The impeachment inquiry into U.S. President Donald Trump is about to get very real, very fast.
Nov. 13 will mark the beginning of public hearings, moving the inquiry from a closed-door investigation into a full-blown, nationally televised spectacle.
What to expect
It all begins with testimony from the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, William Taylor.
Taylor is a career diplomat, viewed as a highly credible and largely unassailable witness. In his earlier testimony, he explained that he kept thorough notes of his interactions and work after being brought out of retirement by the Trump administration to serve in Ukraine.
Taylor has also corroborated the major allegation from the whistleblower complaint — that Trump and his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, were pressuring Ukraine to launch an investigation into former vice-president Joe Biden.
Taylor said it was his “clear understanding” that U.S. military aid to Ukraine was being withheld and wouldn’t be released until the Ukrainians publicly announced that investigation.
It’s one thing to read those allegations — it will be another to hear those words spoken directly by Taylor and all the other witnesses who will be hauled before the cameras.
Why it matters
This is the point at which the president’s conduct will be thrust into the spotlight in a format that’s easily digestible by the American public.
The average voter probably isn’t sitting at home reading transcripts of congressional testimony, but it will be harder to ignore spoken first-person accounts on television.
Democrats believe that in this moment, it will become harder for Republicans to defend the president’s conduct. The party’s shifting defence of the transcripts and testimony that have already been made public offer a window into this.
The public hearings will change the conversation, and public support for impeachment is an unavoidable factor for both parties.
Major national polls from NBC-The Wall Street Journal, ABC-The Washington Post and Fox News all paint the same picture. There’s a near-even split among Americans between those who support impeaching Trump and removing him from office and those who don’t.
All three polls have support for impeachment and removal at 49 per cent, with opposition to impeachment ranging from 41 per cent to 47 per cent.
That matters because there’s a firm partisan divide among the politicians who will decide whether Trump is, in fact, impeached and removed. Democrats support his impeachment, Republicans don’t. Democrats can pass articles of impeachment in the House. Republicans in the Senate can block Trump’s removal from office and save his job.
But politicians don’t operate in isolation. They will undoubtedly be watching the public mood closely.
It would be naive to expect a massive number of Republicans to break ranks with Trump, but if the evidence becomes so damning and public opinion sours against the president, defections cannot be ruled out.
What to watch for
The biggest “tell” of how damaging a particular testimony is will be the president’s defence.
For example, after Taylor’s closed-door deposition and opening statements were made public, Trump claimed he was a “Never Trumper Diplomat,” even though Taylor was called out of retirement and appointed by the Trump administration.
Ahead of the release of the full transcript of Taylor’s testimony, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, an ardent Trump defender, had argued the White House was too incompetent to have carried out any kind of quid pro quo with Ukraine. One can imagine Trump isn’t thrilled with the “too stupid” defence.
Democrats, on the other hand, will have to be careful not to overplay their hand. Watch for their strategy to focus on the substance of the allegations and not the process of the impeachment inquiry. Specifically, they will take a methodical and deliberate approach to laying out and substantiating the key allegations against Trump in a way that’s understandable.
What will be accomplished?
In this hyper-partisan and highly divided climate, it’s easy to see the end from here: unless something drastic changes, the House will all but certainly pass articles of impeachment against Trump, but he will likely not be convicted in the Senate. This is the Bill Clinton scenario that Democrats are all too aware is the most likely outcome.
So why do it?
Congress has a constitutionally mandated oversight role. If the central allegation is that Trump is abusing his power to influence the 2020 election, they have no choice but to probe the matter to ensure a free and fair vote.
As far as Democrats are concerned, there’s also no harm in forcing Republicans to defend the president’s behaviour by getting them to go on the record in the lead-up to the 2020 election.
Jackson Proskow is Washington bureau chief for Global National.