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Expect high drama and high stakes as public impeachment hearings begin

The House marks a new phase in only the fourth impeachment inquiry in U.S. history Wednesday as public hearings begin with high drama and even higher stakes.

The risks are enormous for everyone involved. Democrats, who are seeking to convince the public that Trump acted improperly by asking Ukraine to interfere in a U.S. election to hurt one of his chief 2020 political opponents, former Vice President Joe Biden, risk criticism that it was all a waste of time and effort. Congressional Republicans risk embarrassing backlash for defending an unpopular president. And President Trump, of course, faces the biggest risk of all — removal from office.

Trump enters the biggest fight of his political career with history on his side. No president has ever been removed from office after impeachment by the House. As the hearings kick off, here is a guide to some of the biggest questions surrounding the impeachment proceedings unfolding on Capitol Hill.

Who is testifying this week?

Two career diplomats will testify Wednesday before the House Intelligence Committee — William Taylor, the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, and George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs. On Friday, impeachment investigators will hear from Marie Yovanovitch, who was ousted as ambassador to Ukraine earlier this year.

All three testified in closed door meetings with lawmakers in recent weeks. In the depositions, which were released publicly, Taylor provided arguably the most complete picture of the White House efforts to push Ukraine to investigate Biden and his son Hunter Biden, who served on the board of the Ukrainian natural gas company, Burisma. Trump’s focus on the Bidens was part of the now-famous July 25 phone call between the president and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Taylor said U.S. policy towards Ukraine included an “irregular channel” of communication that was led by the president’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, and driven by Trump’s personal political interests. Taylor also said the Trump administration withheld military aid in exchange for a promise that Ukraine would announce an investigation into Biden and his son, Hunter Biden, and debunked claims that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Kent told investigators that Giuliani conducted a “campaign of lies” to have Yovanovitch removed as ambassador to Ukraine, in order to help associates seeking business deals in the country. Yovanovitch corroborated the claim in her own closed-door testimony, offering more details about Giuliani’s shadow, backchannel diplomacy in Ukraine. Trump and Giuliani have claimed they did nothing wrong, and many Republican lawmakers have also defended the president.

The three officials are among the strongest witnesses Democrats can call on, which is why House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., chose them to kick off the public hearings.

Forget the details. What is the impeachment investigation really about?

The House impeachment inquiry has proceeded at a dizzying pace, with a complex, ever-expanding cast of characters and events. All the while, Democrats have tried to keep the narrative focused on their central argument that Trump asked a foreign country to interfere in a U.S. election to hurt a political opponent.

Democrats see it as a seemingly straightforward story of a president abusing his power. But House Republicans have spent recent weeks poking holes in the Democrats’ case against Trump. And by criticizing the process of the impeachment inquiry itself, Republicans have shifted some of the focus away from the big-picture questions at the core of the past three impeachment inquiries: How much power does a president have? How much power does Congress have to hold the president accountable?

If Republicans succeed in keeping attention away from the core issues Democrats care about, Trump could emerge from the public hearings politically damaged, but still in a relatively strong position heading into a Senate impeachment trial.

That strategy is not without risk, though. If Trump is impeached by the House, that would become a defining part of his legacy, even if he is acquitted by the Senate as is widely expected. It could also hurt his chances of re-election. No president has had to face voters after surviving an impeachment effort.

Democrats are making a huge gamble

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi spent much of this year resisting calls by Democrats to launch an impeachment investigation. Pelosi said she wouldn’t support impeachment unless the effort had bipartisan backing, and argued that impeachment was a fruitless exercise for Democrats given the likelihood that Trump would be acquitted by the Republican-controlled Senate. That calculation changed after news emerged of Trump’s call with Zelensky.

But seven weeks after Pelosi formally launched the impeachment inquiry, Democrats are still stuck in the same political quandary — one with enormous implications for the party’s chances of retaining control of the House and winning the presidency in 2020. The bipartisan support Pelosi had hoped for hasn’t materialized. Congressional Republicans have not broken with Trump, and there have been no signs yet that will change. Polls show public support for the impeachment inquiry has grown this fall, but the nation remains deeply divided on the issue.

At this point, the most likely scenario facing Democrats is a party-line vote in the House and Senate, with few, if any, Republican defections. That outcome would bolster the Republicans’ argument that Democrats pursued a partisan effort to remove Trump from office instead of focusing on issues that affect the lives of ordinary Americans. A divisive impeachment vote could also make it harder for Democrats to defend the moderate suburban districts the party needs to hold onto control of the House.

Given the challenges they face, Democrats will be under immense pressure to prove that the impeachment inquiry was worthwhile. To succeed, they’ll need to convince the public they were driven not by politics, but by a constitutional duty to hold the president of the United States accountable. In an era of intense political polarization, that is going to be a hard sell.

The biggest GOP loyalty test under Trump

For Republicans, the impeachment investigation boils down to a familiar question: how far will they go to defend Trump? In the past, the party has largely stuck by the president no matter the controversy. On occasion, some GOP lawmakers have criticized the president’s rhetoric on race and other issues. There have also been times when Republicans have taken issue with Trump’s policies, including his recent decision to pull U.S. troops out of northern Syria. Those instances pale in comparison to the question of whether or not to remove Trump from office.

Impeachment is by far the GOP’s biggest loyalty test under Trump. For many, especially lawmakers who represent reliably conservative districts and states, supporting Trump through this process will score political points back home. But there are vulnerable Republicans up for reelection in swing states, such as Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, who will face significant backlash from more moderate voters if they do not vote to impeach Trump or remove him from office.

And Republicans must answer a broader constitutional question that has nothing to do with the 2020 election. Democrats have framed the impeachment battle as a matter of congressional oversight — a moment to put country over party and hold the president accountable for alleged misconduct. If the public hearings convince most Americans that Trump committed impeachable offenses, Republicans will have trouble explaining why they’re unwilling to even entertain the idea of removing him from office.

In the Trump era, many GOP lawmakers have tried to have it both ways — aligning themselves with the president on most issues, but distancing themselves from Trump’s most controversial behavior. The impeachment will force Republicans to pick a side once and for all.

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