(CNN) – The House of Representatives Intelligence Commission opened historic political trial hearings on Wednesday to investigate whether President Donald Trump (and his allies) abused his post in an attempt to arm Ukraine to open an investigation into his political rival, former vice president Joe Biden.
I am monitoring the highly anticipated audience – which puts great things at stake – as it happens. Below, my conclusions about the best moments I've seen so far.
Adam Schiff appeals to history, and to the future
The opening statement of the president of the Intelligence Commission, Adam Schiff, had a very clear message: these hearings do not refer only to Trump. It is about how the presidency works (and should work) within our democracy, and the controls and balances between the Legislative and Executive powers integrated into the Constitution.
"Our answer to these questions will affect not only the future of this Presidency, but the future of the Presidency itself, and what kind of conduct or misconduct the American people can expect from their commander in chief," Schiff said at one point.
In another, citing the Trump administration's refusal to allow its top officials to testify before Congress, Schiff said that such a measure "is not what the Founders intended," and added: "The prospects for greater corruption and abuse of power. , in this administration or another, they will increase exponentially ”.
To conclude, Schiff asked: “Is that what Americans should expect from their president? If this is not a prosecutable conduct, what is it? Does the oath of office itself – which demands that our laws be faithfully enforced, that our president defend a Constitution that balances the powers of its branches, establishing ambition against ambition so that we are not a monarchy – still makes sense? ”
The objective of Schiff's repeated invocations of history – he mentioned the Founders twice and the Constitution three times – was to make it clear that these hearings were less a partisan effort directed at Trump and more a necessary defense of democratic principles on which the country was founded.
This is not about Trump or even a particular political party, Schiff said. It's about how we want our government to work, and not work.
It seems unlikely that Schiff's appeal to history will influence many people on the committee. Even before he started speaking, Republicans had put up posters behind the stand criticizing the proceedings.
Devin Nunes rose to 11
If Schiff tried to substantiate the hearings in history, California representative Devin Nunes, the highest-ranking Republican in the Intelligence Commission, sought to take the unusual route.
He said the hearings were an "unfortunate end" for the Democratic attempts to nullify the results of the 2016 elections.
He described the testimony behind closed doors offered by the Ukrainian witnesses as a "cult atmosphere."
He suggested that the complainant "was known to have prejudices against President Trump."
He mocked the "farce of political judgment."
He called the proceedings a "Starry Chamber" (an English court in the Palace of Westminster founded in 1487 and abolished in 1641 whose main objective were cases of slander and treason).
He ruled out the investigation and called it a "low-rent Ukrainian sequel" to Mueller's investigation.
However, in reality nowhere, Nunes mentioned the July 25 transcript between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Or of the facts presented by the witnesses called by the investigators of the Chamber.
Bill Taylor's opening statement was a surprise
Taylor, the main US official in Ukraine, delivered a statement of keynote opening, full of details about the formation of an “irregular” channel (led by Trump's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani) with Ukraine, which often ran directly against from its own regular channel and long-standing US policy in the region.
Taylor also presented an unbearably specific schedule of his interactions with, among others, national security adviser John Bolton, the US ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, and senior Ukrainian officials. In that timeline, he repeatedly made it clear that there was a not very silent understanding that US military aid to Ukraine was being withheld and until the country announced an investigation into Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian natural gas company where Hunter Biden, the son of the former vice president, was part of the board.
Equally amazing, Taylor related an episode about Sondland that he was told only after his testimony behind closed doors on September 22. According to Taylor, Sondland met with a senior Zelensky advisor on July 26, a day after the fateful call between Trump and Zelensky. Then, Sondland called Trump and informed him about the nature of the meeting and an adviser to Taylor heard Trump ask about "the investigations." After that call, Taylor's adviser asked Sondland what Trump thought about Ukraine. Sondland responded that Trump cares more about Biden's investigation than anything else.
The geopolitical impact of Trump's approach to Ukraine
While Wednesday’s focus, at least members of Congress, is what Trump (and his allies) did about Ukraine and the Biden, both Taylor and George Kent, a State Department official, said repeatedly his concerns about the impact of withholding military aid to the country.
Taylor said he had traveled to the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine and had seen, directly, the impact of the nearly $ 400 million in US military aid withheld for the country in its ongoing fight against Russian incursions. Kent, similarly, tried to emphasize how critical Ukraine was, and the United States' support for Ukraine, in continuing efforts to limit Russia's progress in the region. (Russia annexed Crimea, a Ukrainian territory, in 2014).
The genuine concern expressed by Taylor and Kent is a surprising reminder that the pressure campaign organized by the White House had real-world implications not only for Ukraine but for the interests of the United States in the region, and specifically in their dealings with Russia.
In short: it wasn't just about Trump getting what he wanted from the Ukrainian Biden. This had real repercussions on American geopolitics.