IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Transcript: Battle Lines

The full episode transcript for Article II: Inside Impeachment, Battle Lines.


Article II: Inside Impeachment

Battle Lines

Steve Kornacki: From NBC News, this is Article II: Inside Impeachment. I'm Steve Kornacki. Today is Monday, November 11th, and here's what's happening. (Music)

Archival Recording: Democrats and Republicans gearing up for the biggest week in the impeachment inquiry so far, a week that could mark a turning point in this presidency.

Kornacki: That's right. It's a big week in Washington. The impeachment inquiry is going public.

Archival Recording: Up to now, the process has taken place with a group of lawmakers largely behind closed doors.

Archival Recording: As Dems try to put into plain English why what the President did was so bad in their view in this tug-of-war with Republicans to win over public opinion.

Kornacki: Three witnesses will testify in nationally televised hearings this week. Today, we'll walk you through everything you need to know before the cameras start rolling on Wednesday. Democrats and Republicans each have a strategy. We'll preview how they're both approaching this public phase.

And with the battle lines drawn between the parties, I have a question that I think a lot of Americans share: Will these hearings matter? Let's get started. Garrett Haake is a Washington correspondent of MSNBC. Garrett, welcome back to the show.

Garrett Haake: Hey Steve. Good to be here.

Kornacki: So let's talk about how this is all going to work, what we are going to be seeing in these televised hearings. I think when we think of congressional hearings we typically think of the giant committee. Everyone gets five minutes. They don't get a lot done in those five minutes. Is this gonna be another one of those? Or is the format different for this?

Haake: This'll be similar but with a few key differences. And the most important difference is that the majority of this will be conducted by staff. Both committees have staff lawyers who will handle the majority of the questions, 45 minutes per side. Then you'll get into those back-and-forth five-minute rounds.

But the hope is that by having staff attorneys do most of the questions you can establish a little bit more of a rhythm here and you can get more information out of these witnesses. Intel Committee, which will handle these open hearings, is also a little bit smaller, fewer members just in total than the Judiciary Committee and some of the other committees where we've seen these high-profile hearings. So that the hope, at least on the Democratic side, is that all of this is more manageable and more digestible for people who maybe haven't been following it super closely up till this point.

Kornacki: So is this gonna be a public version of what has happened behind closed doors? Is what you're describing, 45 minutes for one lawyer, 45 minutes for the other, then the individual members, is that what they've been doing behind closed doors and they're now just gonna do it publicly? Or is it even different from that?

Haake: So the way the committees did this behind closed doors, they would do an hour per side. Then they would do 45 minutes per side. It was a little looser in the depositions. So it wasn't just one member would go for any given period of time. When it might be the Republicans' turn, for example, you might have three or four Republicans alternate asking questions until their 45 minutes were up.

But I think the key difference here is the questioners know the answers to all of the questions now, right? In the deposition phase, so much of this was searching for new information, really trying to get the lay of the land. The hope again, especially on the Democratic side, 'cause they're the ones trying to craft a narrative here, is knowing the answers to the questions they expect to ask to all these witnesses, they can lay out a story in a question-and-answer format.

Kornacki: So I want to get into those stories that are gonna be offered by each side. Just one other sort mechanical question. This came from one of our listeners: Jeff Stern (PH), Laguna Hills, California. He said, "Any of these witnesses who are called for these public hearings, can they refuse to answer questions?" Can they just say "I'm not gonna answer that"?

Haake: They could, but they probably won't. These witnesses are appearing voluntarily, at least this first round. These aren't people who are showing up under subpoena. These are people who've been invited to show. And they expect, I imagine, the same questions that they got in those depositions, to be asked to tell these stories again.

Where you might see a witness decline to answer questions is something that might call for their opinion about something sort of outside their realm of expertise or if they get asked to talk about things they weren't present for. You know, if they get asked, for example, to weigh in on the phone call, the July 25th phone call that started all of this, none of the first three witnesses were on that call. But by and large, these are all cooperating witnesses.

Kornacki: So on Wednesday, when this all kicks off, the Democrats have called Bill Taylor and George Kent. They're gonna testify at the same time. Let's start on Taylor. Who is Bill Taylor, and what is it that Democrats want to hear from him, want the world to hear from him?

Haake: If I were making a movie about the impeachment process, Bill Taylor could be your main character, your protagonist. He is a great proxy for the viewer sitting at home. This is a guy who spent his whole career in the Foreign Service. He was a diplomat, an ambassador in some very dangerous places.

