Transcript: Dug In

The full episode transcript for Article II: Inside Impeachment, Dug In.
Image: Voters cast their ballots to vote in state and local elections at Robious Elementary School in Midlothian, a suburb of Richmond
Voters cast their ballots to vote in state and local elections at Robious Elementary School in Midlothian, a suburb of Richmond, Va. on Nov. 5, 2019.Ryan M. Kelly / Reuters

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Article II: Inside Impeachment

Dug In

Steve Kornacki: From NBC News, this is Article II: Inside Impeachment. I'm Steve Kornacki. Today is Monday, November 18th, and here's what's happening. (Music)

Archival Recording: We are at the start of a hugely consequential week for President Trump and the impeachment inquiry.

Kornacki: It's week two of public hearings in the impeachment inquiry. Around 13.8 million Americans tuned in last Wednesday when Bill Taylor and George Kent became the first witnesses to testify publicly. 13.8 million. If you want some perspective for that number, about a million fewer than that watched Robert Mueller's testimony over the summer.

That 13.8 million is also a little bit bigger than the number who watched the Game of Thrones finale back in May. That one got 13.6 million viewers. I was not among those 13.6 million. And it's also a big drop-off from the day Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford testified back in the fall of 2018. About 20 million people were watching that day. This week, we're asking: What do voters really think about impeachment? And with these public hearings, are the politics of impeachment changing? Vaughn Hillyard is a political reporter for NBC News. Vaughn, how you doin'?

Vaughn Hillyard: Good.

Kornacki: So, Vaughn, you're on the road talking to voters, trying to figure out what they're making of these hearings. We also have some numbers here. We can start on these maybe. The television audience for the first two sets of hearings last week. On Wednesday, the estimate now is that a combined total of nearly 14 million people tuned in for that first day of testimony.

The Friday numbers are still preliminary. They look like they're about 12 million. We don't have the final numbers on that one yet. Some perspective here. Probably between about 130, 150 million people are expected to vote in next year's presidential election. So maybe about 10% or so of that watching these hearings. I think that's one of the questions about this audience I think that's crucial here.

That 14 million who are watching on Wednesday, are those voters who are looking to make up their minds? Are they undecided on impeachment? Are they undecided on Trump? Or are these the diehards? Are these folks who are just following every twist and turn and have a strong preference one way or the other?

Hillyard: You look at the viewership from Fox News had about 3 million viewers from those initial hearings. MSNBC had about 3 million. And so you have everybody is watching and engaged in this process. I think it would be interesting to compare Wednesday, right? You've got not only the hearing in which Gordon Sondland will be testifying, but then you have the Democratic presidential debate that very night.

So it'll be interesting to compare how many millions watch the hearings versus how many millions watch the debate. But at the same time, you know, I think what we've seen so far in some conversations with folks is a greater acknowledgement about the realities that exist.

You know, the President has even suggested himself, encouraged foreign governments to investigate the Bidens. So there's not much in hiding. Essentially what these hearings are allowing people to do is become more educated about the facts and be able either to defend Donald Trump or argue against Donald Trump off of those facts.

Kornacki: So let's talk about what you're hearing on the ground. You were in Wisconsin over the weekend. Wisconsin may be the preeminent swing state in 2020. Obviously one of the reasons Donald Trump is president, he was able to win Wisconsin narrowly. You were in Milwaukee. So Milwaukee, biggest city in the state, Democratic bastion.

The story in 2016 in Milwaukee, Clinton won it overwhelmingly. She won the city. She didn't get the kind of turnout she was looking for in Milwaukee. The energy of the Democratic base in Milwaukee was down in 2016. Being in Milwaukee this weekend after these hearings, what were you picking up on? How much interest in these hearings were you finding there?

Hillyard: Yeah, you talked about voter turnout going down in 2016. Statewide from 2012 to 2016 voter turnout went down 3%. But in Milwaukee County, which is the most diverse county in the state, it went down by 10%. Of course, Hillary Clinton didn't visit the state. And there's questions about the Democratic nominees' acknowledgement of the economic circumstances and lack of investments.

And, you know, conversations with folks in Milwaukee Count largely reflected that. Felicia Owen (PH), she was a law student at Marquette who I met here over the weekend. She was studying. And I asked her what she had taken away from the hearings at this point.

