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Impeachment hearings are high drama on Capitol Hill

William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine,

William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, is one of the first witnesses to testify during the official impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump, which gets underway on Wednesday. Credit: EPA/Michael Reynolds

Impeachment hearings are high drama. The public process examining the conduct of President Donald Trump that begins Wednesday is no exception.

This drama is about the integrity of the presidency and the abuse of presidential power. It's only the fourth such play in our nation's history, and this one begins as partisan rancor is at a fever pitch and new questions mount about the competence of a central character who is deeply polarizing and filled with hubris.

The prologue to this drama takes place thousands of miles away and five years ago when Russia annexed Crimea, which was part of Ukraine. Much of the world denounced Russia, but its troops, tanks and weapons are still there, notably along a new demarcation line between the two countries, still posing a threat. The United States and Europe have supported a free Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, as a bulwark against renewed Russian aggression on the continent. Our diplomatic personnel have spent years building our relationship with Ukraine and nurturing its fledgling democracy.

Enter Trump, stage right. He came into office in 2016 nursing baseless grievances that Ukraine was the source of many events that delegitimized his presidency. He seeks to shift blame for 2016 election interference, saying without proof that it actually was Ukraine, not Russia, that intervened and did so on behalf of Hillary Clinton. He promotes a conspiracy theory that Ukraine has the Democratic National Committee server that was hacked by Russian operatives as well as Clinton's deleted emails (it has neither). Trump also wants Ukraine to investigate Hunter Biden's tenure as a board member of a Ukrainian natural gas company called Burisma while his father was U.S. vice president, saying without proof that Joe Biden sought to stop Ukraine from investigating corruption that involved Burisma.

The central plot is a simple one. Did Trump improperly seek to get Ukraine to investigate the Bidens to damage the 2020 Democratic front-runner, and as leverage did the president hold back desperately needed military aid and a coveted White House meeting with Ukraine's new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to force Zelensky to announce such a probe? One important character  who pops up in many scenes is Trump's personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, who according to testimony in closed-door House hearings, conducted shadow diplomacy in Ukraine and pressured officials there to probe Biden and thus aid Trump's reelection effort.

Act 1 will feature three witnesses. Ambassador William Taylor, the top diplomat in Ukraine, is scheduled to  appear Wednesday along with George Kent, the State Department official who oversees policy in that region. Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, is due to testify Friday. Transcripts of their closed-door testimony — three of the eight released so far — detail among other things the quid pro quo Trump sought from Zelensky and the campaign spearheaded by Giuliani to smear Yovanovitch before her recall in May.

You are the audience, and your review matters. Remember that the impeachment of Richard Nixon in 1974 became a certainty as public sentiment forged by televised testimony moved against the president. You have a weighty responsibility.

Focus on what, if anything, Trump's defenders say about the substance of the testimony, as opposed to attacking the motivation or background of witnesses. Taylor and others like him are career servants with impeccable records, some with military honors. They've served both Democratic and Republican administrations for decades with distinction. They might be faceless bureaucrats, but they've worked on Ukraine's problems for years. They're patriots, too.

Don't be deceived by the false narrative about the whistleblower whose complaint launched the inquiry. Federal law protects his or her identity and must be respected. Understand that the vast majority of the complaint has been verified by documents and testimony. 

Be sensitive to the possibility that some people see the impeachment hearings as a vehicle to get rid of a president they don't like. But understand what this drama actually is. It is not a coup. It is part of our democracy, the nation's bedrock system of checks and balances. A president has great leeway to conduct foreign policy but only for the good of the nation, not for his personal gain. When he uses the power of his office to serve himself, he runs afoul of the Constitution.

We hope the proceedings are conducted with a sense of gravity and responsible questioning, not grandstanding, that they are less performance art and more sober fact-finding. We hope everyone who is called to testify does so.

The curtain will rise amid other related theatrics — the ongoing trial of Trump confidant and dirty trickster Roger Stone on charges stemming from special counsel Robert Mueller's probe into Russian election interference on behalf of Trump; leaks of a book written by an anonymous Trump administration official, whose 2018 New York Times op-ed questioned Trump's fitness for office; and a possible shutdown of the federal government later this month, a prospect some Washington insiders say is more likely given Trump's anger over the impeachment proceedings. Add to that the probability that Trump will do or say outrageous things daily to divert attention or seize control of the narrative. 

There will be plot twists and turns before the curtain drops. The drama will impact the 2020 presidential campaign, regardless of how it ends, and reverberate for years to come. It opens Wednesday, and we all have parts to play.