The most crucial stage of the Ukraine investigation so far has profound implications beyond the political and personal reputation of Trump and the question of whether he abused his power by seeking political favors from a foreign power.
The hearings will test whether the ancient machinery of US governance can effectively investigate a President who ignores the charges against him and fogs fact in defining a new post-truth political era. And notwithstanding Trump’s current Republican firewall, the hearings will begin to decide whether a presidency that has rocked America and the world will reach its full natural term.
The next few months will scar America for years to come. As the Bill Clinton and Andrew Johnson impeachments did before it, this process will reflect and intensify the ideological civil war that is tearing at national unity and threatening the nation’s forward momentum.
The case against Trump
“At the same time, if you do impeach, but the President is acquitted, what does that say to the next president? The next Congress? There’s no good or simple answer,” he said.
The Democratic charge that could see Trump shamed as only the third impeached President in history could hardly be more grave. He is effectively accused of committing a crime against the nation itself and the political system that guards its freedoms.
Specifically, Democrats charge Trump with conspiring with a foreign power to influence a US election, an offense many observers believe satisfies the impeachable standard of “Treason, Bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors.”
“History and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government,” wrote the first President, George Washington, in his farewell address.
The Democratic tactics
To force Trump’s removal from office, Democrats must use the hearings beginning on Wednesday to turn independents and moderate Republicans against him.
They are striving to change the political calculation of GOP senators currently unlikely to desert Trump and build the two-thirds majority to convict him in a Senate trial. Failing that, Trump could be so damaged by impeachment that his hopes of breaking out beyond his base in the 2020 will be doomed.
In essence, Democrats are seeking to build made-for-TV moments that can tell the story of the Ukraine scandal in simple terms — as the Senate Watergate hearings did in the Nixon era.
Democrats allege that the quid pro quos in this equation involved $400 million in delayed military aid to Ukraine and conditions initially imposed on a White House visit for its President, Volodymyr Zelensky.
Democrats have also collected evidence that Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani was barnstorming around in Europe trying to close the deal with Ukraine and bypassing US diplomats.
Trump has refused to produce, or Democrats have declined to launch long legal challenges to access, key witnesses who could establish or rule out any direct link with the President.
The Republican defense
Since the Ukraine scandal erupted, Republicans have struggled to coin a consistent defense of the President.
Democrats have struggled to stop previous high-profile hearings from turning into circuses. This time, Schiff has decreed witnesses will first be questioned by professional counsel from both sides — at least delaying political hijinks.
The President is flooding the zone with a characteristic trove of conspiracy theories, outright lies, distractions and misinformation designed to confuse the public and fog clarity.
Yet an impeachment hearing is such a profound moment that the President’s normal weapons may not work so well this time.
“The Republicans have staked their defense on a variety of techniques that don’t address the charges. They claim this a biased investigation, that this is a witch hunt,” said Claire Finkelstein, faculty director at the Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School.