The Nation’s Sasha Abramsky discusses what we learned from the testimony of witnesses Kent and Taylor.
ADAM SCHIFF: The questions presented by this impeachment inquiry are whether President Trump sought to exploit that ally’s vulnerability and invite Ukraine’s interference in our elections; whether President Trump sought to condition official acts such as a White House meeting or U.S. military assistance on Ukraine’s willingness to assist with two political investigations that would help his reelection campaign.
JAISAL NOOR: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Jaisal Noor. We’re coming to you live on YouTube, so please send us your questions and comments throughout this interview.
Historic impeachment hearings began Wednesday on whether President Donald Trump improperly pressured Ukraine to seek information on a political rival. Testifying in front of the house intelligence committee, top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine Bill Taylor called the efforts of Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani highly irregular and described a phone call where U.S. Ambassador to the EU, Gordon Sondland, said Trump cared more about the investigations into Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter, who served on the board of a Ukrainian energy company, than what happened to Ukraine. Here’s that clip.
BILL TAYLOR: A member of my staff could hear President Trump on the phone asking Ambassador Sondland about the investigations. Ambassador Sondland told President Trump the Ukrainians were ready to move forward. Following the call with President Trump, the member of my staff asked Ambassador Sondland what President Trump thought about Ukraine. Ambassador Sondland responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden, which Giuliani was pressing for.
JAISAL NOOR: Republicans have maintained the hearings are a witch hunt and the president did nothing wrong. California Rep. Devin Nunes, the ranking Republican on the committee addressed the two witnesses–Taylor and George Kent, a diplomat–in his opening statement. This is what he said.
DEVIN NUNES: But the main performance, the Russia hoax, has ended and you’ve been cast in the low-rent Ukrainian sequel. I’ll conclude by noting the immense damage the politicized bureaucracy has done to Americans’ faith in government.
JAISAL NOOR: And for his part, President Trump said he didn’t watch, even though his Twitter feed was filled with retweets about the hearing.
DONALD TRUMP: I didn’t. I did not watch it. I’m too busy to watch it. It’s a witch hunt. It’s a hoax.
JAISAL NOOR: Hearings will resume Friday and are scheduled over the next two weeks. Impeachment, if approved by the House, would lead to a trial in the Senate, but it’s unclear whether the Republicans would vote to remove Trump from office. They’ve given no indication that they would do that. Well, joining us to discuss all of this and also what was not mentioned at the hearing is Sasha Abramsky. He’s a regular contributor to The Nation magazine, author of eight books; the most recent one is called Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream. Thanks so much for joining us.
SASHA ABRAMSKY: Morning, Jaisal.
JAISAL NOOR: So before we get into what happened at the hearing, I want to start big picture. So these hearings are beginning a year before the 2020 election. Democrats are pushing for impeachment over the withholding of some $400 million to military aid to Ukraine, which is mired in conflict with Russia. Talk about what are the implications of this. And first, let’s start with the beginning of Adam Schiff’s opening statement. This is how he started his opening statement. Here’s that clip.
ADAM SCHIFF: In 2014, Russia invaded the United States ally Ukraine to reverse that nation’s embrace of the west and to fulfill Vladimir Putin’s desire to rebuild a Russian empire. In the following years, 14,000 Ukrainians died as they battled superior Russian forces. Earlier this year, Vladimir Zelensky was elected President of Ukraine on a platform of ending the conflict and tackling corruption.
JAISAL NOOR: So let’s start there.
SASHA ABRAMSKY: Well, I think the that there are so many issues in play here, but what it really boils down to is the fact that you have Donald Trump using the full power of the American government, but the formal power of the State Department and everything else, but also the informal power of a presidential phone call, and using that full power to essentially bludgeon another country’s leaders to provide dirt on a potential political rival in the U.S. It’s simple as that. Everything else is just a tangent to the main story, and I think that what we’re seeing at the moment, you’ve got these hearings that are going on in public that are essentially going over what’s already been said in private. And that we know about it because the transcripts have been released. But these hearings are basically designed to explain to the public exactly the constitutional stakes, not necessarily all the legal ins and outs, but what’s the state but our constitutional system of government, if a president can do this with impunity?
JAISAL NOOR: And so Trump’s corruption in office has been well documented. There’s been crimes committed at home and abroad, a spike in civilian deaths in places like Afghanistan, multiple children have died at the border. On CNN, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the freshman democratic rep from New York was asked about the calls to impeach Trump beyond the issues of Ukraine. Here’s that clip.
WOLF BLITZER: You made the case that the president could be impeached for profiting off the presidency for his conduct in the Russia investigation. What message, Congresswoman, will it send if Democrats don’t incorporate, for example, those issues into the upcoming articles of impeachment?
ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: I personally do believe that the President has engaged in flagrant violations of the Emoluments Clause. I’m concerned that we would allow this corruption to continue, but at the end of the day we have to be able to come together as a caucus. And if it is this Ukrainian allegation that is what brings the caucus together, then I think we have to run with however we unify the house.
