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Week In Politics: Public Hearings In The Impeachment Inquiry


After dozens of hours of closed-door testimony, this was the week we heard the voices of some of the people testifying in the impeachment inquiry into President Trump. On Wednesday, acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor went before lawmakers.


WILLIAM TAYLOR: As the committee is aware, I wrote that withholding security assistance in exchange for help with a domestic political campaign in the United States would be crazy. I believed that then, and I believe it now.

CORNISH: Sitting next to Taylor, State Department official George Kent.


GEORGE KENT: I do not believe the United States should ask other countries to engage in selective, politically associated investigations or prosecutions against opponents of those in power because such selective actions undermine the rule of law, regardless of the country.

CORNISH: And on this Friday testifying in the Ways and Means Committee room was former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch. She spoke of the importance of the U.S. diplomatic corps.


MARIE YOVANOVITCH: We make a difference every day. We are people who repeatedly uproot our lives, who risk - and sometimes give - our lives for this country. We are the 52 Americans who, 40 years ago this month, began 444 days of deprivation, torture and captivity in Tehran.

CORNISH: We're going to talk about all of this with Hugo Gurdon of The Washington Examiner.

Welcome back.


CORNISH: And Susan Glasser of The New Yorker, welcome to you.

SUSAN GLASSER: Thanks so much.

CORNISH: I want to just start with the week at hand. When you look back at these last couple of days, is there a moment that strikes you, especially since this was the first week of public testimony? Hugo, you go first.

GURDON: You know, I think actually, the most striking thing is that there was no really sharp moment. The thing that - a lot of people like me, who are not reflexively opposed or resistant to President Trump, nevertheless found the - when the transcript was released that it looked pretty bad. It looked pretty damning.

CORNISH: And this is the transcript...

GURDON: Of the letter.

CORNISH: ...Of the phone call...


CORNISH: ...With President Zelenskiy.

GURDON: Yes, the phone call with President Zelenskiy. It looked bad, and it's very simple to understand. It looked like a straightforward, implied request for dirt on a political opponent. What these hearings are doing has - is muddying the picture. You know, we found ourselves listening to debate over whether Trump undermined the interagency consensus today. I think that what's happening is, actually, the picture is getting less clear, and the public will not be persuaded. That's the thing that I find most striking about the last few days.

CORNISH: Susan, for you, the moment that stands out.

GLASSER: Well, you know, it's interesting. Look. Hearings are not about providing spoon-fed, naive versions of the facts to people. But actually, there is a complicated policy. And by President Trump - by upending American foreign policy in the ways that we've heard about over the last few days for his personal political interests, I think that is not a simple story because it's not a simple story. And I found that there were very compelling testimony from the former ambassador, Marie Yovanovitch, today, which had to do, I think, with the lack of cynicism for once about what we're experiencing in this unusual presidency.

CORNISH: But, you know...

GLASSER: She basically said, I was fired on the basis of no rationale. I was fired by - on the basis of a smear campaign mounted against me that reached directly into the Oval Office, a foreign disinformation campaign.

CORNISH: Let me jump in here...

GLASSER: How is that not compelling?

CORNISH: ...Because I remember you writing that - and, I mean, correct me if I'm wrong, but the president was kind of already winning an impeachment before this week's hearings gaveled to an open. So it's - are you feeling differently now or...

GLASSER: Well, look. I think those are two different issues. It's an excellent point. So define winning. He's defined winning as keeping this partisan, and I think that there's no indication to suggest that our extraordinary partisan division is undone by listening to a few days' and a few hours' worth of facts from the witnesses. But that doesn't mean that they weren't facts nonetheless. I - as a journalist, I think it's important to insist upon that, regardless of what the political implications are.

CORNISH: Hugo, you wrote regarding this inquiry that Trump doesn't think he did anything wrong. This is certainly echoed in at least some of the talking points we've heard from Republicans this week of, like - we look at the transcript. We see all this stuff, but nothing is impeachable. Can you talk about that argument? Is that something that is effective?