Then he retired. And you can picture this guy almost sittin' at home on his couch when he gets a phone call from Mike Pompeo asking him to come back into the Foreign Service and step into this role to be the acting ambassador to Ukraine. Taylor gets on the ground in Ukraine, and then over a series of months he starts to unravel this conspiracy that's going on around him.

He starts to realize in real time that Rudy Giuliani and his associates are running around, setting up meetings, conducting their own foreign policy, that they were behind the ouster of his predecessor. And then he starts to learn more about Gordon Sondland, the EU ambassador and what he's doing behind the scenes, conditioning this meeting between the White House and the Ukrainian president on opening up investigations.

And slowly Taylor unravels all this. And Democrats are very happy to say that while he was unraveling it, he was taking really good notes. Taylor is somebody who was a meticulous note-taker his whole career. Meetings, phone calls, everything. So he's a very, very strong first witness out the gate to just establish what the facts on the ground were in Ukraine.

Kornacki: Okay. So Taylor, who was the top envoy to Ukraine, he's gonna testify publicly Wednesday same time as George Kent. So George Kent, tell us who he is and what Democrats are hoping he's gonna say.

Haake: Right. So these two guys'll be side by side. And their stories buttress each other. Kent is another career diplomat. He's a State Department official, the guy who would've overseen everything going on in that corner of the world. And while Taylor's on the ground in Ukraine, Kent is discovering a lot of the same things in real time in Washington.

He was somebody who was very alarmed by the ouster of the former Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch. And then he's involved in meetings, and phone calls, and other conversations on the Washington side where Gordon Sondland, Rick Perry, Mick Mulvaney, and others essentially elbow their way into Ukraine policy and sideline all the career diplomats and the folks who've worked on this sort of thing their whole professional lives.

So he and Taylor tell you two geographic sides of the same story over the course of the late spring through the summer and early fall in Ukraine, one perspective from Washington, one perspective from on the ground in Ukraine. And the Democratic hope here is the two men's stories will overlap and give viewers who are just coming into this this really clear picture of exactly what was going on at this time.

Kornacki: So I think you paint pretty clearly there the picture that Democrats are hoping gets across to folks watching these hearings. While Democrats are doing that with Taylor and Kent on Wednesday, what are we expecting Republicans on the committee to be doing?

Haake: Well, a couple of things. I think I would not be surprised to see some procedural high jinks going on with Republicans trying to order the committee to recess, for example, and have to get to voted back down. Republicans are less thrilled with the narrative that they have to tell in counter balance to the Democrats, so their strategy is essentially to disrupt the Democratic narrative in any way they can.

For example, neither Kent nor Taylor had ever had any real meetings or contact with the President or Rudy Giuliani. They weren't in touch with Mick Mulvaney. The stories that they will tell will be largely secondhand, through the information they gathered from others. Expect to hear Republicans make a big deal out of that.

Expect to see them try to also narrow the scope of what we're talking about. And I think this is important when we get to Friday's hearing, too. Republicans have tried to really focus very narrowly, following the President's lead, on the phone call, the July 25th call, and saying that if that call was fine, and we can argue about whether or not it was, but President has said it's perfect.

"If that call was fine, all the rest of this is just a distraction. And these two men who appear on Wednesday when party to that call, so they're not relevant." So I think you can expect to see Republicans try to poke holes in the Democratic story in this way, but that's tough with these two witnesses because, you know, their background, their note-taking on the ground. The story they're trying to tell is pretty straightforward. The facts aren't really in dispute. Republicans will argue that the facts, while they're not in dispute, don't really matter to impeachment.

Kornacki: You mention also so Wednesday Taylor and Kent. Friday, that's the other big witness Democrats are calling this week, Marie Yovanovitch. You mentioned her, the ousted ambassador to Ukraine. Her ouster has become a source of quite a bit of contention here. Taken together, Taylor, Kent, Yovanovitch, what is the statement Democrats are trying to make specifically with those three?

Haake: Honestly, I was surprised at first that Yovanovitch was called to testify publicly. Her story is really interesting, but I wonder how central it was to the case that Democrats were trying to make. And then after a couple conversations with lawmakers and other reporters up here, I sort of put my head around it this way.

Yovanovitch is the prequel. Yovanovitch is episode one of the Star Wars story if Bill Taylor and George Kent are episodes four, five, and six. You remember a second ago I talked about how Republicans have tried to narrow the scope of this down to just the phone call? The firing of Yovanovitch expands the timeline here. It expands the conspiracy that Democrats are trying to say happened in this case.

