Impeachment hearings likely to get worse for Republicans

Republicans, with an admittedly bad hand, blundered in charging that Democrats led with their "star witnesses" in the impeachment proceedings and that it would be downhill from there.

Instead, the House Intelligence Committee hearings promise more compelling witnesses as Democrats build the case against President Donald Trump for pressuring Ukraine to conduct a phony investigation of former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenGabbard moves to New Hampshire ahead of primary Biden hammers Trump over video of world leaders mocking him Trump's legal team huddles with Senate Republicans MORE, holding up much-needed military assistance as leverage.

These hearings will include witnesses with firsthand involvement with Trump, undercutting committee Republican complaints that it's all secondhand charges, and officials who worked directly for the president in the White House and administration, undercutting claims his critics are all anti-Trumpers.

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The most explosive testimony this coming week could be from Gordon SondlandGordon SondlandThe Memo: Will impeachment hurt Democrats or Trump? Trump vs. 130 years of civil service What Congress can't get, the people can: Trump documents are damning and there are more to come MORE, the Trump ambassador to the European Union who is a central figure in the Ukrainian scandal and who repeatedly dealt firsthand with President TrumpDonald John TrumpStates slashed 4,400 environmental agency jobs in past decade: study Biden hammers Trump over video of world leaders mocking him Iran building hidden arsenal of short-range ballistic missiles in Iraq: report MORE.

Sondland is a major Republican donor who already has revised some of his earlier private testimony. He has a top-fight lawyer, Robert Luskin, known for advising clients not to play games with investigators and about the perils of perjury.

Friday, former ambassador Marie YovanovitchMarie YovanovitchWashington state Democrat announces retirement The Hill's Morning Report - Dem impeachment report highlights phone records Phone records detail extent of Giuliani, White House contacts MORE, a highly regarded foreign service officer, gave more lift to the Democrats. Last spring, she was summarily fired at the president's direction after his personal attorney Rudy GiulianiRudy GiulianiPoll: 46 percent of voters say Trump's Ukraine dealings constitute impeachable offense GOP member urges Graham to subpoena Schiff, Biden phone records Giuliani meets with fired Ukrainian prosecutor who pushed Biden, 2016 claims: report MORE had launched a smear campaign against her, apparently for not being sympathetic to his ‘get Biden’ campaign.

Her calm, studied testimony froze most Republican attacks. The minority had the one woman on their side, New York Rep. Elise StefanikElise Marie StefanikLawmakers introduce bipartisan bill to allow new parents to advance tax credits CNN's Bianna Golodryga: 'Rumblings' from Democrats on censuring Trump instead of impeachment Adam Schiff's star rises with impeachment hearings MORE, try to divert the Trump focus, but this was overwhelmed by Trump contemporaneously tweeting out derogatory comments about Yovanovitch, charging that everywhere she went "turned bad." Actually, she has been recognized for exemplary diplomatic service, and most committee Republicans tried to distance themselves from the president's slurs.

Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffTrump's legal team huddles with Senate Republicans Three legal scholars say Trump should be impeached; one thinks otherwise Poll: 46 percent of voters say Trump's Ukraine dealings constitute impeachable offense MORE, along with a seasoned counsel, is presenting a cohesive case that Trump sought to use U.S. policy toward Ukraine for his personal gain. The first witnesses — the current acting ambassador to Ukraine, William Taylor, and a top State Department official, George Kent — laid out a convincing case about Trump's counterproductive policies.

The pro-Trump committee Republicans were strikingly ineffective in contrast to the two previous modern presidential impeachments. In 1974, Nixon defender Charles Wiggins, a California congressman, effectively forced the impeachment advocates to toughen their case. In 1998, Barney Frank, a Democratic congressman, undercut special prosecutor Ken Starr’s charges against President Clinton.

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Committee Republicans, starting with the beleaguered ranking member, Devin NunesDevin Gerald NunesConservative Dan Bongino launches alternative to the Drudge Report Poll: 46 percent of voters say Trump's Ukraine dealings constitute impeachable offense GOP member urges Graham to subpoena Schiff, Biden phone records MORE of California, and an inept outside counsel, did Trump no favors.

The heavy Republican lifting fell initially to more junior members who have their own baggage. Right-wing Ohio Republican Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanThe Hill's Morning Report - Dem impeachment report highlights phone records Lawmakers to watch during Wednesday's impeachment hearing House Republicans on Judiciary strategize ahead of Wednesday's impeachment hearing MORE was put on the committee this week for the express purpose of bringing his attack dog style, which he did. But his standing may have been undercut by a lawsuit charging that as a wrestling coach at Ohio State in the 1990s, Jordan covered up pervasive sexual abuse committed by the team physician; a number of other wrestlers on these teams echoed this accusation. Jordan denies these charges, claiming they're politically motivated.

The other chief Republican inquisitor, John RatcliffeJohn Lee RatcliffeLawmakers to watch during Wednesday's impeachment hearing House Republicans on Judiciary strategize ahead of Wednesday's impeachment hearing Live coverage: Schiff closes with speech highlighting claims of Trump's corruption MORE of Texas, had been Trump’s nominee to be director of national intelligence — but the nomination had to be withdrawn after Senate Republicans complained that Ratcliffe was unqualified and in light of press reports that he'd exaggerated his experience.

More than the defects of the interrogators are the traps they laid for Trump's defense: The accusers had no direct knowledge, they might be anti-Trumpers, investigating corruption in Ukraine is a good thing, and the country ultimately got the military aid that had been held up. Yet there is clear evidence that Trump showed little interest in attacking overall corruption in that country, only in getting Ukraine to investigate a potential 2020 opponent — Joe Biden over his son Hunter Biden serving on the board of a Ukrainian energy company.

Hunter Biden's job may have been ethically dubious, but all the experts said former Vice President Biden was a forceful advocate for cracking down on corruption in Ukraine generally and never sought to assist his son's business relations.

The military assistance, which had been approved by Congress much earlier, was released only after Congress was told about a whistleblower from the intelligence community complaining about Trump's call to the Ukrainian president.

This coming week will see public testimony from two witnesses who have served in the Trump White House and who could be potentially devastating for the president.

Lt. Col. Alexander VindmanAlexander VindmanDirector of National Intelligence Maguire should stand for the whistleblower Adam Schiff's star rises with impeachment hearings Former GOP senator to Republicans: Trump subjected Ukraine leader to a 'shakedown' MORE, a decorated Iraq war veteran and now a top Ukraine expert on the White House national security staff, was on Trump's July 25 call where Trump pressured the Ukrainian president to dig up dirt on Biden.

Later will be Fiona Hill, a much-respected national security expert on Russia and Ukraine who worked for Trump for more than two years. She has indicated outrage at the Trump behavior on this issue.

The most anticipated witness could be Sondland. Two American officials reported they were with him in a Kyiv restaurant and overheard Trump talking to Sondland, who later told them Trump was more interested in going after Biden than he was in Ukraine.

Those officials also could also testify.

It remains to be seen if this will change political and public attitudes. All the committee Republicans, including the most independent-minded, Will HurdWilliam Ballard HurdCNN's Bianna Golodryga: 'Rumblings' from Democrats on censuring Trump instead of impeachment Republicans preview impeachment defense strategy Davis: Congressman Will Hurd, If not now, when? MORE of Texas, who's retiring, indicated they're sticking with Trump.

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But the hearings also are solidifying pro-impeachment sentiments among almost all House Democrats.

Public opinion has shifted since the Ukrainian scandal broke two months ago. Now a plurality of voters favor impeachment, but Republicans remain overwhelmingly opposed.

Albert R. Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter-century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter @alhuntdc.