Diplomat Bill Taylor on Wednesday played the role of the unimpeachable truth-telling Vietnam vet in Congress that a lot of people thought Robert Mueller would play.
Taylor, the top official at the US Embassy in Ukraine, joined State Department official George Kent as the leadoff witnesses in public impeachment hearings to tell a story that's already known.
He was credible
While Mueller's sometimes obtuse and muddled delivery did nothing to drive home the conclusions of the Russia report, Taylor brought life and conviction to his retelling of events, which led him to accuse his bosses of using badly needed military aid to force the Ukrainian government into US politics.
He added in some new information
Taylor expanded his earlier testimony to include the story of an aide who overheard Trump ask US Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland over the telephone on July 26 about whether the Ukrainians would undertake investigations the US wanted.
Just the facts (as he heard them)
That's far from firsthand information, but Taylor didn't try to embellish. He refused to speculate, but he also insisted that he knew what he knew. Taylor was a George W. Bush administration official, and someone the Trump administration brought out of retirement. Along with the moral authority of his years of service, his testimony felt credible when he said the behavior he witnessed was not normal or OK. (His radio-worthy voice didn't hurt, either.)
No screaming and yelling
There were no angry back-and-forths with Republicans because he and Kent stayed in their lanes and left the pontificating to the politicians. Taylor even managed to share a smile and a laugh with Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, Republicans' self-appointed attack dog at these hearings.
That's my big takeaway after watching.
Read and listen to some other thoughts here:
Impeachment Watch podcast real-time analysis with David Chalian, Carrie Cordero and Molly Ball
Most important takeaways from the first day of public impeachment hearings, by Chris Cillizza
Republicans shrug off impeachment hearings as boring, by Kevin Liptak
All of CNN's hearing coverage is here.
Jordan's reply: The aid went through
Republicans pushed back against the testimony from Taylor and Kent. They argue the White House phone call doesn't show pressure on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky despite President Donald Trump's power over him -- and because White House staffers, for the most part, are refusing to cooperate with subpoenas, it may be hard for investigators to fill in those gaps.
Main theme of the defense
Jordan's arguments against impeachment boiled down, very simply, to the fact that the aid was ultimately unfrozen and there is no investigation.
In his telling, this becomes a story of a heroic Trump taking a chance with military aid on a young new leader standing up to Russia.
A preview of coming impeachment hearings
Jordan again: "The next few weeks we're going to have more witnesses like today that the Democrats will parade in here and all going to say this. So-and-so said such and such to so-and-so and therefore -- we got to impeach the President."
Aid was released. But after whistleblower complaint
The reality is that the Ukraine aid was released just as everything was blowing up around the whistleblower complaint. Our timeline had gotten a bit hard to follow, so today I shrank it down to the key moments that explain the accusations against Trump.
August 12 -- Whistleblower files complaint
August 29 -- Ukraine raises concerns about the aid
September 1 -- Sondland delivers ultimatum; Taylor raises concerns about Ukraine aid
September 9 -- Inspector general informs Congress of whistleblower complaint, and concerns from Taylor come to a head
September 12 -- Ukraine is informed that military aid is unfrozen; CNN interview with Zelensky is off.
Trump confused by report of call with Sondland
During a White House news conference with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after the hearing Wednesday, Trump bristled at being asked about the impeachment hearings. Specifically he responded on the new information we learned today: that Taylor said an aide had overheard Trump talking by phone to Sondland about Ukraine.
Trump said he doesn't recall it.
"I never heard this," he said, adding that it sounds like "more secondhand information."
Secret ballot in the Senate?
The House is where the action is, but attention is already drifting to the Senate, which will have to conduct a trial if the House votes to impeach.
Juleanna Glover is an anti-Trump Republican and she suggests an elegant solution in Politico -- that senators use a secret ballot. She argues there is precedent for secret ballots in particularly tough votes on Capitol Hill, and there have been many stories about Republican senators being cowed by Trump.
In secret, Glover argues, senators could vote their minds. And that's exactly why Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell probably wouldn't allow it. It would take a handful of Republicans to side with Democrats to make it happen, although Democrats aren't talking about this either.
What's coming next
- White House may release transcript of April phone call between Trump and Zelensky
- Marie Yovanovitch, former US ambassador to Ukraine, testifies in public
- Taylor aide David Holmes testifies behind closed doors.
- Mark Sandy, Office of Management and Budget official, testifies behind closed doors
What are we doing here?
The President has invited foreign powers to interfere in the US presidential election.
Democrats want to impeach him for it.
It is a crossroads for the American system of government as the President tries to change what's acceptable for US politicians. This newsletter will focus on this consequential moment in US history.