JAISAL NOOR: So I think that’s key because what’s also happening is a fight within the Democratic party essentially. Can you talk a little bit about AOC’s comments there and what that sort of gives us insight into on the fact that Democrats need to be unified behind this.
SASHA ABRAMSKY: She’s absolutely right that from day one of Trump’s presidency, there have been actions carried out by Trump as an individual and by the administration as a whole that are so corrupt and so in violation of both the constitution, but also our moral sense of decency as a community. That really there are so many grounds that Trump should not be in office of president. And she mentioned the corruptions. You mentioned the emoluments clause, the fact that he has clearly used the office of the presidency to steer overseas business towards his hotels, his golf courses and so on. But you also have the fact that this is a president who has engaged essentially in wholesale kidnapping of child immigrants on the southern border.
You have a president who time and again has sided with racists, both rhetorically and also in terms of his actions, you have a president who has made absolutely clear that he thinks the rule of law is a hindrance, that he doesn’t respect the first amendment freedom of speech, that he feels no call of arms about inciting violence against political opponents and against the media, that he adulates dictators, that he mocks democratic leaders, and I’m talking about leaders of democracies rather than of the democratic party here in the States, that he uses his public podium to attack private citizens. And on all of those levels there’s a moral case for indictment.
And the idea that the Republicans touted yesterday that this is somehow a witch hunt, that Donald Trump is just a crusader against international corruption, it’s so laughable. I mean, this is one of the most corrupt leaders in American history. He may vie with Warren Harding for that role or some of the late 19th century presidents, but he’s essentially one of the most corrupt leaders, one of the most corrupt political figures that Americans have known certainly in our lifetimes. And the idea that this man would in any way, shape, or form be genuinely concerned about corruption abroad, it makes no sense. He’s a man who is filled with the notion of political vendetta, he’s a man who thrives on a sadistic vision of humiliation and pain infliction, and this is why he should be impeached. He’s completely morally and legally unfit for public office.
JAISAL NOOR: Now I wanted to get back to an earlier point about it seems like were the Democrats here, are they not stoking these cold war tensions between the west and Russia? Talk a little bit about that.
SASHA ABRAMSKY: Yeah. I think there are many different approaches that one can have to what the relationship with Russia should be, what military engagements should be in Europe and so on. There are many legitimate policy arguments to be had over that. All of that is secondary in this inquiry about the Ukrainian phone call. Everyone thinks about aide to the Ukraine militarily or not, withholding that aide simply to extract partisan political favors is illegitimate. Now, whether or not the Democrats are on the right track when it comes to rhetoric around Russia, whether or not we’re sort of accidentally entering into a second cold war, that’s a different story. And there’s certainly looked at from a policy debates on that. I would say that the Trump administration in pulling out of the arms treaties, the nuclear arms treaties with the Russian state is actually engaged in a game that’s probably far more dangerous than anything the Democrats are doing because they’re shredding international arms control treaties and allowing for a new nuclear arms race and that could have absolutely catastrophic consequences down the road.
JAISAL NOOR: And I wanted to talk about how the media is covering this. Because depending on what outlet you watch, you get a totally different sense of what happened. It speaks to the extreme polarization in this country and of the media landscape. I wanted to turn to a clip of Fox News, which you know obviously has been a close ally of President Trump, but it’s a clip of Chris Wallace and his response to how the hearing went down. Let’s listen to that.
CHRIS WALLACE: I think that William Taylor was a very impressive witness and was very damaging to the president and I think very nonpolitical. He went out of his way to talk about what he knew, what he was specifically a testament to. The only thing he talked about was a strong feeling that it was in the U.S. national security interests to support Ukraine in the fight against Russia.
JAISAL NOOR: It’s obviously a rare voice on Fox News, he’s willing to sort of criticize the narrative being put forth by the right, but just your response. Hearing that on Fox News, do you think some real damage was done yesterday?
SASHA ABRAMSKY: Well, I think obviously it’s interesting when you’d get commentary like that on Fox News. On the other hand, their star commentators like Sean Hannity are doing everything in their power to try and illegitimize these hearings and try and say that the whole thing’s a sham, that it’s a witch hunt and so on and so forth. You know, realistically, the country at this point is so divided politically and so immersed in its own echo chambers. I doubt very much that there’s anything you could do at this point to convince most democratic voters that Trump isn’t both illegitimate as a president and also completely impeachment worthy. And then there’s the Republican side, and the reversal is that it’s almost impossible to imagine a scenario where vast numbers of the GOP base turn on the president overnight. It could happen, but it’s much more likely that the GOP base and Fox News as a whole is going to find any and every excuse to say, “Well, Trump didn’t mean what he said. It’s not as bad as it looks. Here’s what Joe Biden did,” et cetera, et cetera.
And you saw that with the GOP Congressman yesterday; this willingness to either ignore what was being said before them or try and twist it and turn it and turn it into a public hearing on the Bidens instead of on Trump’s behavior. And I think that this is what we’re going to face over the next few weeks, is that the level of rancor and the level of inability to communicate across ideological boundaries at this point is really profound. And it’s really damaging to the American democratic system because what it means is, we can’t have a rational political conversation anymore without retreating into our sort of screaming corners. And I’m not saying that there’s an equivalency here; I think the Republican party is overwhelmingly to blame for what’s going on. But I do think that that’s the moment we’re in.
