The impeachment hearings could turn out to be more unpredictable than you think

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Image: The committee room in the Longworth House Office Building where the first public hearings in the impeachment inquiry against U.S. President Donald Trump are scheduled to take place on Capitol Hill.
The committee room in the Longworth House Office Building where the first public hearings in the impeachment inquiry against U.S. President Donald Trump are scheduled to take place on Capitol Hill.Joshua Roberts / Reuters

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By Chuck Todd, Mark Murray and Carrie Dann

WASHINGTON — Most in Washington are already convinced how the public hearings in the impeachment inquiry, which begin this morning, will play out.

House Republicans will sabotage the proceedings and muddy the waters.

Democrats will struggle to win the message war, as they often do.

And everything — as it almost always does — will break along partisan lines.

Maybe they’re right; it’s probably the smart bet.

But they also could be wrong, given how unpredictable President Trump can be; how unpredictable the witness answers could be; how these public hearings could play with the persuadable public; and how damning much of the available evidence already is.

Maybe the best news for Democrats entering today’s public hearing is how low the expectations are.

There’s a good reason to have these low expectations.

But it also creates a pretty low bar that becomes easier to clear.

The substance versus the theatrics

While it’s obvious to focus on the politics and theatrics of the televised public hearings, don’t forget about the actual substance that’s on the line here.

Did a sitting president use his powers to ask a foreign country to investigate a political rival who might face him in the 2020 election?

If so, can that rival — or any opponent — receive an election free of foreign or other interference next year?

Did the president explicitly tie military aid and a White House visit to obtain deliverables from that foreign country?

Was the president putting his personal interests (investigating Biden, investigating interference in 2016) ahead of the United States’ stated national security interests (aiding Ukraine)?

And was the president pursuing strategies that aligned with Russia’s interests?

For the Trump/GOP side, Rudy Giuliani defends President Trump in a piece for the Wall Street Journal.

“The conversation my client, President Donald J. Trump, had with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on July 25 was innocent,” Giuliani writes. “During a congratulatory call, the newly elected Mr. Zelensky brought up the need to ‘drain the swamp’ in his country. Rooting out corruption was one of Mr. Zelensky’s campaign pledges, and Mr. Trump asked him to investigate allegations of corruption at the highest levels of both governments.”

More: “Mr. Trump also briefly brought up his concerns regarding former Vice President Joe Biden’s conduct toward Ukraine while his son, Hunter Biden, worked for the Ukrainian company Burisma. Andriy Derkach, a member of Ukraine’s Parliament, told the press in early October that he had reviewed documents showing that Burisma transferred $900,000 to Rosemont Seneca Partners, a lobbying firm owned by Hunter Biden, and that the money was for lobbying Joe Biden. In my view, the former vice president should be investigated for bribery, and at the very least both Bidens’ behavior deserves serious scrutiny.”

Everything you wanted to know about today’s hearing but were afraid to ask

NBC’s Alex Moe breaks down what you need to know about today’s public hearing into the impeachment inquiry.

  • It begins at 10:00 am ET.
  • The witnesses – Acting Ukraine Ambassador William Taylor and State Department official George Kent – will appear at the same time.
  • They’ll be asked questions by the 22-member House Intelligence Committee.
  • After opening statements, staff lawyers both sides will get to ask questions for 45 minutes each.
  • The hearing is expected to last until 2:30 pm ET to 4:30 pm ET (but that’s subject to change).
  • And it takes place at the House Ways and Means Committee room (since the Intel Committee doesn’t have its own hearing room) – that’s the same venue where Hillary Clinton testified before the Benghazi Committee.

Guess who’s coming to Washington

Perhaps it’s fitting that on the same day that the House begins holding its public hearings in the impeachment inquiry, President Trump hosts Turkish President Erdogan at the White House.

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Erdogan’s visit comes just weeks after “the authoritarian leader invaded Syria and attacked U.S.-allied Kurdish forces, unleashing fresh violence and chaos in the Middle East,” USA Today writes.

And NBC’s Carol Lee and Courtney Kube report that Erdogan is now threatening to buy Russian fighter jets. “The possibility of Turkey, a NATO ally, acquiring more military equipment from Putin adds a new dimension to the controversy around Trump's decision to give Erdogan the prestigious platform of a White House meeting.”

