Impeachment Briefing: A Viewer’s Guide to the First Public Hearing

This is the Impeachment Briefing, The Times’s newsletter about the impeachment investigation. Sign up here to get it in your inbox every weeknight.

The next phase of impeachment is set to begin at 10 a.m. Eastern on Wednesday, when investigators hold the first televised hearing of the inquiry. (We’ll have live video on NYTimes.com and in the NYTimes app.) Here’s a quick rundown of what the public will see:

The witnesses: Impeachment investigators will hear from William B. Taylor Jr., the top American diplomat in Ukraine, and George P. Kent, a senior State Department official in charge of Ukraine policy.

  • Mr. Taylor was a standout witness for Democrats during his closed-door testimony, describing in vivid terms how the Trump administration used military aid to try to coerce Ukraine into investigating the president’s rivals, and the real-world effects that had on the country’s war with Russia.

  • Mr. Kent testified that he regarded the push for investigations — spearheaded by Rudy Giuliani — as “injurious to the rule of law.”

The room: Democrats chose the spacious, columned, television-friendly chambers of the Ways and Means Committee — the House’s grandest hearing room — to serve as the backdrop for the hearings.

The officials: The hearing is taking place before the House Intelligence Committee and will be led by its Democratic chairman, Representative Adam B. Schiff, as well as his Republican counterpart, Representative Devin Nunes.

The prosecutors (of sorts): We’ll see at least two new faces: the staff lawyers who have been asking many of the questions in private witness depositions. Daniel Goldman, a former federal prosecutor in Manhattan, will ask questions for Democrats. Steve Castor, a congressional investigator who has worked in the House since 2005, will ask questions for Republicans.

The format: Under special rules adopted late last month, interviews will be split into 45-minute segments each for Mr. Schiff and Mr. Nunes. That time can be delegated to the staff lawyers, which Mr. Schiff said he was likely to do for a substantial block of his allotted time.

My colleague Nick Fandos spent part of the day standing outside of the secure offices where impeachment investigators have been interviewing witnesses, which members of Congress had repurposed as a rehearsal room. Here’s what Nick told me about the action.

Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee started a marathon prep session in these bunkerlike offices Tuesday afternoon, when Congress returned from the weeklong break they were on. They meticulously worked through question scripts, knowing that every minute counts tomorrow when on camera.

In their own rooms in the bunker, Republicans busy prepping their own lines were joined for a time by Representative Kevin McCarthy, the top House Republican. Representative Jim Jordan emerged from the prep session surrounded by a cadre of aides toting fat legal briefing books and what appeared to be blown-up printouts of exhibits for Wednesday’s hearing.

Speaking of scripts, tomorrow’s hearing will be the first test of how the modern media environment handles a public viewing of impeachment. I talked to James Poniewozik, our television critic, about what makes this round of impeachment so much different from prior ones, an idea he wrote about in a column today.

James, what has made television an effective medium for impeachment hearings?

The thing that distinguishes television is that it’s serial. The greatest television has taken advantage of extended, linear time. Impeachment is a drama that plays out in installments that has a narrative arc and themes. In the Watergate hearings, Democrats broke down the thrust of their investigation into three parts, like the three acts of a play. Characters emerge. There are heroes and comic relief figures and antiheroes and antagonists, all of which you can see evolving day after day.

What was different about how Americans followed the Nixon impeachment?

Watergate took place in a mass media era. There were three commercial TV networks in the 1970s, plus PBS, which meant that anything that aired had to speak to an audience of tens of millions of people at a time. People had these vast, communal, simultaneous experiences that they have not had since. Even if you were a Democrat or Republican, you listened to the same people and gave them a certain amount of credence. People agreed on facts and experiences.

For this impeachment, some people might get their hearing news on cable news, some on late night TV and some through their social media feeds. Part of the fragmentation of our experience of public life has to do with the fact that we literally aren’t watching the same show.

How, then, can the Trump impeachment hearings be influential?

If it’s the case where the impeachment hearings are really more of a dramatic reading of material that’s already come out in the press, that’s not irrelevant or unimportant, but it might mean that they become less about what President Trump did and more about what kind of moral verdict will be placed on these actions. That’s what happened in the Clinton impeachment.

Is it worth all the effort House Democrats are putting into formatting the hearings then?

We tend to fall into the trap of judging things’ importance by how new they are. If it’s the case that Democrats have a fact pattern that shows the president trying to pressure a foreign government to help him in the next election, the purpose of the hearings is to tell that story. If you kind of look down on the idea of storytelling as just show business and not really substantive, then you’re ceding the opportunity to tell the story to someone else.

  • A memo circulated by House Republicans and written by the Republican staff members of the committees conducting the impeachment inquiry laid out a strategy for defending Mr. Trump as public hearings start: Say he did nothing wrong and attack the bureaucrats questioning his conduct.

  • Mr. Trump has discussed dismissing the intelligence community’s inspector general, Michael Atkinson — the official who reported the whistle-blower’s complaint to Congress. Mr. Trump reportedly believes Mr. Atkinson, whom he appointed in 2017, has been disloyal.

  • In a private speech last week, John R. Bolton, Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser, said the president’s foreign policy was guided by his personal or financial interests, NBC News reported. A lawyer for Mr. Bolton has said he would testify in the impeachment inquiry if a court ruled that he should.


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