Behind a Star Witness, Democrats Take Their Impeachment Case to the Public

WASHINGTON — William B. Taylor Jr. was the witness that Democrats had hoped Robert S. Mueller III would be but was not — the image, at least, of a wise, fatherly figure with Kevlar credibility expressing restrained but unmistakable disapproval of what he found when he turned over the rock.

House Democrats led off their highly anticipated impeachment hearings on Wednesday with a figure projecting probity, a combat veteran turned career diplomat who narrated with a deep baritone voice reminiscent of Walter Cronkite’s what he saw as the corruption of American foreign policy to advance President Trump’s personal political interests.

It was not clear that minds were changed. Certainly they were not inside the room, and most likely not elsewhere on Capitol Hill, where Republicans and Democrats were locked into their positions long ago. Nor were there any immediate signs that the hearing penetrated the general public. While major television networks broke into regular programming to carry it live, there was little sense of a riveted country putting everything aside to watch à la Watergate.

But whether voters were watching, history certainly was. Over the course of five hours of relatively sober testimony, interrupted by fewer partisan histrionics than might have been expected, Mr. Taylor, the top American diplomat in Ukraine, and George P. Kent, a deputy assistant secretary of state, laid out what they saw of the president’s effort to pressure a foreign power to provide damaging information about his Democratic rivals.

Mr. Taylor was the star witness Democrats have sought for a long time. Like Mr. Mueller, Mr. Taylor, 72, is a septuagenarian Vietnam veteran with a chiseled face and reassuring gray hair after a lifetime of service to his country. But where Mr. Mueller seemed unsteady and uncertain last summer when he testified about his special counsel investigation into Russian interference, Mr. Taylor came across as calm, confident and in command of the facts as he knew them.

With a more-in-sadness-than-anger tone, he told lawmakers that in decades of public service under administrations of both parties, he had never seen any president warp foreign policy for his own personal advantage the way Mr. Trump tried to do. But Mr. Taylor was careful to retain an official neutrality on what Congress should do with his testimony and when lawmakers tried to goad him into taking a more political stance, he smiled serenely and declined to take the bait.

“Taylor was an extremely credible, unflappable and compelling witness who did not take sides but testified about facts that are very damning to President Trump, and the Republicans did not lay a glove on him,” said Theodore J. Boutrous Jr., a prominent Washington lawyer. “It’s way too soon to tell how the public and Congress will react,” he added, but “both Taylor and Kent provided a very strong foundation for the case against Mr. Trump.”

Republicans, of course, conceded nothing of the sort. While Mr. Trump and his closest associates gleefully mocked Mr. Mueller after his stutter-start appearance, for the most part they avoided trying to discredit Mr. Taylor or Mr. Kent in personal terms. Mr. Trump made no direct comment on the two witnesses, other than a morning tweet denouncing “NEVER TRUMPERS!” in general, focusing instead on denouncing Democrats for orchestrating a “scam,” “hoax” and “witch hunt.”

Instead, Republicans emphasized that neither of the career diplomats had ever actually talked with Mr. Trump himself, dismissing their accounts as unreliable secondhand hearsay that could hardly be sufficient to impeach a president.

“This is a sad day for the country, but frankly a good day for the facts and a good day for the president of the United States,” said Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, the most aggressive of the Republican questioners, who was put on the House Intelligence Committee just last week to help lead the president’s defense.

Another defender of the president, however, was not so reluctant to assail Mr. Taylor personally. “A pitiful, ignorant, insubordinate gossip with no trustworthy information,” John M. Dowd, a former lawyer for Mr. Trump who represented him during Mr. Mueller’s investigation, said in an email after the testimony.

The public hearings that opened on Wednesday were meant to take the case developed by Democrats behind closed doors over the past seven weeks out of the darkness and onto the national stage, dramatizing it in a way that a black-and-white transcript of a deposition never could.

With the exception of a newly reported conversation in which Mr. Trump was described as caring more about investigating former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. than Ukraine, the vast majority of testimony by Mr. Taylor and Mr. Kent stuck closely to their previous, closed-door interviews. But the public had never heard either describe their experiences before, and Democrats hoped to build on their stories with a rapid-fire set of additional public hearings over the next week.

Their goal is to transform what might seem like an abstract debate over foreign policy into high crimes and misdemeanors in the public mind. Mr. Trump suspended $391 million in American security aid approved by Congress at the same time he pressed Ukraine to help him with his domestic battles against Democrats like Mr. Biden.

Mr. Taylor, who was recruited out of retirement by the Trump administration last spring to take the Ukraine post, brought a diplomat’s perspective to the consequences. “Our holding up of security assistance that would go to a country that is fighting aggression from Russia for no good policy reason, no good substantive reason, no good national security reason is wrong,” he told lawmakers.

Republicans were all over the place in their response, reprising favorite attacks on Mr. Biden, Mr. Mueller, the F.B.I. and President Barack Obama. They argued that there was no direct link between the security aid and Mr. Trump’s demand for information about Democrats, even though the president’s own acting chief of staff acknowledged that the money was suspended in part to force Ukraine to investigate, an admission he later tried to take back.

They also pointed out that Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has said he did not feel pressured and did not even know that the aid had been frozen when Mr. Trump asked him for “a favor” during a July 25 phone call, although the Ukrainians discovered it within a few weeks. Republicans argued that the point was moot because Mr. Trump ultimately released the money, without mentioning that he only did so after senators of both parties threatened legislation if he did not.

But those were details and, amid the chorus of hard-to-pronounce Ukrainian names and byzantine insider politics, some of that may have gotten lost in the din. For Republicans, it was enough to muddy the waters, to present an alternate theory of the case, to stress that the witnesses did not talk with Mr. Trump and to then brush off the whole debate as dull.

“This clown show is horribly boring,” the president’s son Eric Trump wrote on Twitter. “There is not a single person outside the beltway who is engaged in this nonsense.”

Like members of Congress, it may be that much of the public has already made up its mind. In recent polls, 49 percent favor impeaching Mr. Trump, while 47 percent oppose it, roughly the same proportion as the popular vote in 2016, and it may be that none of the testimony from Wednesday or in the days to come will move those numbers.

But after Mr. Mueller’s lackluster testimony, all of the air went out of the Democrats’ impeachment balloon. After Mr. Taylor’s, the balloon was reinflated — at least for now.