GURDON: Well, it's interesting because I think that there - I mean, there are plenty of smart people who think that President Trump has made a mistake to suggest that the phone call was perfect and that he would be much better off doing what President Clinton did after he stopped denying the liaison with Monica Lewinsky and mostly rely on the idea that the offenses he had committed didn't rise to the level of impeachment.

But, in fact, I think that those things end up with being a sort of distinction almost without a difference because on the one side, you have, at the extreme, President Trump saying it was perfect and a lot of people who support him and back him and say it's not impeachable by saying, well, it was - you know, it's questionable. It's really inadvisable behavior, but it isn't sufficient to remove him from office. And then obviously, the people on the other side are saying, it's either clearly enough or it's absolutely damnable. And really, what you end up there with is simply a difference of opinion about whether or not...

CORNISH: But they've got to vote.

GURDON: ...They're impressed. Yes, they do have to...

CORNISH: (Laughter) So it's not going to be just difference of opinion.

GURDON: Well, they will vote, of course. The House will vote, and it's pretty - I think everybody believes that he will be impeached whatever the - I don't know which articles will obviously go to the Senate. And then he will be acquitted in the Senate. This is all about - it seems to me the primary aim here is to win public opinion, and that's why I was pointing - in my first comment is that I don't think that these hearings are helping the Democrats win over public opinion.

CORNISH: Susan, do you have a thought on that?

GLASSER: Well, you know, it's interesting. You asked what struck us in the hearing. One of the things that struck me, actually, was the opening statement by the ranking member, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, Devin Nunes. He did not say that it was a perfect phone call. He really didn't defend or talk about the president's behavior in any way. What he did was he talked about a series of conspiracy theories, many of which even I, as someone who's spending a lot of time, you know, trying to understand what's happening here, was not familiar with. Unless you live in this world of alt-right conspiracy theories, you couldn't even understand what the top Republican on the committee - he was talking about nude pictures of President Trump and an alleged conspiracy by Democrats within three sentences of beginning these impeachment hearings.

CORNISH: Does that go to Hugo's point, though, about muddying the waters?

GLASSER: Yes. I think that's the strategy.

CORNISH: I mean, are people just hearing a ton of information...


CORNISH: ...Regardless of any of it's pertinent?

GLASSER: Absolutely.

GURDON: Yes. I think it's a distraction.

CORNISH: OK. On that, you guys agree.


CORNISH: Just whether or not that that is for good or for bad, it sounds like, in terms of...

GURDON: It's what the Republicans would like to do. It's not what Adam Schiff wants to do, but nevertheless, it is what Adam Schiff is doing.

CORNISH: But is it powerful to hear someone like Marie Yovanovitch today say, I felt intimidated? That's pretty easy language for a public that's been hearing this all spoken about in terms of, like, kind of law and order talk.


GLASSER: You know, I think that listening to her today - and remember. Not only did the president of the United States raise her in a phone call with a foreign leader and said, she's going to go through some things - she described her shock and dismay at being made aware of that record of the phone call when it was released in September. And as if to give a real-time demonstration of his threats, the president actually tweeted against her in the middle of the hearing, while she was still on the witness stand today. You had even Liz Cheney, the top Republican woman in the House, saying that's not appropriate.

CORNISH: Let me jump in here. I want to give Hugo the last word. We have a few seconds left. But did the president hurt his case, in a way, doing that?

GURDON: No. I think it was very ugly. It was characteristically crass, and he shouldn't have done it. It was certainly inappropriate, but it muddies the water. Again, it gets people talking about his behavior rather than whether the thing that he said in the phone call with the Ukraine president was impeachable.

CORNISH: That's Hugo Gurdon of the Washington Examiner.

Thank you.

GURDON: Thanks very much.

CORNISH: And Susan Glasser of the New Yorker, thank you so much.

GLASSER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.