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Five things to watch for in first public impeachment hearings

President Donald Trump in the Oval Office of

President Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on Oct. 24. Credit: AP / Alex Brandon

WASHINGTON — The Democratic-led House will hold its first open hearing in the impeachment inquiry Wednesday to present its star witnesses in the case against President Donald Trump — and the stakes couldn’t be higher for everyone involved.

Two U.S. career diplomats are to appear in the fast-moving inquiry begun just two months ago to testify about the backdrop to Trump’s request of Ukraine’s president to investigate his Democratic rival Joe Biden and his son, and Ukraine’s role in the 2016 U.S. elections.

“There’s nothing except for war that is more intense and more monumental than the House conducting an impeachment inquiry,” said Michael Gerhardt, a University of North Carolina law professor and expert on impeachment.

“It's going to be a big test for the House and how it builds its case. It’s going to be a big test for the president and his defenders on how they respond to the facts,” Gerhardt said. “And ultimately it’s going to be a very big test for the American people on whether or not they think this is sufficiently grave to justify an impeachment and possibly a conviction and removal.”

Up on the public stage Wednesday will be Ambassador William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent, the State Department’s lead career official on Ukraine, who gave critical testimony behind closed doors.

On Friday, Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch will testify about her abrupt removal earlier this year as Ambassador to Ukraine as Trump authorized an irregular diplomatic channel to Ukraine led by his private attorney Rudy Giuliani.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), who is leading the inquiry as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, announced late Tuesday three days of hearings next week that will include Ambassador Kurt Volker, the former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine, and Ambassador Gordon Sondland, U.S. Ambassador to the European Union. 

The rules adopted by the House limit the hearings’ investigation to Trump’s request that Ukraine investigate the Bidens and 2016 elections for his own political benefit, his use of his powers to withhold U.S. aid in order to pressure Ukraine, and his obstruction of the impeachment inquiry.

Under the rules, Schiff and Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the inquiry’s top Republican, will each get 45 minutes for them or their counsels to question the witnesses. Then each of the 22 members of the Intelligence Committee get five minutes for questions. Each witness will be allowed to make an opening statement.

Here are five things to watch for in the hearings this week.

How will the witnesses perform?

Democrats are counting on the seasoned diplomats to persuade the public with their “integrity, honesty and patriotism” as they discuss their concerns about the impact of Trump and Giuliani’s dealings on U.S. policy against political corruption in former Soviet republics such as Ukraine, said Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-St. Albans), who was in the closed hearings.

But Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) said you never know how a witness will come across when they sit in the well of a packed hearing room surrounded by cameras. “It will probably be a stalemate unless one of the witnesses comes across great or really poorly,” he said.

Will the Democrats elicit a clear, understandable case against Trump?

Democrats said they believe the extended 45-minute questioning will allow them to deliver a narrative through the testimony of these diplomats that’s easily grasped and underlines the seriousness of Trump’s abuse of power for political gain.

“It is vitally important that the American people and all members of Congress hear in their own words what they experienced and witnessed,” Schiff said Tuesday in a memo to Democratic members of the inquiry.

Lurking is the danger that Taylor or Kent might get bogged down in bureaucrat-speak or on distracting detail — and a tough and challenging cross-examination by Republicans.

Will the Republicans succeed in countering the Democrats’ narrative?

Republicans successfully derailed the impact of House Judiciary Committee hearings with motions and process votes — a tactic they could try again Wednesday.

They also said they will undermine the witnesses’ testimony by pointing out that it’s all based on second- or third-hand information and has yet to link directly to Trump.

In a memo Tuesday, Republicans said they will argue that Trump did not pressure Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky in the July 25 call and that Ukraine didn’t know U.S. aid had been held up — and it was released after all.

But their arguments could miss the mark if they focus more on process, the allegations against the Bidens, and Ukraine’s role in the 2016 election instead of the facts developed so far.

Will the hearings draw a large audience, as they did in previous impeachments?

Previous impeachment inquiry hearings in 1974 and 1998 drew large audiences, and many expect the same for the Trump hearings — with a twist.

This time, ABC, CBS and NBC will only run short special reports on hearing days. That leaves gavel to gavel coverage to PBS and C-SPAN, as well as CNN, MSNBC and Fox News, where many will turn to reinforce their partisan perspectives, aided by tweets from Trump and others.

Some Republicans already dismissed the hearings as a bore. Yet Elliot Mincberg, a legal expert at the liberal People for the American Way, said, “You just don’t know until it happens,” adding that “live testimony by these witnesses … may have a significant influence on people.”

How will the hearings affect support and opposition for the impeachment process?

The nation remains locked in partisan political gridlock, though polling shows that since the Democratic-led House opened the impeachment inquiry more now support than oppose the inquiry into whether to try Trump for high crimes and misdemeanors.

The day before the inquiry was announced on Sept. 24, an average of polls by the data news outlet FiveThirtyEight found that 51% opposed impeachment and 40% supported it. In mid-October, that flipped, and nearly 51% supported the process.

But since then, the approval rating has dipped and flattened just below 50%.

On Tuesday, it stood at 49.2% who support the process and 45.7% who don’t. Supporting the process: 83.1% of Democrats, 12.3% Republicans and 46.4% of independents.

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