House Democrats this week are taking their effort to impeach Donald Trump into a risky new phase of public hearings that the president is eager to turn into a made-for-TV personal battle, echoing his successful White House run in 2016.
The hearings on Wednesday and Friday feature three career diplomats who, in previous closed-door depositions, outlined attempts by Trump’s advisers to use the prospect of an Oval Office meeting and military aid to pressure Ukraine to publicly announce an investigation of Trump’s political rivals.
With these sessions, the Democratic-led impeachment inquiry moves into a much higher stakes phase for Trump and Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, both of whom will be struggling to direct the narrative of how the president’s first term ends.
Trump’s response has been defiance. He warned Republicans in a tweet that when discussing his July call with Ukraine’s president to not be “led into the fools trap of saying it was not perfect, but is not impeachable. No, it is much stronger than that. Nothing was done wrong!”
He and his allies also are scripting in villains — primarily Schiff and the whistle-blower whose complaint about the Ukraine call triggered the current impeachment inquiry.
“We’ve seen Adam Schiff and all of his lies,” White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said on Fox News. “We’ve seen they’re conveniently ignoring this whistle-blower.”
It’s a well-tested strategy that Trump has been adept at using to keep Republican voters in his corner and GOP members of Congress in line through multiple controversies since he began running for office.
Support for impeachment has grown, but stabilised, as Trump fights congressional Democrats at each step of the investigation. Almost every poll taken since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the impeachment inquiry and the White House released a transcript of Trump’s call with Volodymyr Zelenskiy find a plurality or bare majority of Americans favour impeaching the president. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found 49% favour Trump’s impeachment and removal from office, compared with 46% who don’t.
Other surveys with similar results show that support for impeachment is mostly driven by more than eight in 10 Democrats, along with a plurality of self-described independents. Republicans remain staunchly behind Trump.
Lawmakers from both parties will be watching to see if this week’s open hearings sway public opinion.
The witnesses who previously testified behind closed doors will lay out their recollections about the Trump administration delaying military aid to Ukraine in return for an investigation of the president’s potential 2020 challenger, Joe Biden, and an unsubstantiated conspiracy theory about alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election to benefit Democrats.
Top US envoy to Ukraine William Taylor, who was expected to appear on Wednesday, said he grew increasingly concerned that Ukraine aid was being held hostage to White House demands for politically motivated investigations.