And I think that in a way, we shouldn’t have to say, “Well everybody, Republican and Democrat alike, has to be convinced before impeachment moves forward,” because the evidence is there. And the history books will show that the evidence is there, that what Trump did and what the GOP is now trying to cover up for him was clearly a violation of norms. It was clearly a violation of the way that the presidency is supposed to operate. And so whether or not Trump is ultimately removed from office; he may, or he may not be. But what’s absolutely clear to me is that the longer these hearings go on, in the history books, Trump’s credibility is further shredded.
JAISAL NOOR: Now, some have pointed out that if there is a trial in the Senate, it’s going to extend into next year, it’s going to extend into January. And it could be very disruptive for the presidential campaigns of senators like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. We were just in Iowa reporting on the campaigns there and Trump is up in a lot of these swing states. He’s up in places like Iowa, I mean, most polls. Do you think that this could actually end up possibly helping Trump?
SASHA ABRAMSKY: I don’t think the impeachment hearings will help Trump. I do think that the Democrats are going to have to, and very, very soon, broaden the discussion because if everything is about impeachment, basically as I just said, people retreat into their corners. But if you have a conversation about access to healthcare, if you have a conversation about the fact that this administration is trying to dramatically roll back health coverage for low income workers, it’s trying to dramatically scale back women’s rights, is completely regressive on race relations, is doing things that are absolutely morally abominable around immigration. These are the conversations that we need to be having, much broader policy conversations. When you look at the issues on issue after issue, Democrats are more popular than Republicans. They’re more popular on their environmental policies. They’re more trusted around healthcare and more trusted on an array of bread and butter issues.
And I think that we’ve got just under 12 months now until the election. That’s a lot of time for the Democrats to frame the message. And Trump may be up in some of these swing states, I don’t think he should count on that support staying rock solid, especially if the economy starts to wobble. And there are all these warning indicators. The economy’s good at the moment. What would happen if unemployment started to inch up? Or what would happen if people got into sort of more of a crisis around housing? Or what would happen if there was a surge in people who couldn’t get health insurance? These are all issues that Trump is extraordinarily vulnerable on because he’s gotten regulatory systems and he’s gotten protective laws that were put in place to, for example, protect the environment against big polluters or protect workers against wage theft. All of that has been gutted and there’s a huge opening for the Democrats to frame the narrative over the coming months.
JAISAL NOOR: And I think that narrative will depend on who the nominee is and what platform they’re running on, if they’re running on a progressive platform or if they’re running on a more moderate platform. And the last clip I wanted to play is a portion of the opening statement of Devin Nunes. Another clip from his remarks where we hear he’s talking about the investigation into Russian interference into the election. Let’s play that clip.
DEVIN NUNES: And yet now here we are, we’re supposed to take these people at face value when they trot out a new batch of allegations. But anyone familiar with the Democrat’s scorched earth war against President Trump would not be surprised to see all the typical signs that this is a carefully orchestrated media smear campaign.
JAISAL NOOR: And I wanted to play that clip because when we were in Iowa, we talked to a small number of Trump supporters. But when we asked them about impeachment, these other issues, they said, “It’s fake news, these are all lies.” And you know, they had Fox News on in the hotel lobby and they’re like, “You know, this is all a game. They’re going after Trump. This is all a false narrative.” Your final thoughts.
SASHA ABRAMSKY: Final thoughts: it’s completely absurd. Trump released a transcript of his phone call, which pretty much in black and white admitted a quid pro quo. His Chief of Staff, Mick Mulvaney, went and did a press conference and said, “Yes, there’s a quid pro quo. The evidence Giuliani was running a shadow foreign policy. Giuliani’s associates have already been arrested.” None of this is fake news. This is all absolutely out there, but I would say that the responses you’re getting from voters in Iowa, it’s deeply symptomatic of what a totalitarian leadership structure we have at the moment. Because every totalitarian project in history has tried to manipulate notions of truth. It’s what George Orwell was writing about in the middle of the 20th century when he got people in his book, 1984, to be so brainwashed that he could get them to believe that two plus two equals five.
That was the project to the totalitarian state to completely shape the mind and the thought processes of people who lived within it and Trump’s team is a master class in propaganda. Everything about the Trump experience is about making truth malleable and for democracy to survive, truth can’t be malleable. And to me, there are so many corrosive effects of the Trump presidency, but one of the most corrosive might be that an entire generation of Americans is now growing up with this sense that truth is so flexible that it is whatever the leadership says it is at any one moment in time. That’s extraordinarily damaging to the democracy.
JAISAL NOOR: All right. We want to thank you so much for joining us, Sasha Abramsky; regular contributor to The Nation magazine. His most recent book; Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream. Thanks so much for joining us.
SASHA ABRAMSKY: Oh, my pleasure. Thanks.
JAISAL NOOR: Thank you for joining us at The Real News Network.