The making of an American spectacle

This week sees public impeachment hearings that could finally oust Donald Trump from the White House. Foreign Editor David Pratt examines the likelihood of that prospect and the bitter political battle surrounding it

THERE’S no doubt it will be high political drama. Already it’s billed as an American spectacle that broadcasters expect will have huge audiences and mark a historical moment in political television.

Certainly the stakes could not be higher, not least because of the way people will watch the proceedings and how it might influence their political thinking as the US heads into the throes of an already fiercely contested presidential election campaign.

Yes, this coming week the moment finally arrives for the public impeachment hearings, when US Democrats seek to make the case for the removal of the president from office and Donald Trump and his Republican allies fight back with everything they have.

It will be a bitter, bruising contest, while at the same time a complex and convoluted one. Perhaps now is as good a time as any to remind us of how it got to this point and what lies behind this impending political battle royal.

The facts of the case are fairly straightforward enough, but the nuances are many and disputed. At its core lies the issue of whether Trump abused his office for political gain, when he asked Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky in a July phone call to investigate his leading 2020 Democratic challenger, former vice-president Joe Biden and his son Hunter, who was on the board of a Ukrainian gas company that had been investigated for corruption.

While there has been no evidence of wrongdoing by the Bidens, this apparently did not stop Trump seeking to gain political leverage from their working relationship and association with Ukraine.

In bringing his weight to bear on Kiev, Trump froze nearly $400 million in US military assistance to Ukraine shortly before speaking to Zelensky, prompting accusations from Democrats that he had misused taxpayer dollars destined for a vulnerable US ally for personal gain.

But it wasn’t until September this year with the revelation that a CIA officer filed a whistle-blower complaint that things really began to come to a head and Trump found himself in the cross hairs of impending impeachment proceedings.

The precise wording of the whistle-blower’s allegations could not have been more dramatic and damning.

“In the course of my official duties, I have received information from multiple US Government officials that the president of the United States is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 US election,” reported the whistle-blower.

Going on to detail this interference, the CIA officer outlined how Trump had sought to pressure a foreign country (Ukraine) to investigate one of the president’s main domestic political rivals and that Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, was a central figure in this effort as was the involvement of US attorney general William Barr.

That the whistle-blower then went on to establish that senior White House officials had intervened to “lock down” all records of Trump’s phone call with the Ukrainian president, especially the official word-for-word transcript of the call, only “underscored” that White House officials understood the gravity of what had transpired in the telephone conversation, attested the CIA officer.

Since these revelations, Trump and his allies have waged an on-off campaign to discredit the whistle-blower, arguing both that he is biased against Trump and also that he didn’t have first-hand knowledge of the situation he was writing about.

Despite US laws protecting the anonymity of whistle-blowers who disclose government wrongdoing, Trump has derided the impeachment investigation and those testifying against him.

He has repeatedly insisted there was no “quid pro quo” and labelled the inquiry a “witch-hunt” by part of the “deep state” while trying to get the name of the CIA whistle-blower made public.

But in the face of a relentless pursuit of the case by the Democrats, Trump’s efforts have not only failed but he now finds himself this coming week facing the fallout of public impeachment hearings as Americans and the rest of the world look on in fascination.

It’s all a far cry from this time last year before the Democrats retook control of the House and impeachment of this most controversial and polarising of presidents went from a near impossibility to a likelihood.

Last week, Democrats leading the House of Representatives took another significant step in announcing the first public hearings of the probe after investigators released the transcripts from closed-door sessions with a number of key witnesses.

Chair of the house intelligence committee, democratic congressman Adam Schiff, who is leading the impeachment investigation, said the committee will hear from top Ukraine diplomat William Taylor and career department official George Kent next Wednesday then from former US ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch next Friday. These are only three of the many players in this political saga, but for Trump it is Schiff so far that has has been made to bear the brunt of the president’s wrath.

It has been said that the quickest way to provoke an angry tweet from the US president these days is for “ Shifty Schiff", as Trump calls him, to appear on cable television.

How Schiff, who is effectively chief lieutenant to Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker, conducts the impeachment proceedings this week could well shape any Senate trial that would follow.

It is said that Schiff once wanted to be a screenwriter but little could he have imagined back in the 1990s that he would now become the chief storyteller of what might prove to be a US president’s ignominious demise.

“This president, he’s like a planetary object,” Schiff told the New York Times Magazine recently. Speaking about Trump, he said: “He warps time. And things that you think happened a couple weeks ago, it turns out, only happened a day or two ago.”

In his interview with the magazine, Schiff also alluded to some of the documentation that will form the basis of the coming public hearing.

“On the one hand, you’re shocked, and at the same time, you’re not surprised,” Schiff admitted. “And maybe that’s the most awful thing about this,” he added.

