In the early days of the impeachment inquiry, Republicans quickly found a defence to the allegations against President Donald Trump.
“It’s all hearsay!” they proclaimed. Nothing to see here. Move right along.
Sure enough, the first three witnesses to testify all had their credibility questioned because they were passing along second-, third- or fourth-hand information about Trump’s alleged pressure campaign on Ukraine.
William Taylor, acting U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, “never, never talked with the president,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), as he tried to dismiss a day’s worth of testimony.
Unfortunately for Jordan, the inquiry is about to hear from a bunch of people who did.
Many of the eight witnesses scheduled to testify this week have first-person knowledge of what happened as President Trump spoke with the president of Ukraine, and sought investigations into his political rival, Joe Biden. Some even spoke directly with Trump.
Tuesday will bring testimony from people like Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the high-ranking National Security Council member who was on the line for Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Zelenskiy.
Vindman has already testified in private that he was so alarmed by what he heard that he reported his concerns to his superiors. He has said that the official summary of the call produced by the White House was missing details.
Then there’s Kurt Volker, a former special representative to Ukraine, who is one of the key players in the apparent scheme to use U.S. military aid as leverage with Zelenskiy.
Wednesday’s hearing will begin with testimony from Gordon Sondland, who was allegedly overheard while on the phone, discussing the status of “the investigations” with President Trump.
Sondland is possibly the most important figure in the scheme to pressure the Ukrainians. He has already revised his closed-door testimony to corroborate the central allegation of a “quid pro quo.”
Simply put, these are people who can’t simply be brushed aside for a lack of direct information. The president seems to be aware of this, and is now road-testing a new line of defence: these career diplomats are actually “Never Trumpers” who are out to get him.
Trump preemptively attacked Jennifer Williams, a special adviser to Vice President Mike Pence. Williams is set to testify on Tuesday.
She, too, was on the Trump-Zelenskiy phone call, and just like Lt. Col. Vindman, she has now been attacked as a “Never Trumper.”
Who else is in the “Never Trump” camp? According to the president, Ambassador Taylor and State Department official George Kent — the first two witnesses to testify in public. Nevermind that that Trump administration called Taylor out of retirement to serve in Ukraine.
But the “hearsay” testimony of the first three witnesses made one thing very clear: career diplomats swear an oath to serve their country, not the present occupant of the White House.
Last Friday, ousted U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch began her public testimony by explaining how she joined the foreign service during the Reagan administration “and subsequently served three other Republican presidents, as well as two Democratic presidents.”
The other problem Trump faces with the “Never Trumper” smear is that it’s impossible to apply to all of the witnesses.
Sondland, the U.S. Ambassador to the E.U., was appointed by Trump after donating US$1 million to the president’s inauguration. He can’t be anti-Trump, so the president now says he “hardly knows” his hand-picked ambassador.
Which brings us back to those complaints that some witnesses hardly know what they’re talking about.
Hearsay evidence would typically be inadmissible in a court of law. But Congress is not a court and an impeachment inquiry is not a courtroom proceeding — it’s a constitutional one.
Articles of impeachment, relating to bribery, treason, high crimes or misdemeanours, are drafted and voted on by members of the House of Representatives. They’re subjective, in a sense, and are loosely defined.
More importantly, the hearsay evidence presented in this initial phase has borne fruit — laying out a roadmap for how the investigation should proceed.
The original whistleblower complaint, based on indirect knowledge, unleashed an avalanche of witnesses who were actually there and overheard the Trump-Zelenskiy call. Since then, many of the witnesses who have testified have since substantiated the second-hand information that came before them.
One key example is Taylor’s testimony about his staff overhearing that conversation between Sondland and Trump, in which Trump could be heard yelling into a phone about the status of “the investigations.”
Did Taylor hear the conversation himself? No. But his second-hand story led to the inquiry to question the staffer who did.
And this week, Sondland will face direct public questions about what was said.
Jackson Proskow is Washington Bureau Chief for Global National.