Felicia Owen: I haven't watched the hearings. But just based on, like, reading the news stories that I had so far, there's enough information there. This has been a long time coming. It just needs to go forward already. And I think this country will be a better place when Trump is out of office.

Hillyard: What you heard from Felicia there is essentially making the case that Donald Trump should be impeached. And, you know, you've heard a lot of this from, you know, Democratic lawmakers back earlier this spring when Donald Trump suggested that he would take potentially information hacked from a foreign government and use it in an election again.

This isn't the first time that voters have felt a need for the president to be impeached. There was another individual, Ruben Hopkins. He's the chairman of the Wisconsin Black Chamber of Commerce. We sat down for a cup of coffee. We went through the issues of Milwaukee. And I was the one that had to bring up impeachment. And my question to him was, "Ultimately, is impeachment of the President or opposition to the President enough?"

Ruben Hopkins: A lot of times in our conversations you'll find we're not talking about impeachment. We're not talking about the Democrats. We're talking about, "Okay, what are we doing that is going to improve the quality of life in our community?"

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Hillyard: And he was quite clear there's gonna be crazy happening in D.C. all the time. But when you're talking about impeachment, essentially you're missing the chance to be talking about other issues.

Kornacki: It sounds like maybe, tell me if this is wrong, what you were hearing in Milwaukee was a lot of voters who don't like Trump (it was Clinton country), but impeachment itself maybe is not the most galvanizing issue for them.

Hillyard: No, it's not enough. And to be absolutely frank, I mean, each says it's important. At the same time, it is frankly not at the forefront of their minds and it is not the defining issue that will determine whether they come out and whether they can convince their neighbors and their family and their friends to come out and support a potential Democratic nominee next November.

Kornacki: Let's turn to Georgia. You're in Atlanta right now. Georgia's one of those states Trump did carry it in 2016. There's some rumblings from Democrats that they think they can make it competitive in 2020 because of the major demographic changes in and around Atlanta. You were in the other part of the state though originally. You were in Hall County, Trump country. I think Trump won it by about 50 points. So what's the mood there a couple days after these impeachment hearings?

Hillyard: Yes, you're right. It voted 75% for Donald Trump. At the same time, you know, Stacey Abrams, the Democratic nominee for the governor's race last year, lost by just 1.4 percentage points. And so I went to Hall County because this is an area, you look at it, right? It's ruby red on the map, and there's a lot of focus on the more metropolitan areas, especially around the Atlanta area.

But where you could really begin to see a change is a chipping away of support in a place like Gainesville, Georgia, which is in Hall County. There was a gentleman I talked to, Gray Swanson (PH), grew up in Hall County. He's now the manager of a CVS pharmacy store. And I met him over at Downtown Drafts, where he was one of the older clientele there.

And he was telling me it's hard to ignore the shifting face of Hall County. He said there's more minorities and also there's a younger population that is more progressive. And he says he's seen it slowly over the last 15-20 years. When I asked him though, "Did impeachment make you blink about supporting Trump?" he said...

Gray Swanson: Blink? No, not really. 'Cause.

Hillyard: From what you've seen, there's these hearings that are happening up on Capitol Hill as we speak. Does any of that, Donald Trump looking for other countries, Ukraine, to investigate the Bidens, does that give you pause?

Swanson: Little bit. Yeah.

Hillyard: But not enough to remove your support from him.

Swanson: Not as of right now. I mean, both sides throw bricks, you know, constantly. And I think we all know that now. If it comes out that there was some shady stuff, that's fine. I would have to look at that. Even with that said, you go back to, like, the Clinton administration. You know, those things were going on, and people still supported him. And I was kinda scratching my head, but.

Hillyard: You know, it's hard for folks to deny now the realities of this case. But as you've seen from a lot of Republican lawmakers, Republican officials, they're no longer denying a lot of the facts of this case. Yet when it comes to whether it's impeachable, that's the distinction in which a lot of these voters are going off of now. So Gray Swanson, he said he'll be planning to vote for Donald Trump in 2020. At the same time, fully acknowledging what the President has attempted to engage in doesn't believe that he should be removed from office for it.

