The Made-for-TV Impeachment

On rare occasions, congressional hearings beat gritty HBO dramas in entertainment value.

Former Ukraine Ambassador William Taylor and former Special Counsel Robert Mueller
Former Ambassador William Taylor (left) proved a deft storyteller in the way former Special Counsel Robert Mueller (right) did not. (Olivier Douliery / Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP / Getty)

They’re both silver-haired septuagenarians, Vietnam veterans, Ivy League–educated public servants for Republican and Democratic presidents alike, with reputations for unswerving rectitude. But Robert Mueller and William Taylor could not have made for more different congressional witnesses. On July 24, in the glare of television lights, Mueller, the former special counsel, came across like a statistician, a dry reciter of data. But Taylor, the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who testified this morning, was a storyteller, the natural-born narrator of a compelling tale. Both witnesses talked about President Donald Trump, but only today’s was made for TV.

As a concept, the Capitol Hill hearing may no longer be quite the same riveting spectacle it was in the days of Watergate, Iran-Contra, Clarence Thomas’s contested Supreme Court confirmation, or Bill Clinton’s impeachment—if only because today’s media environment is so fragmented and fractured. But it is still a time-honored ritual—“true history unfolding” as Wolf Blitzer put it on CNN today—and to one degree or another, America stopped to watch.

Purely as a show, it was pretty strong stuff.

In his half day of testimony before the House Intelligence Committee over the summer, Mueller refused to so much as read aloud from his own voluminous report on Russian interference in the 2016 election. By contrast, appearing before the same body today, Taylor repeatedly recited his terse, incredulous text-message exchanges with diplomatic colleagues about Trump’s attempts to condition American military aid to Ukraine on that country’s promise to investigate the family of one of the president’s political rivals, former Vice President Joe Biden.

With a deep, resonant voice that summoned memories of the most authoritative newscasters—his name and Walter Cronkite’s were trending together on Twitter shortly after his testimony began, though Edward R. Murrow’s smoky baritone also came to mind—Taylor methodically detailed his view of how “the official foreign policy of the United States” and vital aid to a struggling young democracy were undercut by the “irregular efforts” of a shadow diplomacy led by Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani. In response to the first round of questioning from the committee’s Democratic chairman, Adam Schiff, Taylor eloquently summarized the high stakes of Ukraine’s resistance to Russian territorial aggression—and its need for American support—casting the case as a cause far above petty partisan squabbling.

“It affects the world we live in,” Taylor testified. “That our children and grandchildren will grow up in. This affects the kind of world we want to see. That affects our national interests very directly. Ukraine is on the front line of that conflict.”

And when the committee’s Democratic counsel, Daniel Goldman, asked Taylor, “in your decades of military service and diplomatic service representing the United States around the world, have you ever seen another example of foreign aid conditioned on the personal or political interests of the president of the United States?” Taylor answered flatly, “No, Mr. Goldman, I have not.”

Whether Taylor’s testimony moves the needle of public opinion any more than Mueller’s did remains an open question. As Taylor spoke, the Drudge Report featured ominous headlines: “Trump Nears Defining Hour,” “State Department Faces Biggest Crisis Since McCarthy,” and “Plan to Sacrifice Rudy,” but Breitbart News’s swift verdict on the hearing was dismissive: “BORING: 90 MINUTES BEFORE QUESTIONS BEGIN.” On Fox News, former Whitewater Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr was unmoved. “This is all hearsay,” he judged.

The committee’s Republican members stuck to expected talking points: that Taylor himself never met with Trump; that the aid ultimately flowed to Ukraine; that Taylor acknowledged having been repeatedly told by Gordon Sondland, the American ambassador to the European Union, that Trump did not want a quid pro quo (even as Sondland acknowledged to Taylor in the next breath that a White House meeting and the aid were directly linked to Ukraine’s investigation of the Bidens and of a debunked conspiracy theory about Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election). At one point in the hearing, the ranking Republican member, Devin Nunes of California, simply walked out.

But even aggressive, rat-a-tat-tat interrogation by Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, whom the House Republican leadership specifically added to the committee for just such a purpose, couldn’t rattle Taylor, who spent 18 months with the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam. “I’ve seen church prayer chains that are easier to understand than this!” Jordan exclaimed as he read a sworn affidavit from Sondland recounting multiple officials’ shared and sometimes secondhand recollection of Trump’s demands, and dismissed Taylor as the committee’s “star witness” for impeachment.

“I don’t consider myself a star witness for anything,” Taylor replied evenly. “I am not here to take one side or another or to advocate for any particular outcome, and let me restate that. And the main thing is that my understanding is only coming from people that I talked to,” adding that his understanding of Sondland’s meaning was clear.

Nor could the committee’s Republican counsel, Steve Castor, get much in the way of narrative traction against Taylor and his fellow first-day witness, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent. “Whatever the GOP counsel is doing is not working,” former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, a onetime Trump critic who now often defends the president, tweeted. “I don’t understand where he’s going.”

Trump himself insisted he was “too busy” to watch the hearing, but he sent out a burst of retweeted commentary that suggested he might well have been, and his 2020 campaign sent an email in his name seeking to raise $3 million in the next 24 hours and denouncing the proceedings as “a complete Fake Hearing (trial),” aimed at “ERASING your VOTE, ERASING your VOICE, and ERASING your FUTURE!”

By contrast, Taylor’s own demeanor could hardly have been more measured. When Representative John Ratcliffe of Texas, one of the GOP’s sharpest questioners, grilled him as to whether Trump’s conduct constituted an impeachable offense, Taylor replied that deciding that question “is your job.”

One way or another, these televised hearings are likely to determine Trump’s fate. Richard Nixon’s doom was sealed by the Watergate tapes, whose existence was first revealed in a live Senate hearing. Trump himself sees the world through the television camera’s lens (as his deceased adviser Roger Ailes did). Will the impeachment hearings be a ratings hit? Will Americans keep watching this latest reality show of the Reality Show Age? Will minds be changed or hearts hardened? Stay tuned.