Impeachment inquiries upset the unity of a nation, disrupt a very fragile equilibrium and can prise it apart with the unforgiving sharpness of a machete.
It’s likely this won’t be any different. Perhaps the only distinction this time is that there’s perhaps even less stability to start with.
Democrats are fully committed to pursuing the process though, however great the political risk of having sparked yet another probe in a probe weary nation. Today their strategy was clear: focus on the July call, what was said and what those listening in thought. Republicans by contrast, focused on everything else – the whistleblower, disloyalty and leaking.
Intriguingly, as they spoke, a new Politico/Morning consult poll said opposition to the inquiry had jumped 10 points since last week – from 47 to 37. However vindicated Democrats may have felt last week, it seems those in the middle not the outside, may be losing patience.
In the line, I met a few gleeful-looking observers. One told me he’s an “impeachment tourist”. He was wearing a smile that suggested a hint of pride. He and others waiting to get a peek seemed excited to witness history. And yet they won’t be working on any heavy theses. Most appeared to have already made up their minds. Fred from Chicago talked in slightly bizarre culinary terms about the “squid ink stain on truth”. God Bless America. It never falls short on punchy, surprising soundbites.
A few people down, there was a tall man proudly wearing his Make America Great Again hat. No prizes for what position he was taking. It was a perfect illustration of the divide on display in the room they were waiting to get into.
Inside, Lt Col Alexander Vindman, a star witness for the Democrats, was providing a very personal account of his professional path and his patriotism. He stood out in his uniform. But Republicans’ line of questioning suggested some believed the outfit was for show. Vindman lacked the sonorous, mellifluous tone of Bill Taylor who gave testimony last week. Taylor sounded like Walter Cronkite delivering a narration from the grave.
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But when Vindman directly addressed his father who took his family to America 40 years ago, it was a striking moment. “Do not worry,” he said. “I will be fine for telling the truth.” The truth he said, is that the call between US President Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy was inappropriate – would be interpreted as partisan, would undermine national security and help Russia in the region. It was a stinging summary.
It all comes down to what you believe and many of Mr Trump’s followers believe even a Purple Heart recipient can be capable of “Never Trumper” bias. When Vindman said: “This is America. This is the country I’ve served and defended. That all of my brothers have served. And here, right matters,” the room erupted in applause. But those slices of tension, as dramatic as they may feel here, don’t always echo across the land. It’s easy and very dangerous to over-interpret what happens in this shining city on the hill.
By afternoon, the corridors were a little quieter. Republicans were annoyed their witnesses were being called later in the day. They know the big TV ratings come earlier. Kurt Volker, one of the so-called “three amigos” involved in US Ukraine policy, provided a 24.5-minute opening statement. By this point, there were a few in the audience nodding off. Even a congressman.
Volker did have a few key details to revise from his closed door testimony. Now he acknowledged others did convey conditions to Ukraine for unfreezing aid. And he had a small mea culpa to deliver too: he now understands investigating Burisma did not mean the Ukrainian company, but in fact meant investigating Biden. But what was perhaps most striking to hear was when Volker said the allegations against Biden are “self-serving and not credible”. This was a witness called by Republicans undermining one of their key talking points.
But whatever Volker said, whatever Jennifer Williams, Vindman or Tim Morrison had to share, Republicans know their defence and they’re sticking with it:
- They gave aid to Ukraine
- The Ukrainians weren’t aware it was being withheld anyway
- All the supposed star witnesses are just giving third hand and third rate accounts.
This week is starting the way last week ended: two sides, with totally different approaches and where evidence may ultimately be academic.