Key takeaways from first public impeachment hearing

The first public impeachment hearing in 20 years featured two career diplomats on the front lines of President TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - House panel expected to approve impeachment articles Thursday Democrats worried by Jeremy Corbyn's UK rise amid anti-Semitism Warren, Buttigieg duke it out in sprint to 2020 MORE’s dealings with Ukraine. 

William Taylor, the acting ambassador to Ukraine, and George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of State for European and Eurasian affairs, testified for more than five hours amid a media frenzy and partisan bickering over the future of the Trump presidency.

Here are five takeaways.

Taylor was a credible witness

There’s a good reason why Democrats called Taylor to testify before their first public hearing on impeachment.

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The former West Point graduate and decorated Vietnam War veteran with the booming baritone voice proved to be an authoritative and credible witness, demonstrating a command of facts and providing detailed testimony based on his personal notes full of names, dates and places.

He asserted at the outset that he had no agenda against Trump or anyone else: “I am not here to take one side or the other, or to advocate for any particular outcome of these proceedings.”

But in his testimony, Taylor described an “irregular” foreign policy channel with Ukraine led by Rudy GiulianiRudy GiulianiThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - House panel expected to approve impeachment articles Thursday Horowitz offers troubling picture of FBI's Trump campaign probe Horowitz: 'Very concerned' about FBI leaks to Giuliani MORE, Trump’s personal attorney, and explained why he had raised concerns with colleagues upon learning that the White House was withholding nearly $400 million in security aid until Kyiv agreed to open investigations helpful to Trump’s reelection.   

“That security assistance was so important for Ukraine as well as our own national interest. To withhold that assistance for no good reason other than help with the political campaign made no sense,” Taylor testified. “It was counterproductive to all of what we had been trying to do. It was illogical. It could not be explained. It was crazy.”

Schiff keeps firm control on agenda 

Democrats entered Wednesday hoping to manage the tone, and they largely succeeded.

Party leaders were up in arms following the Judiciary Committee’s September hearing with Corey LewandowskiCorey R. LewandowskiGeorgia ready for unpredictable Senate race Trump on Harris dropping out of race: 'We will miss you Kamala!' Key takeaways from first public impeachment hearing MORE, Trump’s former campaign manager, which quickly degenerated into a partisan food fight. Democrats hoped to prevent a rerun when they approved rules giving House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffDemocrats seek leverage for trial Pence's office denies Schiff request to declassify call with Ukrainian leader Comey, Schiff to be interviewed by Fox's Chris Wallace MORE (D-Calif.) explicit powers to control the agenda. 

Wednesday’s hearing was notably civil, even as Democrats were bracing for audience protests, lawmaker outbursts and other demonstrations of dissent from Trump’s GOP allies. But in the few flare-ups that did occur, Democrats quickly yanked the reins and regained control.

In one incident, the Republican counsel, Steve Castor, raised questions suggesting Ukraine might have meddled in the 2016 elections in the United States. That theory has been widely debunked — not least by all the U.S. intelligence agencies — and Schiff moved swiftly to shut the thread down, objecting to questions based on “facts not in evidence”

In another testy incident, Rep. John RatcliffeJohn Lee RatcliffeTrump, first lady take part in National Christmas Tree lighting Lawmakers to watch during Wednesday's impeachment hearing House Republicans on Judiciary strategize ahead of Wednesday's impeachment hearing MORE (R-Texas) directed a question at Schiff. It quickly prompted another Democrat, Rep. Eric SwalwellEric Michael SwalwellLawmakers prep ahead of impeachment hearing Trump: Fox News 'panders' to Democrats by having on liberal guests Democrats could introduce articles of impeachment next week MORE (Calif.), to intervene with a point of order. Swalwell was armed with the rules governing the process, which dictates that lawmaker questions must be directed to the witnesses. 

Ratcliffe retreated. “I yield back,” he said. 

