Dems release Pentagon official's deposition transcript | Lawmakers ask Trump to rescind Erdogan invite Bipartisan House members call on Trump to rescind Erdoğan invitation Republicans have spent millions at Trump resorts since his election: report MORE (D-Md.), a member of the House Oversight and Reform Committee who has been attending the closed-door hearings, told The Hill on Wednesday. “Ambassador Yovanovitch was a victim of the scheme to extract political favors from the Ukrainian government for the president’s campaign reelection purposes. To me, she is a perfectly logical place to start, and she is a great witness to begin telling the story to America.”

“People will be able to see for themselves what this Ukraine shakedown meant in the lives and work of dedicated public servants,” he added.

Trump for weeks has denied any quid pro quo with Ukraine and has called the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry a “witch hunt” and “sham.”

The duration of the public hearings depends in large part on how many other witnesses Democrats call.

Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a National Security Council official, is expected to testify given that he already privately told investigators that he twice raised red flags with his superiors after listening in on the July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Republicans on the Intelligence panel will try to call their own witness list, but under the impeachment resolution passed by the House last week, Democrats will be able to veto any witness requested by the minority.

By holding public hearings during the two weeks before the Thanksgiving recess, Democrats could be in a position to bring articles of impeachment to the House floor by December.