Just how shocking these revelations of witness accounts will be remains to be seen, however.

Among the numerous key figures in this capacity is Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the EU and previously a Trump ally.

Sondland had initially denied knowledge of any link between the Ukraine military aid and Trump’s request that the Eastern European country investigate the Bidens.

But in what will probably be the first of many “revised testimonies”, Sondland said last week that “in the absence of any credible explanation for the suspension of aid, I presumed that the aid suspension had become linked to the proposed anti-corruption statement”.

Sondland’s latest details appeared to bolster the initial whistle-blower complaint and also corroborated other witnesses who said Trump sought to pressure the Ukrainians into conducting investigations that appeared to be aimed at helping his re-election campaign.

As at every stage when the president has been under attack over the affair, the White House unleashed its big guns in defence.

“No amount of salacious media-biased headlines, which are clearly designed to influence the narrative, change the fact that the president has done nothing wrong,” insisted White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham. But witness testimonies piled up last week. As well as Sondland’s, the impeachment committees released transcripts of closed-door testimony from seven other witnesses.

These included Trump’s former Russia adviser Fiona Hill, George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs, Michael McKinley, a former adviser to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, William Taylor, a top US diplomat in Ukraine, Colonel Alexander Vindman, a National Security Council official, Kurt Volker, the former special envoy to Ukraine, and Marie Yovanovitch, former US ambassador to Ukraine.

Much to Trump’s concern, most of the witnesses’ testimonies support the whistle-blower’s complaint that US military aid was conditioned on whether Ukraine investigated Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company of which Hunter Biden sat on the board.

While there are many unfamiliar names in the cast of characters of this political drama, as the televised spectacle unfolds this week many will likely become household names.

So what then is likely to happen next?

According to Nancy Cordes, CBS News congressional correspondent, Democrats will have to figure how best to present their case in as accessible a way as possible if they are to reap maximum political leverage from the hearings

“Democrats have to figure out how to simplify and make the case clear and simple for the casual observer that the president’s behaviour was so egregious that it merits removal from office,” she said on Friday in the wake of the latest developments.

“This is their one shot at impeachment, and they’re being careful about who they’ve chosen to call to testify in the open hearings and who will do the questioning,” observed Cordes.

Referring to last year’s testimony by former Special Counsel Robert Mueller into Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election, she highlighted how that backfired on the Democrats after Mueller, a reluctant witness, would not say unequivocally that the president had committed crimes.

“The witnesses we’ll see next week are willing, well-spoken, experienced, non-partisan witnesses. Democrats are banking on them to be the right vehicles,” Cordes wrote on Friday on the CBS website.

Which brings us to the nub of the issue, whether Trump will indeed find himself impeached?

Well, if you heed the signs from many leading bookmakers then the odds are that Trump could come a cropper.

Bookmakers aside though predictions on this remain difficult, but with Democrats holding a majority in the House of Representatives and the fact that everything their “impeachment inquiry” has turned up so far tends to confirm the charges that kicked the entire process off, then things don’t look good for the president.

What is more in doubt, however, is the vote count.

As the American news website Vox pointed out last week, Democrats would like to be able to say that they unearthed evidence so compelling that even some House Republicans defected and joined them in impeaching Trump.

Republicans, meanwhile, would prefer to see impeachment pass narrowly with many of the more vulnerable Democrats defecting to vote against impeachment.

“Legally speaking, the question of the vote count has no relevance in the House, but it helps set the stage for the next phase in the Senate,” Vox noted.

Some close to the case have said that the man who ultimately holds the answer as to Trump’s fate is the president’s attorney, Rudy Giuliani.

“He was always swirling around somewhere,” insisted Gordon Sondland, US ambassador to the European Union and now key witness. Sondland says that Giuliani’s shadow foreign policy mission in Ukraine got more “insidious” as time went on and others remain convinced that he was running an “off-the-books operation” on Trump’s behalf seeking political favours from Kiev. “He just kept saying: Talk to Rudy, talk to Rudy,” Sondland has testified to Trump saying.

With only three months until the Iowa caucuses and the official kick-off of voting season in the US presidential election campaign, this week’s hearing could not be more significant. How it impacts that election is anybody’s guess now.

Could voters abandon Trump but still stick with the Republicans? Could Trump survive and things backfire on the Democrats after they take a gamble on impeachment and lose as the details of the Ukraine scandal become too mired in diplomatic minutiae to matter to voters?

Or could, as the evidence suggests, Trump lose everything and find himself impeached?

Whatever scenario plays out the political consequences for the US will be profound.

This week’s public hearings are a truly high-stakes political fight. Fasten your armchair seatbelt – the making of an American spectacle is about to begin and it could get ugly.