By Heather Cox Richardson/Guardian News and Media
Since the House of Representatives opened an impeachment inquiry in late September into the actions of Donald Trump over his withholding of aid to Ukraine, the Republican defenders of the president have dismissed the inquiry on the ground that hearings were held behind closed doors.
On Wednesday, the House Intelligence Committee, charged by House speaker Nancy Pelosi with spearheading the investigation, answered those complaints by opening public hearings. Deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs George P Kent and Charge d’Affaires for Ukraine William Taylor were the first public witnesses on Wednesday. On Friday, former US ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch was the third, testifying about the events surrounding her abrupt removal from her position in May 2019.
For all their complicated names and dates, what has emerged at the hearings is a clear picture of an epic battle between the rule of oligarchs, who pervert government to suit their own interests, and the rule of law, in which everyone has the same right to representation and legal protection.
The witnesses have explained that under both Republican and Democratic presidents, America’s policy toward Ukraine has been to bolster the rule of law after that country’s domination by oligarchs. Led after August 2016 by senior diplomat Yovanovitch – the most senior female diplomat in the US Diplomatic Corps – they tried to curb corrupt rulers and bring Ukraine out from under the influence of Russia and closer to Europe and America.
Ukraine’s leaders were accustomed to wielding power by prosecuting their political opponents for corruption, and Yovanovitch’s push to end that practice earned their ire. In February 2019, in what appears to have been the first incarnation of the idea that investigating Burisma, the company on whose board Hunter Biden sat, could help Trump’s reelection, Ukraine’s chief prosecutor Lutsenko began to feed stories to the American media smearing Yovanovich and suggesting a new investigation into Burisma. On 25 April, while she was at an event honouring Ukrainian anti-corruption activist Kateryna Handziuk, who was murdered by a man wielding sulfuric acid, Yovanovitch got a phone call from a superior warning her she must leave the country on the next plane. A day later, she did.
This week’s testimony reveals that the battle over the rule of law in Ukraine ties directly to the same fight in America. The official US policy in Ukraine was to promote the rule of law, but the Trump administration sided against official US policy to work with Lutsenko and his ilk.
Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, along with Giuliani’s clients Igor Fruman and Lev Parnas, joined in the smears against Ambassador Yovanovitch and worked to force her recall. Her duties then fell to ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, a major donor to the Trump campaign. According to George Kent, after Volodymr Zelensky beat the former Ukraine president, Petro Porshenko, in a landslide, acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney tapped Sondland, together with energy secretary Rick Perry and diplomat Kurt Volker, to pressure Zelensky into continuing the smear campaign against the Bidens launched by his predecessor’s chief prosecutor Lutsenko. The Trump administration launched a shadow delegation that sided with Ukrainian oligarchs against the rule off law.
The details of the story are complicated, and Ohio Republican Jim Jordan, put on the committee by minority leader Kevin McCarthy (who took money from Fruman and Parnas) to spearhead the defence, tried to suggest that the story is so laughably complicated that it must be false. But here’s where the hearings did their work. For the people watching, the story was simple. The witnesses were not simply outlining the battle; they were illustrating it.
On the one hand were solid, calm, professionals, with stellar credentials, carefully explaining the rules under which they served and explaining exactly how Giuliani, Fruman, Parnas and others broke those rules. Committee chair Adam Schiff, speaking slowly and calmly, drew out their story, letting them have their say.
On the other hand were Republican defenders of the president, bullying, badgering, grandstanding and refusing to let the witnesses answer. On Wednesday, Jordan scoffed at William Taylor’s testimony, sneering that if he was the best the Democrats could do as a “star witness,” they truly had nothing, and John Ratcliffe, a Republican representative from Texas yelled at Taylor to answer “YES OR NO!” after a leading question, clearly trying to manipulate him to deliver a sound bite for their base audience at the Fox News Channel.
On Friday, the demonstration of the battle between the rule of law and oligarchy became personal. Ambassador Yovanovitch, a 33-year state department veteran, made an impassioned plea for the rule of law. “Ukrainians wanted the law to apply equally to all persons, whether the individual in question is the president or any other citizen. It was a question of fairness, of dignity,” she said in her opening statement. Then, while Yovanovitch was testifying, Trump attacked her on Twitter, suggesting that she was responsible for the bad conditions in Somalia and Ukraine where she had served. Schiff read the tweet, live, on television. Yovanovitch responded with quiet dignity, defending her actions in those places, actions for which she has been universally praised by her colleagues. In real time, viewers saw a professional woman attacked by a political leader trying to intimidate her.
The power imbalance was palpable, especially since Trump had not similarly attacked the men who testified before her, and she admitted the effect was “intimidating.” After Wednesday’s testimony, pundits complained that the hearings lacked “pizzazz.” The picture of a hardworking female public servant attacked in real time by the president of the United States provided plenty of drama.
“The former ambassador from the United States, the woman, was bad news,” Trump said to Zelensky in the infamous 25 July phone call asking him to investigate the Bidens. Trump was echoing Letsenko and his corrupt compatriots, angry at Yovanovitch’s overturning of their dominance by insisting upon the rule of law, but he might well have been reacting to how thoroughly her testimony indicted his own behaviour. Certainly, their relative positions in the struggle between oligarchy and democracy was clear to those who watched Friday’s testimony. When Yovanovitch the hearing ended and she left the room, the audience gave her a standing ovation.
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