So if you argue that it's just about the phone call, that there was only this very narrow set of impeachable behavior, by including Yovanovitch, who was systematically undermined and eventually forced out of her job primarily by Rudy Giuliani and his associates spreading false information about her, including to the President, that happened in the spring. That happened months before the phone call, months before the holdup of military aid. And I think that's what the Yovanovitch inclusion in this gets you. She expands the scope of the overall story.

Kornacki: So, again, those are the three big witnesses that Democrats want to hear from this week. Now, the Republicans on this committee have the right to request witnesses. They're gonna need approval either from Schiff or from a majority of the committee, which would mean Democrats, to actually get those witnesses to step forward.

So let's take that in two parts. Just the first part in terms of who Republicans would like to call as witnesses this week. I know they put a list out over the weekend. What are the headlines from the list that Republicans have put out there?

Haake: The Republican list falls into basically two buckets. The folks who they think might help their story on the facts on impeachment. So some of these people are witnesses they've already deposed who they think tell more favorable versions of the same story.

That's Kurt Volker, who was another U.S. envoy to Ukraine. That's Tim Morrison, an NSC employee who was involved in the phone call itself. That's David Hale, who's another State Department diplomat. The other bucket are people who change the story altogether.

They've asked for Hunter Biden to come testify. They've asked for another American who was on the board at Burisma to come testify. And they've asked for the whistleblower, who they do not name but they say they want the anonymous whistleblower to come testify.

The argument there is, for Republicans, they say, "Look, if we're gonna have a whole impeachment about Burisma, and what the Bidens were up to, and what Donald Trump was trying to find out about what the Bidens were up to, shouldn't we try to find out what the Bidens are up to?"

Now, Democrats will reject those witnesses out of hand. But it gives Republicans a way in their own way to try to expand, deflect, distract from the main issues here by saying, "If there was corruption to be investigated here, ought that not to be part of this conversation?" Don't expect Democrats to approve those witnesses, but it gives Republicans something to talk about.

Kornacki: Okay. So Hunter Biden, the whistleblower, folks like that, if Democrats aren't gonna approve those witnesses, what about that other bucket you were talking about: Morrison, Hale, Volker? What are the odds of Democrats saying yes there?

Haake: So I think the odds are reasonably high. There's a political upside in allowing at least one Republican-requested witness. That gives them a little bit of a way to push back, saying, "Look, you know, you asked for people who would tell a strong story or would defend the President. We took, you know, however many of your witnesses."

And maybe they did, maybe they didn't. That's a decision that Democrats will have to make, of whether the risk that one of these witnesses undermines their case is worth the talking point, the opportunity to say, "We're allowing witnesses from both sides to come testify."

Kornacki: And we're asking just what this will look like, for folks tuning in what they'll be seeing. One thing they'll be seeing or one person apparently they'll be seeing a lot of: Jim Jordan, the Republican from Ohio. He was added temporarily at the last minute to the House Intelligence Committee last week by the Republican leader, by Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, so that he can be part of this.

First of all, I gotta say I didn't know that could happen. I didn't know one of the leaders could just sort of make a switch like that, like somebody was saying, almost like a pinch hitter in a baseball game. But the decision to add Jordan, what was behind that? And what can we expect from him in terms of what he'll be doing at those hearings?

Haake: Sure. I mean, committee membership is done at the discretion of leadership, usually just at the start of Congresses. But it's not unheard of for membership to change over the course of a Congress. It's pretty unusual though. Look, Jordan, while he is most well known for being one of the President's staunchest defenders on pretty much any topic, he will go to bat for President Trump on the issue of the day, no matter what the issue of the day he.

He is also the ranking member on the Oversight Committee and has been one of the most regular attendees at these closed-door depositions. So, remember, a lot of these depositions have been taken on weeks where the whole Congress is out. They're not in session. So attendance is far from mandatory and far from complete.

Jordan has been to almost every, if not every deposition. So he brings two things to the table for Republicans. Number one, his loyalty to the President. He's a fighter. He's somebody who can be pugilistic in the way that Trump likes. And 2) he's actually far more familiar with the material than even some of the folks on the Intel Committee are just by virtue of having sat in all of these depositions and asked questions at all of them.

Kornacki: The other obvious player in this, the President, Donald Trump. Trump and the White House, what can we expect from him and from them as this dominates Washington this week?

Haake: I mean, that's the million-dollar question. And that's so interesting. Because when you look at historical precedent, you know, Bill Clinton tried to stay as far out of his own impeachment hearings as he possibly could and not comment on the day-to-day stuff, try to look like he was focused on being president.

