Americans have suffered through two agonizing weeks of House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff’s misbegotten impeachment obsession. Stretched over the course of five days, 12 witnesses testified.
These hearings have revealed a common and consistent thread. None of the witnesses have provided any direct evidence that President Trump committed an impeachable act. Instead, they have offered an endless stream of hearsay, opinion and speculation.
The accusation that Trump pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into a “quid pro quo” in which U.S. military aid was contingent upon an investigation of former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter is unsupported by the evidence presented. It is found nowhere in the transcript of the July 25 telephone conversation between Trump and Zelensky. Nor was it presented by any of the witnesses called by Schiff, D-Calif.
Here is a summation of what the main witnesses said, coupled with a closing argument for why this impeachment charade should be dismissed.
The first two witnesses had no firsthand knowledge of Trump’s decision to temporarily hold back nearly $400 million in military aid to Ukraine, nor did they have any direct discussion with President Trump about his intent.
The witnesses did not listen in on the Trump-Zelensky phone conversation. To describe them as remote, irrelevant and immaterial witnesses is an understatement. This did not stop them from offering their interpretations and conjecture.
William Taylor, the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, testified it was his “understanding” there was a link between U.S. security assistance and an investigation of Joe Biden.
How did Taylor arrive at his opinion? He heard it through discussions with other diplomats, although there is no indication that any of these individuals had primary knowledge of anything.
The chain of hearsay went something like this: U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland told National Security Council official Tim Morrison who, in turn, told Taylor that there was a purported “quid pro quo.” This was triple hearsay. Or, as Taylor told the Intelligence Committee: “My understanding is only coming from people that I talked to.”
Taylor did admit that he had three meetings with President Zelensky after the Trump-Zelensky phone call – and said the subject of an alleged “quid pro quo” of financial aid in exchange for Ukrainian investigations never came up. This was strong evidence that no “quid pro quo” ever existed.
George Kent, deputy assistant secretary of state, testified that he “believed” there was a “quid pro quo” after speaking to Taylor who spoke to Morrison who heard it from Sondland. This was quadruple hearsay. Importantly, the original source for both Kent and Taylor was Sondland. Where did Sondland get it? From no one at all. He “presumed” it. More on that to follow.
Neither Kent nor Taylor have ever met or spoken with President Trump. They simply propagated and repeated speculation built on multiple hearsay. Together, they represent a chattering class that traffics in gossip and supposition in their diplomatic echo chamber.
In a court of law, Kent and Taylor would never be allowed to testify. Yet, they were invited by Democrats to ruminate about a conversation to which they were not privy, even though Taylor readily conceded: “I don’t know what President Trump was thinking about the Ukrainians.”
Kent was more direct when he admitted: “I think, in the vacuum of a clear explanation, people started speculating.” No kidding.
Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, took center stage in the second day of the hearings. She had no knowledge of the supposed “quid pro quo” because she had been fired a full two months before the Trump-Zelensky telephone call. This prompted ranking committee member Devin Nunes, R-Calif., to quip: “I’m not exactly sure what the ambassador is doing here today.” Valid point.
However, that did not stop Democrats from asking Yovanovitch to tender her opinion of the conversation and her innermost feelings at being described by Trump in an unflattering light. Right on cue, she lamented that she was “shocked and devastated.”
Democrats seized upon “the smear” of Yovanovitch as evidence of a larger scheme involving bribery that would constitute an impeachable offense. This was tortured logic, of course.
Bribery may be a more marketable way of describing a “quid pro quo,” which was Schiff’s obvious intent – a reported focus group told him so. But if there’s no evidence of a “quid pro quo,” there is no evidence of bribery. The chairman, a former prosecutor, seemed oblivious to the obvious deduction.
Schiff did manage to fabricate the most memorable, if not amusing, moment of the day when he read a critical comment of Yovanovitch tweeted by Trump during the hearing. He then invited the witness to bemoan that she felt “intimidated.”
In truth, the most egregious acts of obstruction have been committed by Rep. Schiff.
This produced an immediate and predictable charge by the chairman that the president was guilty of “witness intimidation,” which would surely constitute an article of impeachment.
Terribly sorry, but it is not “witness intimidation” for someone to publicly invoke his First Amendment right to free speech in defense of himself against what he perceives to be false accusations.
Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a somewhat pompous staffer on the National Security Council, was the featured witness. After scolding Nunes for not addressing him by his Army rank, Vindman testified that he felt “concerned” about Trump’s conversation with Zelensky. As with the witnesses before him, this was his gratuitous opinion.
Vindman, not lacking in hubris, seemed convinced that he was in charge of U.S. foreign policy, not the president. Even though he confessed that he’d never so much as met Trump, the National Security Council staffer bragged in his deposition: “I’m the director for Ukraine. I’m responsible for Ukraine. I’m the most knowledgeable. I’m the authority for Ukraine, for the National Security Council and the White House.”
How dare the president not defer to an unelected subordinate employee on matters of foreign relations!
Vindman had prepared materials and talking points in advance for Trump’s use in his call with Zelensky. When Trump did not follow the staffer’s script, Vindman became offended.
