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How lessons from the Mueller hearing will guide the impeachment hearings

Ahead of the first public hearing in the impeachment inquiry, Democrats and Republicans are leaning on lessons learned from past high-profile hearings to present their cases to the American public.

Here are some of those lessons, including ones gleaned when Robert Mueller, the special counsel who looked into Russian interference in the 2016 election, came before the House Judiciary Committee on July 24, 2019.

Witness quality really matters

Democratic aides tell PBS NewsHour they want to bookend the public impeachment inquiry hearings with blockbuster witnesses. They want to start strong because they believe people are going to make a decision about the success of the hearings within the first 90 minutes. As a result, Democrats have chosen to have William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, and George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary at the State Department overseeing European and Eurasian affairs, open the hearings. The two will be sitting side-by-side rather than appearing consecutively during the hearing.

Democrats believe Taylor is a powerful figure because of his background as a veteran and respected career diplomat. They also believe he can explain the events and conversations they are using to make their case. Democrats believe Kent can back up most of what Taylor says about President Donald Trump, the president’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani and their push to tie $391 million in military aid to Ukraine with the country’s willingness to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden.

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Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who will be testifying Friday, is said to have cried during her testimony in closed-door depositions. Democrats are calling on her early because they believe she will be a sympathetic witness and that she is a victim of Trump’s alleged scheme.

Republicans, however, maintain that no witnesses prove that Trump carried out a quid pro quo. They instead argue that Trump’s call on July 25 with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky shows that Trump did not articulate any clear conditions for military aid or pressure the Ukrainians directly. Zelensky and Trump have both said there was no pressure on the call, despite Trump mentioning that he wanted Zelensky to look into alleged 2016 election interference by Ukraine and the Bidens.

A narrow focus on Trump rather than other officials

Democrats want to make this hearing only about Trump, which means this week they are working on making sure they don’t focus too much on how much Ukraine needed the military aid, or how other officials were perturbed. As a result, when Democrats speak of people like Giuliani, they will be doing so in a way that connects the story to Trump’s direct actions.

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Republicans plan to argue that the Ukrainian government was not aware of a hold on the military aid at the time of the July call between Zelensky and Trump, though some witnesses have suggested that the Ukrainians may have known before the call. Republicans will also argue that there was no quid pro quo because Trump eventually did meet with Zelensky and military aid was released to Ukraine without the desired investigations.

Delaying disruptions until the end (or trying to)

At Mueller’s public hearing, many Democrats felt that the proceedings got thrown off course early because Republicans were able to make points of order and delay the meat of the special counsel’s testimony. Now, per the rules that were voted on by the House, Democrats pushed for most of the procedural things like points of order to happen at the end of the hearings. This doesn’t mean the president’s allies won’t try to disrupt and talk about all of this being unfair in the beginning. But Democrats have tried to make it harder.

Adam Schiff and a lawyer get 45 minutes at the top

At the very start of the hearing, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, will have 45 minutes to deliver an opening statement and question witnesses along with a congressional lawyer. When he is done, Rep. Devin Nunes, the top Republican on the committee, will also have 45 minutes to speak and ask questions along with a designated Republican staff member. The large window for Schiff is an attempt to set the narrative early. In past hearings, the lawyer questioning came at the end. Democrats are now hoping that if Americans only tune in before work or during a quick morning break, they will mostly see witness testimony and questions from a Democratic point of view.

A smaller group of lawmakers and lawyers will ask questions

The House Intelligence Committee, which is holding the first impeachment inquiry hearings, is a much smaller committee than House Judiciary, which held the hearing with Mueller. Democratic aides say another lesson from past hearings, including Mueller’s, is that too many lawmakers means too many chances to get off track. In this case, Democrats will aim to retain more discipline and focus as they try to build their case that the president attempted to leverage millions in military aide and a White House meeting for investigations into the Bidens and Democrats.

Allies of the president, meanwhile, said that they will be broadening this issue and focusing on potential wrongdoing by Hunter Biden. They will also be highlighting the fact that Democrats are saying Hunter Biden and the whistleblower aren’t needed for these hearings.