Wednesday’s opening act of the impeachment of Donald J. Trump was only going to end one way for Trump and his defenders, and that was badly.
In the face of two credible, nonpartisan witnesses of unimpeachable character and service, the Trump House Clown Caucus brought their A-game, and instead of changing the dialogue and owning the libs they managed to validate the witnesses, embarrass themselves, and doubtlessly enrage the Audience of One.
You could practically hear him screaming all the way down Pennsylvania Avenue as his allies’ carefully constructed tower of bullshit collapsed under the matter-of-fact, up-the-middle baritone recitation of his plan from men who lived through the Ukraine scandal.
Trump relied on his shriveled, impotent House caucus to destroy Taylor and Kent, and the unfocused, pathetic performances his mooks put on must have left The Donald tearing his wig out. Even the late addition to the committee of wrestling coach Jim Jordan couldn’t overcome the damage two gray men did to the story of the perfect call.
Even in Trump’s empire of lies, reality sometimes penetrates.
On just the first day of impeachment hearings, the fantasy that the Republicans on the committee, led by the comically incompetent Devin Nunes, would shift the public dialogue from Trump’s overt corruption to Biden, Burisma, and loco conspiracy theories was utterly detonated. The idea that the Republicans would make the hearing about the original whistleblower was also shattered.
Ambassador Bill Taylor and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent, two experienced government hands, played their roles to perfection. In particular, Taylor’s bravura 41-minute statement was a riveting tick-tock of the why, when, and how of Trump’s attempt to corruptly abuse American power to gain domestic political advantage. Taylor deftly drew a binding timeline that showed the role Rudy Giuliani and Trump cat’s paw Gordon Sondland played in trying to suborn the cooperation of Ukraine’s new government into a false investigation of Joe Biden. George Kent’s knowledge of Ukraine, its politics, and the damage Trump’s efforts wrought was as granular as it was damning.
It was a contest of gravitas that Trump’s skells, sycophants, and dead-end goons on the committee were bound to lose—and did. Jordan, Nunes, and the rest were so overmatched by Taylor and Kent that it was almost laughable.
Jordan, as always, was without a jacket, an appropriately knotted necktie, or a clue. His gotchas didn’t get anything, his predicates were as thin as his combover, and his belief that he’d save the day by talking louder and faster was a flop. He was rattling off “questions” so fast that he sounded like an auctioneer who had discovered the joy of cocaine. That fact that other members of the committee kept throwing their remaining question time to Jordan was a sign not of confidence in him, but of their own desires to punch their questions out and resume hiding.
The man Trump once wanted to be the head of the entire United States intelligence community, Rep. John Ratcliffe, tried to display some of his former federal prosecutor chops, but was largely shut down by Chairman Adam Schiff.
Nunes, a man no one confuses as a person with a first-, second-, or even third-class intellect, was so out of his depth and so uncomfortable that it was painful to watch. He gamely slogged on about Ukraine being the source of the 2016 election interference—a conspiracy so discredited that even Trump’s most fervent allies can’t deliver it with a straight face. Then again, Nunes is presently litigating against a parody internet account featuring a fake cow.
Schiff ran the show with unexpected skill, swatting down any number of dilatory, small-ball distraction plays brought by the Trump Clown Car Caucus and keeping the witnesses filling the record with a flood of damning testimony.
The Democrats and Wednesday’s witnesses were playing for the country, for history, and for the coming Senate trial. They had the advantage of the truth on their side. Day One was a flood of additional evidence that Trump was using the Ukraine situation for his own political gain, and as Schiff said, “If this isn’t impeachable, what is?”
Trump and the committee Republicans knew from the jump that Taylor and Kent would be a problem. They knew deep down that no matter how many hours Hannity bellows at the camera, no matter how many articles from his apologists flood the Trump-friendly conservative blogs, and no matter how many times Trump tweets that the witnesses testifying against him are Never Trumpers, Taylor and Kent are better men. He was listening to men with no skin in the political outcome, and thus, men who were the most dangerous kind of truth-tellers.
Which is why the Republicans can barely restrain themselves from saying the name of the whistleblower. One Hill source told me this morning that there’s a likelihood the name will be brought forward by Jordan or one of the other loose-cannon types, and though it's so widely known, the deliberate strategy will be to force the Republicans’ favorite obsession into the mainstream media. If the media doesn’t say the name, they’ll scream “cover-up!” If the media does cover the name, they will claim the entire hearing is invalid on a wrongheaded but loud fruit-of-the-poison-tree argument.
In the meantime, one element of the Republican show on Day One was the constant repetition of the so-called hearsay defense. In the mayfly world of the Trump GOP, they act as if tomorrow will never come, and Gordon Sondland will never testify. They seem to believe that executive privilege will never be broken or the testimony of others ordered. Democrats need to emphasize that the hearsay question could be easily resolved by letting White House and State Department personnel testify.
The weak link is, of course, Gordon Sondland, who was Trump’s do-boy in Ukraine. He spoke directly to the president, repeatedly. We will discover soon enough the contents of those direct conversations with Trump, including the cover-up call in which Trump ordered him to tell Volker there was no quid pro quo. The consciousness of guilt in that would be evident to even the meanest, dumbest Trump defender. Yes, Devin, I’m looking at you, you dolt.
It was a bad day for Mick Mulvaney and Rudy Giuliani. Both men were implicated very directly in the testimony of both Kent and Taylor. For Giuliani, well, he was everywhere in the testimony, increasing his political radioactivity, and the odds that Trump will be forced to pursue the strategy Republican leaders leaked to Axios on Wednesday morning: framing the entire fiasco as Rudy running his own game in Ukraine and bamboozling an innocent President Trump. The evidence—and again, just on the first day—shows that’s an outrageous lie, and it’s never going to pass the smell test. Trump’s nervousness over Rudy in the wind, broke and angry, is delicious.
Mulvaney, a man with a face like a terrified rodent, has for weeks kept his twitching nose to the wind, smelling the pungent musk of White House predators all around him and knowing that his role is, at best, lunch. Taylor’s direct testimony of a Mulvaney aide confirming the shutoff of Ukraine aid draws yet another line of contact directly back to the Acting Provisional Kinda Chief of Staff and the President. Anyone who thinks a man with Mulvaney’s wee cojones was freelancing, I’d suggest they stop day-drinking. Mulvaney was acting on orders. The line goes to the top.
It was a bad, bad day for Trump. His defenders on the committee came in believing that keeping him, Fox News, and the Republican base happy would save the day. It won’t.