Kornacki: What you're describing there, attitudes in Democratic-friendly part of Wisconsin, Republican-friendly part of Georgia kind of matches what we're seeing in the national polling. There hasn't been a ton that's come out. Since these hearings last week, there was an ABC News/Ipsos poll, an online panel, that came out over the weekend. Put support for impeachment and removal at 51%.

That would be a couple points higher than certainly we saw in our NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, but that seems roughly consistent with what we've seen. And that is recently that polling on impeachment has kinda come close to matching the 2016 presidential election result, kinda looking like that divide that was there in 2016 is still there. I think that's kinda the overarching political question about this. And I'm wondering if it matches what you're picking up from voters here. Are they dug in on both sides? Is there any give in between them?

Hillyard: Steve, since this impeachment inquiry began, been to a great number of states and I've had a great number of phone calls and text messages with folks that I've met along this journey. And not a single Republican who I've talked to has named this impeachment inquiry as reason for abandoning Donald Trump heading into 2020.

Of course, there's a lot of issues that are part of this greater campaign. Teresa Goldie (PH), she's from Toccoa, Georgia, Stephens County, a rural, conservative northeastern Georgia county there. What do you think of the impeachment inquiry into him?

Teresa Goldie: Actually, that should have been taken into a lot of different presidents that did fishy things.

Hillyard: If he did in fact ask Ukraine to investigate the Bidens, would that change your opinion on whether you'd vote for him in 2020 or not?

Goldie: No, it would not because of how he believes on the issues and things.

Hillyard: Teresa is a self-identifying Christian evangelical conservative. And while wholly acknowledging the realities of this impeachment inquiry, the other issues to her, she named abortion, are at the forefront of her mind and she will vote for Donald Trump in 2020 again.

Kornacki: So three witnesses last week for the first round of hearings, first two days of hearings. A bunch more to come this week. You're gonna be out there talking to more folks like Teresa and others. What are you looking for this week when you're out there on these travels?

Hillyard: I think the big question is: To what extent are folks becoming familiar with these witnesses? To what extent do folks actually become engaged in these characters and understanding this more than a conversation of quid pro quo but real life human beings who are seen as sympathetic figures in this?

These career officials who served in the military, served in the State Department have served their government in this country. And to what extent does public sentiment start to view these individuals as sympathetic figures and the consequence of actions of Donald Trump.

Kornacki: What's next for you? You did Wisconsin. You did Georgia. Where are you going next?

Hillyard: We're hanging out here in Atlanta till Wednesday. The Democratic debate is Wednesday night. That stage continues to shrink a little bit here. Then I'm going to Arizona for a wedding, and that's also a swing state. So I think that I can talk to some voters over there in the meanwhile, too.

Kornacki: I don't want you to ruin the wedding by asking everybody about impeachment. But whatever you gotta do. NBC's Vaughn Hillyard, thank you for checking in with us. We really appreciate it.

Hillyard: Thanks, Steve.

Kornacki: And get ready, folks, for those of you who are paying attention, which I would guess is all of you who are listening to this podcast. This is going to be a big week. Tomorrow, we'll hear from four witnesses, including National Security Council staffer Colonel Alexander Vindman.

He raised concerns about the July 25th call between Trump and the Ukrainian president back when it happened. We'll have an episode every day this week to keep up with all of this news. We hope you will be joining us for each and every one of them. And just this morning, President Trump tweeted that he would, quote, "strongly consider" testifying in writing as part of the impeachment inquiry. The President said that in response to an interview Speaker Nancy Pelosi gave over the weekend on Face the Nation.

Nancy Pelosi: The President could come right before the committee and speak all the truth that he wants if he wants to--

Margaret Brennan: You don't expect him to do that.

Pelosi: --take the oath of office, or he could do it in writing. He has every opportunity to present his case.

Kornacki: Trump answered written questions under oath as part of Robert Mueller's Russia investigation. By the way, news broke today that the House is investigating whether the President lied in that written testimony. So it's safe to say we can expect a really busy week. (Music)

Article II: Inside Impeachment is produced by Isabel Angel, Max Jacobs, Claire Tighe, Aaron Dalton, 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 tomorrow.