Vindman grumbled about it to others, including the faux whistleblower or an intermediary who then fed it to the confidential informant. Vindman’s apparent insubordination and leak set in motion the chain of events that led to the present impeachment inquiry.
Tim Morrison, who served as Vindman’s boss, could barely contain his contempt for Vindman, calling into question his judgment.
For his part, Morrison testified he had no “concern” about Trump’s conversation with Zelensky. He said there was “nothing improper” although he feared that Democrats would politicize the call. “My fears have been realized,” he observed.
Morrison emphasized that Ukraine did not even know that financial aid had been temporarily halted until weeks after the phone call, discrediting the notion of a “quid pro quo.” He confirmed that President Trump’s reluctance to hand over almost $400 million in assistance was based on his overriding concern that the money would be squandered by corrupt government officials in Kiev.
Kurt Volker, the former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine, reiterated that Ukraine was unaware of the hold on aid. He told the committee he was “never involved in anything I considered to be bribery or quid pro quo.”
When asked if President Trump ever said he was not going to allow aid to go to Ukraine unless there were investigations into the Bidens or meddling in the 2016 election, Volker replied: “No, he did not.” The aid was delivered, and there was no investigation.
Gordon Sondland, ambassador to the European Union, was touted as the Democrats’ “star witness” who would implicate Trump in all manner of impeachable offenses. The opposite occurred.
Sondland acknowledged that the president kept repeating to him “over and over again” that there was no “quid pro quo.” Quoting Trump, the ambassador testified that the president said: “I want nothing, I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo.”
Thrusting a dagger into the heart of Democrats’ hopes of some damning indictment of Trump, Sondland made it abundantly clear that he never heard from the president that U.S. financial support was conditioned on an announcement of investigations.
Indeed, no one told Sondland. More than a dozen times he said that he merely “presumed” it. He called it a “guess.” The most penetrating exchange came during a withering cross-examination by Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio:
Turner: So you really have no testimony today that ties President Trump to a scheme to withhold aid from Ukraine in exchange for these investigations?
Sondland: Other than my presumption.
Turner: Which is nothing!
After that, Sondland seemed to melt and, with it, Schiff’s certitude that he had finally found a witness who would feed his insatiable desire to evict the president from the Oval Office.
After Sondland’s self-immolation, the fifth day of the two-week-long impeachment saga was comparatively anti-climactic.
David Holmes, an official at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, claimed he overheard portions of a telephone conversation between President Trump and Sondland on July 26 – just one day after the Trump-Zelensky call. By eavesdropping, he said he formed the “impression” that the hold on U.S. security assistance to Ukraine was “likely intended” to nudge Ukraine into investigating the Bidens.
Beyond his supposition, Holmes had no other knowledge to support his opinion. He admitted that he had no real idea why the aid was withheld or whether Ukrainian officials even knew that it was temporarily halted.
Unbelievably, Holmes relied on various news reports and accounts from other witnesses, rather than his own independent knowledge which was conspicuously scant. He was an eyewitness to almost nothing, but an ear-witness to only part of a telephone conversation.
Like Yovanovich before her, Fiona Hill, a former National Security Council official, left her position before the Trump-Zelensky conversation ever took place. She had no firsthand knowledge of it or why U.S. military assistance to Ukraine was temporarily delayed. Indeed, she was unaware of the call until it became public. Hill was a largely superfluous witness who added nothing to the central issue.
No Basis for Impeachment
Fox News has been informed that Democrats will be focusing on several specific articles of impeachment. One of them is bribery.
Yet, as Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, pointed out, not a single witness ever used the word “bribery” to describe President Trump’s conduct. To the contrary, most of the witnesses aggressively refuted any knowledge or evidence of bribery.
Since bribery necessarily requires a “quid pro quo,” where is the reliable or verifiable evidence of that anywhere in the testimony of the dozen witnesses who testified?
Many witnesses speculated. None offered proof. The best evidence is still the Trump-Zelensky conversation itself. The transcript shows there is no demand, threat, condition or pressure by Trump for a “quid pro quo.” This is corroborated by Zelensky himself, who is on record repudiating the purported “quid pro quo.”
A second impeachment article may be contempt of Congress, including “witness intimidation.” But that is clearly defined under law as a physical threat to a witness, bribing a witness, or coercing a witness to lie.
As noted earlier, a president – or anyone else, for that matter – is entitled to defend himself in a public statement or a tweet.
Another article of impeachment may be obstruction of justice and/or contempt of Congress for not providing documents and failing to produce witnesses to the Intelligence Committee. This is just plain silly.
Invoking executive or other communications privileges is neither obstruction nor impeachable contempt. The president is permitted to exercise legally recognized privileges.
As my colleague Andrew McCarthy, a former federal prosecutor, explained: “When a person asserts a privilege recognized by law, we don’t call that obstruction. We call that the law in action.” If Schiff cares to challenge that right or privilege, he can do so in federal court.
In truth, the most egregious acts of obstruction have been committed by Rep. Schiff. He continues to hide the identity of the whistleblower without statutory authority. He refuses to apply the standards of fundamental fairness and due process to his impeachment proceedings.
By contorting the impeachment clause, Schiff has consistently demonstrated contempt for the Constitution. His Republican adversaries certainly have plenty of contempt for the way he has mishandled his impeachment charade.