You just know Donald Trump is going to be watching some of these hearings. And you know that he's going to be wanting to tweet about them. How much he decides to weigh in during the course of the day could affect the direction that these hearings go.

But, remember, on Wednesday we've got a split-screen day. President Erdogan of Turkey is going to be in Washington, D.C. So the President will be doing some presidenting with President Erdogan, and they have a joint news conference planned. So the split-screen effect of this, what the President might say that might shift the topic of conversation on the impeachment side of things is all an open question. You know, the Trump White House by continuing to comment on this process could make things more difficult for themselves. They are unlikely to make it easier on themselves.

Kornacki: A question here just about the impact and the meaning of what we're about to see this week in terms of these hearings. The public opinion on this right now when it comes to impeaching and removing Trump, the divide looks a lot like the Trump-Clinton result from 2016. It looks like the basic divide of Republicans on one side, Democrats on the other side that we've been seeing for a few years now. What is the potential for these hearings to change that dramatically in one way or the other?

Haake: Public opinion has been moving in the Democrats' direction slowly over the last couple of months, but it hasn't yet moved in the kind of way where you could see House Republicans or Senate Republicans jumping ship away from President Trump. If Donald Trump is going to be impeached and removed, at some point that has to happen.

So Democrats need these witnesses to tell a very simple story about what they'll say is bribery and extortion, and they need them to tell it in a dramatically memorable way. Now, that doesn't mean someone has to leap up from the table, and slam their fist down, and create some viral moment.

But something about this has to truly stick in the minds of the people watching on television either live or over the next however many months that feels like it's worth removing a president over. And I think that's a huge bar for Democrats to clear at any level. But that process really starts in these open hearings. It was never gonna be done with transcripts. It was never going to be done with words on a page. But by seeing these American diplomats sitting down and describing their fear at what they saw, Democrats hope they can move on step closer to that.

Kornacki: All right. Garrett Haake is a Washington correspondent of MSNBC and, I believe, the first-ever two-time guest on Article II. So, Garrett, congratulations and thank you.

Haake: Big day. Thanks, Steve. (Music)

Kornacki: And with public hearings starting this week, we thought it would be a good time to answer a question from Kevin of Philadelphia, one of our listeners. And Kevin asked this: "For those of us who were not alive for the Watergate scandal or who may have been too young to recall Clinton's impeachment, when did public sentiment tip to a majority supporting the inquiries?"

Kevin, I'll field this one myself, I guess. Let's talk about polling with the Clinton impeachments and the Nixon impeachments. The short answer on the Clinton one is never. It never tipped to a majority supporting the inquiry or a majority supporting removal from office or impeachment.

Public opinion was locked information from really the minute impeachment was introduced as a possible outcome in the late summer/fall of 1998 all the way through the process. Clinton was acquitted in February 1999. And consistently there were a majority of Americans who said they didn't want him impeached, they didn't want him removed, and they didn't want the matter pursued any further by Congress.

When it comes to Nixon, public opinion changed with time. Now, there were a couple different sets of hearings, but we can simplify it. The House Judiciary Committee that finally voted out articles of impeachment just before Nixon resigned from office, this was in the summer of 1974. These were televised hearings I should say.

1974, by the way, the television universe a lot smaller than today. You really didn't have cable television. You had broadcast networks. You had PBS. So it was a big deal that these things were televised. And so when these hearings began, one of the polls (it was the Harris Poll back then) had support for impeaching Nixon at 53% support, 34% oppose.

When the House Judiciary Committee hearings ended, support was up to 66%, opposition was down to 27%. And I think most critically the party divide among Republicans, Nixon's party, by the end of those hearings it was basically dead even. 45% opposed impeachment. 44% supported it. So those were the numbers when Nixon finally resigned from office in early August 1974. So in that case with those hearings, the numbers absolutely did move. (Music)

And if you want to be the next Kevin from Philadelphia or the next Jeff Stern from Laguna Hills, California and have your question featured in this podcast, well, then by all means feel free to email it to us. The address is Article Two, write out the word "two," T-W-O. Keep those questions coming. We love getting 'em. We love putting 'em into the show.

And on this Veterans Day we wanted to take a moment to acknowledge the people who have served in this country's military and to say thank you. Thank you for your service. Article II: Inside Impeachment is produced by Isabel Angel, Max Jacobs, Claire Tighe, Allison Bailey, Adam Noboa, and Barbara Raab. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is the executive producer of audio. I'm Steve Kornacki. We'll be back on Wednesday.