Trump and Erdogan hold a joint press conference at 3:10 pm ET.

2020 Vision: Worries for Warren?

Yesterday, a Monmouth poll showed the Dem horserace in Iowa to be: Buttigieg 22 percent, Biden 19 percent, Warren 18 percent, Sanders 13 percent.

And it followed Monday’s Quinnipiac poll of New Hampshire: Biden 20 percent, Warren 16 percent, Buttigieg 15 percent and Sanders 14 percent.

While these horseraces are all within the margin of error, what stands out to us is how Elizabeth Warren has stalled in these two early states.

On the campaign trail today

Elizabeth Warren files for the New Hampshire primary… So does Bill Weld on the GOP side… Joe Biden speaks to a union conference in DC… And Cory Booker raises money in New York City.

Dispatches from NBC’s campaign embeds

After Tom Steyer officially filed to appear on the New Hampshire ballot, he spoke with reporters about how much of his personal wealth he’s willing to put into his campaign. NBC’s Julia Jester and Amanda Golden report: “Steyer said he was willing to spend an ‘unlimited’ amount of money on his candidacy. ‘At the beginning of this campaign, our campaign estimated that we would spend 100 million dollars. Do I think that that was a good guess? I have no idea,’ Steyer said. ‘So when people ask me what are you willing to put into this? How much do you care? Unlimited. In my opinion in how much I care about this, that's where we are. I really think this is going to be the most important election in American history, maybe in the history of the world.’”

Speaking of those with unlimited amounts of money, Bernie Sanders hit the “1 percent” during a grassroots fundraiser in D.C. Tuesday night. The pool report notes Sanders’ comment, “Now these people, these people, I’m a U.S. Senator, I deal with these guys. They have unlimited amounts of money. Unlimited amounts of money. They have enormous power over our economy. They help elect many of the people who serve in Congress. They own the media. They are enormously powerful. And what makes our campaign unprecedented is that we know the only way we take them on and make the changes that this country requires is not just by electing a president. That's a start, but it is by building an unprecedented grassroots movement of millions of people.”

Tweet of the day

Data Download: The number of the day is … 48 percent to 46 percent

48 percent to 46 percent.

That's the margin in the Louisiana gubernatorial runoff, according to a new Mason-Dixon poll, with Democratic incumbent John Bel Edwards with the slight advantage over Republican Eddie Rispone — although it's within the margin of error.

The runoff election is on Saturday.

The Lid: Surprise Party

Don't miss the pod from yesterday, when we looked at a possible late-breaking surprise in the Democratic race.

ICYMI: News clips you shouldn’t miss

The Supreme Court appears poised to let Trump end the DACA program.

Here's what you need to know about the public hearings in the impeachment inquiry so far.

Who is journalist John Solomon, and why does his name keep popping up in the impeachment inquiry?

NBC's Jonathan Allen writes that a big theme of the impeachment hearings will be bureaucrats striking back against Trump.

And the Southern Law Poverty Center reviewed over 900 previously undisclosed emails from Stephen Miller that show him trying to promote far-right and white nationalist sources through the conservative website Breitbart.

Trump Agenda: Marginalized Mick

Mick Mulvaney is still technically the acting chief of staff — but he's being increasingly marginalized as the impeachment inquiry reaches fever pitch.

Republicans senators say they'll be too busy to watch the hearings on TV.

The Turkish president is already threatening to buy Russian military jets ahead of a meeting with Trump today.

Economies in red and blue areas are heading in starkly different directions, writes the New York Times.

What was up with those hecklers at a Donald Trump Jr. book signing earlier this week? NBC's Ben Collins reports on the far-right splinter group that's responsible.

Roger Stone will not testify at his trial.

Congress is prepping to pass a CR to keep the government funded through December 20.

2020: Tim Ryan endorses Biden

On “Morning Joe” this morning, former presidential candidate Tim Ryan announced his endorsement of Joe Biden.

POLITICO takes a big look at how the impeachment process could upend the 2020 primary.

Deval Patrick may be a headache for Elizabeth Warren.

Yes, Hillary Clinton is.. back in the news.

Republicans are setting themselves up for a rough time in the New York suburbs.