The House Intelligence Committee opened historic impeachment hearings Wednesday to investigate whether President Donald Trump abused his office in an attempt to strong-arm Ukraine into opening an inquiry into his political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden.
Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff’s opening statement had a very clear message: These hearings aren’t about just Trump. They’re about how the presidency functions (and should function) within our democracy — and about the checks and balances between the legislative and executive branches built into the Constitution.
“Our answer to these questions will affect not only the future of this presidency, but the future of the presidency itself, and what kind of conduct or misconduct the American people may come to expect from their commander-in-chief,” said Schiff at one point.
At another, citing the Trump’s administration’s refusal to allow its senior officials to testify before Congress, Schiff said such a move “is not what the Founders intended,” adding: “The prospects for further corruption and abuse of power, in this administration or another, will be exponentially increased.”
In closing, Schiff asked, “Is that what Americans should now expect from their President? If this is not impeachable conduct, what is? Does the oath of office itself — requiring that our laws be faithfully executed, that our President defend a Constitution that balances the powers of its branches, setting ambition against ambition so that we become no monarchy — still have meaning?”
The goal of Schiff’s repeated invocations of history — he mentioned the Founders twice and the Constitution three times — was to cast these hearings less as a partisan effort directed at Trump and more as a necessary defense of the democratic principles on which the country was founded.
This isn’t about Trump or even a particular political party, Schiff was saying. This is about how we want our government to work — and not work.
If Schiff tried to ground the hearings in history, California Rep. Devin Nunes, the highest-ranking Republican on the Intelligence Committee, sought to go the opposite route.
He called the hearings a “pitiful finale” to Democratic attempts to overturn the results of the 2016 election.
He described the closed-door testimony offered by Ukraine witnesses a “cult-like atmosphere.”
He suggested that the whistleblower “was known to have a bias against President Trump.”
He derided the “impeachment sham.”
He called the proceedings a”Star Chamber”
He dismissed the investigation as a “low-rent Ukrainian sequel” to the Mueller investigation.
Nowhere did Nunes actually address the July 25 transcript between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, or discuss the facts presented by the witnesses called by House investigators.
Bill Taylor, the top US official in Ukraine, laid out an excruciatingly specific timeline of his interactions with, among others, National Security Adviser John Bolton, US Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland and top Ukrainian officials.
In that timeline, he repeatedly made clear that there was an understanding that military aid from the US to Ukraine was being withheld unless and until the country announced an investigation into Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian natural gas company where Hunter Biden, the former vice president’s son, sat on the board.
One of the main thrusts of the GOP argument against the testimony of Taylor is that, for all of their concerns about what Trump asked of Zelensky, the nearly $400 million in military aid was released in September — even without Ukraine making any public statement about its plans to investigate the Bidens.
But context matters. Right around the time that the aid was released fully — September 11 — Congress had begun to ask questions about why the aid was being withheld. And there was already talk about a whistleblower complaint, which had been formally filed on August 11, alleging wrongdoing by Trump on that call with Zelensky among other things.
That timing suggests that the argument being made by the Republicans isn’t as conclusive as they want it to seem.
Moreover, the law states that even if the aid wasn’t withheld, it is still illegal. If you plan on killing someone, or robbing a bank, or any other crime, it is still illegal and you can go to prison – whether or not you go ahead with your plan.
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