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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 Biden, 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 Hill's 12:30 Report - Biden to mark Tuesday anniversary of George Floyd's death Trump impeachment witness suing Pompeo, State over legal fees America's practice of 'pay-to-play' ambassadors is no joke 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 TrumpIran claims U.S. to lift all oil sanctions but State Department says 'nothing is agreed' Ivanka Trump, Kushner distance themselves from Trump claims on election: CNN Overnight Defense: Joint Chiefs chairman clashes with GOP on critical race theory | House bill introduced to overhaul military justice system as sexual assault reform builds momentum 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 YovanovitchGiuliani hires attorneys who defended Harvey Weinstein The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Emergent BioSolutions - Facebook upholds Trump ban; GOP leaders back Stefanik to replace Cheney Former Ukrainian prosecutor says he was fired for not investigating Hunter Biden: report 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 GiulianiGuardian Angels founder Curtis Sliwa wins GOP primary in NYC mayor's race The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Democrats await Manchin decision on voting rights bill Newsmax hires Jenna Ellis, Hogan Gidley as contributors 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 StefanikWhite House denies pausing military aid package to Ukraine Canadian ambassador calls for close coordination in handling of US border Five takeaways on the Supreme Court's Obamacare decision 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 SchiffDemocratic lawmakers not initially targeted in Trump DOJ leak probe: report Sunday shows - Voting rights, infrastructure in the spotlight Schiff calls Iranian presidential election 'predetermined' 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 NunesTech privacy practices under scrutiny after DOJ subpoenas GOP's Stefanik defends Trump DOJ secret subpoenas CNN reporter's phone and email records secretly obtained by Trump administration: report 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 JordanTech antitrust bills create strange bedfellows in House markup White House uses Trump's words praising China to slam McCarthy's Biden criticism Powell says pickup in job gains likely this fall 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 RatcliffeCentrists gain foothold in infrastructure talks; cyber attacks at center of Biden-Putin meeting Five things to know about the new spotlight on UFOs Extraordinary explanations for UFOs look increasingly plausible 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 BidenJoe BidenSchumer vows to advance two-pronged infrastructure plan next month Biden appoints veteran housing, banking regulator as acting FHFA chief Iran claims U.S. to lift all oil sanctions but State Department says 'nothing is agreed' MORE 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 VindmanVindman says he doesn't regret testimony against Trump Esper: If my replacement is 'a real yes man' then 'God help us' Ukrainian president whose call with Trump sparked impeachment congratulates Biden 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 HurdFirst Democrat jumps into key Texas House race to challenge Gonzales Will the real Lee Hamiltons and Olympia Snowes please stand up? The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden, Congress drawn into pipeline cyberattack, violence in Israel 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.