Democrats bet impeachment hearings will sink Trump's reality-TV presidency

Analysis: Bureaucrats will strike back as critics claim the president corruptly abused his foreign policy power to score political points.

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By Jonathan Allen

WASHINGTON — Democrats are betting the reality-TV presidency of Donald Trump will begin to short-circuit Wednesday when they start putting names and faces to the bureaucrats who collectively contend he placed his own gain above American national security interests.

Democrats are confident enough that House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., upped the ante on the eve of his panel's first publicly televised hearings by teasing the possibility that Trump will face impeachment on charges of bribery as well as high crimes and misdemeanors in an interview with NPR.

"I don't think any decision has been made on the ultimate question about whether articles of impeachment should be brought," Schiff told the public radio network. "But on the basis of what the witnesses have had to say so far, there are any number of potentially impeachable offenses, including bribery, including high crimes and misdemeanors."

In other words, Democrats think they're about to nail Trump to the wall.

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"I trust the American people to figure this out," Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., a member of the Intelligence Committee, said Tuesday on MSNBC's "Andrea Mitchell Reports."

"If the president had anybody who could contradict what has been alleged so far, they would have been there already, they'd be there bright and early [Wednesday] morning to rebut this," Quigley said.

They will use the rare battery of public Intelligence Committee hearings to give Americans a first look at how a raging battle between two views of governance affected foreign policy, national security and domestic politics in Washington and Ukraine.

In Democrats' view, Trump corruptly deployed all of the tools at his disposal — from Cabinet officials and loyalists outside of government to official funds and the powerful imprimatur of an Oval Office meeting — to pressure Ukraine's new president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, into announcing an investigation that would harm the political hopes of 2020 presidential candidate Joe Biden.

They see Trump's decision to operate outside of normal channels — and his efforts to smear both political rivals and nonpartisan officials who weren't playing ball — as manifestations of that corruption.

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Trump and his allies have declared that he is innocent — that he rightly withheld foreign aid to Ukraine because he believed that the country had not yet committed to probing corruption, and that he has been hamstrung at every turn of his presidency by a "deep state" of government officials who are either insufficiently loyal to his agenda or outright hostile to him.

Trump has described a July 25 telephone call with Zelenskiy in which he discussed U.S. support for Ukraine and a possible investigation into the Bidens as "perfect," and Republicans have sought to confine public discussion of the Ukraine inquiry to the call itself — rather than efforts by administration officials and Trump friends like Rudy Giuliani to push a Biden probe — and whether it constitutes an illegal quid pro quo agreement between the two presidents.

"The facts are on the president's side," Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, who was added to the Intelligence Committee roster for these hearings on Friday, said. "The truth is on his side."

Corruption, business as usual — or both

The hearings Wednesday, scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. ET, are to feature Bill Taylor — the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who has already testified privately that he pieced together from conversations with various players in Trump's orbit that military aid and a White House meeting for Zelenskiy were conditioned on the announcement of a Biden investigation — and George Kent, a veteran State Department official who has described efforts by other Trump administration officials to intimidate colleagues in relation to the Ukraine scandal.

If past is prologue, viewers can expect a contentious and partisan back and forth between the 22 lawmakers on the committee — 13 Democrats and nine Republicans — as recent hearings involving Trump scandals have produced disruptions in decorum by the GOP minority. But that probably won't be apparent early, since most of the intense early questioning is likely to be conducted by staff members, a wrinkle made possible by rules adopted by the House on a nearly party line vote that blessed the impeachment process.

Only Schiff, top-ranking Republican Devin Nunes of California or their staff may ask questions in the first 90 minutes, under those rules — 45 minutes for the Democratic side, followed by 45 minutes for the Republican side. Then, if Schiff decides not to hold a second staff round of questioning, the members of the committee will each get 5 minutes to ask questions.

In a staff memo first reported by Axios, Republicans identified a handful of areas of focus for Trump's defense — many of which have been contradicted by testimony or news reporting.

Asymmetric warfare

But the GOP's immediate job is easier than that of Democrats: Republicans merely have to stick together enough in the House and the Senate to ensure that the president isn't ultimately removed from office, which would require at least 20 Republicans crossing the partisan aisle to vote to convict him. That asymmetry means Democrats must convince the public to pressure GOP lawmakers to turn on Trump, or to make enough voters angry enough to defeat him at the polls a year from now.

The other striking asymmetry is in the armies assembled for the fight. On the Republican side, it is Trump — a master of bringing attention to himself — and a legion of GOP lawmakers dedicated to his cause. But Democrats are relying on the witnesses, a set of men and women who pride themselves on working behind the scenes, without regard to political preference and with presidents and lawmakers of both parties, to keep the American foreign policy and national security apparatus humming.

In that way, a clash of culture, style and worldview will be on full display on Capitol Hill on Wednesday.

The 'administrative state' fights back

Trump came to Washington promising to destroy what then-adviser Steve Bannon called "the administrative state" — the nonpartisan civil servants who run the day-to-day operations of the American government. Now, Democrats plan to take him down with characters straight out of a caricature of the administrative state, delivering a dry, just-the-facts presentation of what they saw and heard in executing the president's Ukraine policy.

"We want the American people to hear the evidence for themselves in the witnesses' own words, and our goal is to present the facts in a serious and sober manner," Schiff said, as he prepared for the first hearing. "They will describe their own experiences and how American policy towards Ukraine was subverted to serve the president's personal, political interests, not the national interest."

But Republicans say they will be able to pick apart the witnesses.

"They're relying on people like Bill Taylor as a star witness who is going to tell us something that is third- or fourth-hand information," said Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y. "He did not have any firsthand information."

It's an argument straight from this week's GOP talking points, made possible by the fact that Trump has blocked a majority of the big-name witnesses — the top lieutenants who speak to him directly — from testifying.