GOP questioning has mixed results

Republicans leading Trump’s defense won mixed reviews of their performance, as they sought to portray Taylor and Kent as unreliable witnesses since much of their recounting came second-hand. 

Ohio Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanHorowitz to appear before second Senate panel next week Top Republican requests House hearing with DOJ inspector general Trump, first lady take part in National Christmas Tree lighting MORE, a former college wrestling star and partisan pit bull, justified the decision by GOP leaders to shift him to the Intelligence panel for the public impeachment hearings. Jordan portrayed the entire impeachment as something based on a game of telephone.

“Ambassador Taylor recalls that Mr. [Timothy] Morrison told Ambassador Taylor that I told Mr. Morrison that I had conveyed this message to Mr. [Andrey] Yermak on Sept. 1, 2019, in connection with Vice President Pence’s visit to Warsaw and a meeting with President [Volodymyr] Zelensky,” Jordan said, reading a statement from Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union. 

“We’ve got six people having four conversations in one sentence, and you just told me this is where you got your clear understanding,” Jordan told Taylor.

But Castor, the GOP counsel, faced some friendly fire for his questioning.

“Whatever the GOP counsel is doing, it's not working. I don't understand where he's going,” tweeted Ari Fleischer, a GOP communicator who served as press secretary to former President George W. Bush. 

And when Castor began questioning Kent about Joe BidenJoe BidenThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - House panel expected to approve impeachment articles Thursday Democrats seek leverage for trial Democrats spend big to put Senate in play MORE’s son’s work on the board of a Ukrainian gas company, Burisma, and whether that was a conflict of interest, Fleischer complained that the counsel didn’t adequately follow up:

“What was the conflict? Why would that be a concern? Would it have been better if Hunter was not on Burisma?” Fleischer tweeted. “GOP counsel is not making a case.”

Surprises are possible

Heading into the hearing, Democrats said they didn't expect either witness to break any new ground — substantially — since both Taylor and Kent had already testified privately for hours last month. They were proven wrong.

Taylor, in his opening statement, informed lawmakers of an episode he hadn’t relayed in his closed-door deposition on Oct. 22 because, he said, he wasn’t aware of it at the time. 

Taylor said a member of his staff had overheard a July 26 phone conversation between Trump and Sondland, Republican mega-donor-turned U.S. ambassador to the European Union, in which Trump asked Sondland “about the investigations.” Sondland, Taylor added, responded that “the Ukrainians were ready to move forward.” 

“Following the call with President Trump, the member of my staff asked Ambassador Sondland what President Trump thought about Ukraine,” Taylor testified. “Ambassador Sondland responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden which Giuliani was pressing for.” 

The episode adds new ammunition to the central thesis of the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry: that Trump and his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, had pressed foreign leaders to dig up dirt on the president’s domestic political rivals. 

Republicans, however, dismissed the new development as more secondhand accounting from a witness whose earlier testimony they’d already rejected as “hearsay.”

Testimony seems unlikely to move needle

Democrats accomplished what they wanted: They got two key witnesses on camera explaining how they raised red flags about Trump’s actions with Ukraine.

But there were no real fireworks or bombshells during the 5 1/2 hours of testimony. Taylor and Kent are obscure figures, unknown in most households. And the issue involves Ukraine, a country that most Americans couldn’t find on a map.

All of that explains why Wednesday’s hearing isn’t likely to move skeptical Republicans or public opinion in favor of impeachment.  

“It absolutely will NOT and undecided voters will not be swayed by today’s testimony,” Rep. Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsMeadows says he's advocating for Trump to add Alan Dershowitz to impeachment defense team State Department, Nuclear Regulatory Commission ranked the worst agencies on IT issues Trump abandons plan to dissolve Office of Personnel Management: report MORE (R-N.C.), a Trump loyalist who was in the room watching the hearing, said in a text message to The Hill. 

“Most people will be glad the foreign aid was not given so freely to a corrupt country.”