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Plenty of substance but little drama on first day of impeachment hearings

Analysis: The first two witnesses called Wednesday testified to Trump's scheme, but lacked the pizazz necessary to capture public attention.
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WASHINGTON — It was substantive, but it wasn't dramatic.

In the reserved manner of veteran diplomats with Harvard degrees, Bill Taylor and George Kent opened the public phase of the House impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump on Wednesday by bearing witness to a scheme they described as not only wildly unorthodox but also in direct contravention of U.S. interests.

"It is clearly in our national interest to deter further Russian aggression," Taylor, the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and a decorated Vietnam War veteran, said in explaining why Trump's decision to withhold congressionally appropriated aid to the most immediate target of Russian expansionism didn't align with U.S. policy.

But at a time when Democrats are simultaneously eager to influence public opinion in favor of ousting the president and quietly apprehensive that their hearings could stall or backfire, the first round felt more like the dress rehearsal for a serious one-act play than the opening night of a hit Broadway musical.

During five and a half hours of testimony, under questioning from House Intelligence Committee members from both parties and staff lawyers from each side of the aisle, the two men delivered a wide-ranging discourse on America's interests in Eastern Europe, diplomatic protocol and democratic norms — and how they believe Trump subverted all of them in service of political goals.

And yet Taylor and Kent failed — or perhaps succeeded, given their nonpartisan roles in government and the atypically serious postures struck by lawmakers of both parties — by dropping no bombshells and largely repeating the testimony they gave congressional investigators at depositions previously held behind closed doors.

"If you have to do something that makes Republicans in this country believe the president has committed some serious infraction, then today was 'ball one,'" said Matt Schlapp, a Trump ally who speaks frequently to White House officials and GOP lawmakers. "It wasn’t a wild pitch, but it wasn’t close to the strike zone."

Trump told reporters at the White House that he did not watch the proceedings.

"I hear it's a joke," he said. "This is a sham, and it shouldn't be allowed."

Even if the president wasn't watching, Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., told Republicans on the committee who want an intelligence community whistleblower to testify that Trump is welcome to defend himself under oath.

For their part, Republicans poked no real holes in witness testimony, spent little time defending Trump, and burned time off the clock by asking about conspiracy theories that have captivated their political base but that are easily debunked.

At one point, Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio — who was added to the GOP's roster on the committee for the impeachment hearings — appeared to confound Taylor by insisting the president couldn't have conditioned aid for Ukraine on an investigation into political rival Joe Biden, because the money ultimately flowed and the probe was never announced.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., who avoided contentious back-and-forth exchanges with his GOP counterparts, waited until the end of the hearing to explain to the viewing audience that Trump released the funding only after the whistleblower complaint that would expose his plot arrived at the White House.

Democrats had prepared themselves for Republicans to try to hijack the hearing with procedural motions and wild lines of questioning, but that never quite materialized. The decorum on the GOP side was commendable enough in Schiff's view that he thanked the minority party in his concluding remarks.

Republicans conducted themselves in a "serious" and "civil way," he said.

There wasn't much either side could grab onto.

Taylor did create a stir when he told the committee that one of his aides had overheard an ambassador at the center of the story, Gordon Sondland, talking to the president about Ukraine on the phone. Afterward, Sondland told the staffer that Trump cared more about getting Ukraine to open investigations into Biden, a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, and his son Hunter than about any issues that mattered to the Ukrainians.

But that served as more of a footnote than a headline.

The lawmakers will reconvene Friday with testimony from former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, who was ousted after Trump loyalists ran a disinformation campaign against her.

Democratic strategists say their side will have to do a better job to capture public attention.

"It's clear this is going to be a battle of narratives and messages," Democratic strategist Chris Kofinis said. "Based on Day One, if the goal was to present a clear and easy-to-follow narrative, neither side did a stellar job. We need to stop presenting this like a foreign policy class — this needs to be about making a clear case about what the president did wrong, again and again. That narrative is getting lost."

There's time for Democrats to tell a more compelling version of the story — keeping in mind that the attention span of most Americans doesn't match that of most C-SPAN viewers.