Reporter's Notebook: Before impeachment hearings, a journalist's homework
'Special Report' All-Stars recap a busy day of impeachment testimony.
CAPITOL HILL – I felt like I was in the fifth grade.
I wanted to watch TV. Specifically, the Washington Capitals-Anaheim Ducks game Monday night. But, there was homework. The biggest set of hearings yet in the impeachment inquiry yet was slated for early Tuesday morning. The witness list: Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, National Security Council [NSC] official Jennifer Williams, former envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker and NSC adviser Tim Morrison.
I had to prepare, make sure I knew what everyone said before in their closed-door depositions. Williams testified that it struck her “as unusual” and “inappropriate” for the U.S. to ask for a favor from Ukraine. Williams said, “It shed some light on possible other motivations for the security assistance hold.” Vindman said there was no question President Trump wanted a deliverable from Ukraine.
“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see where the gain would be for the president in investigating the son of a political opponent,” Vindman testified behind closed doors, referring to former Vice President Joe Biden's son, Hunter.
Volker indicated that the freeze on the aid to Ukraine came from acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney.
So, you cram, try to incorporate each line of thought into a “capsule” for each witness. You don’t know what might come up.
But, Monday night, I may as well have been in fifth grade.
I remember one chilly May night in 1980 when I was 11 and faced a science test the next day. I was trying to learn some of the elements. Standard fifth-grade fare -- but the Reds and Mets were playing. I was next door at my grandparents’ house while my parents went shopping. I toggled between studying and listening to the game. I asked my grandmother to call out questions about the elements, but it was obvious where I focused the majority of my divided attention: the ballgame. I mean, Tom Seaver of the Reds was pitching against his old club at Shea Stadium. How could the mind of a fifth-grader possibly focus his mind on boron and argon with Tom Terrific on the mound?
I did okay on the test the next day, but not great. The Reds did okay, but not great. They lost 3-2 in 10 innings. It was a no-decision for Seaver.
And, on Monday night, I was at home, trying to cram for the third day of open impeachment hearings and the Caps were on. On top of that, I got added homework dumped on me.
The House Intelligence Committee just released the transcripts of two closed-door depositions -- 213 pages from U.S. diplomat to Ukraine David Holmes after his late-night deposition Friday and 190 pages from Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale.
The committee released a total of 403 pages just 13 hours before the next morning’s hearing, a grand total of 3,917 pages released from all depositions.
Mrs. Newland was tough in fifth grade. She taught math and science. I wasn’t particularly talented at either. Mrs. Newland never would have assigned 403 pages of reading at 8 p.m. After all, it was fifth grade.
But, this is impeachment.
So, on top of sorting out what Vindman and Williams said in their depositions, I studied the words of Hale and Holmes.
Holmes told House investigators it was “clear that some action on a Burisma-Biden investigation was a precondition for an Oval Office meeting.” He recounted a lunch in Kiev with U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland and how he overheard a loud phone call Sondland placed to Trump – after a bottle of wine. A veteran diplomat, Holmes said the call was “an extremely distinctive experience in my foreign service career. I’ve never seen anything like this, someone calling the president from a mobile phone at a restaurant, and then having a conversation of this level of candor, colorful language. There’s just so much about the call that was so remarkable that I remember it vividly.”
This was where Holmes told investigators that Sondland said Trump “did not give a sh-- about Ukraine.” He said the president cared only about “big stuff” like “this Biden investigation that Giuliani is pushing.”
You thought it was hard to keep remember which elements were gasses and which were metals? How could a fifth-grader possibly learn these things when Ken Griffey Sr. just hit a triple?
Fast forward to the present day.
Here’s a problem with covering impeachment: information overload. As a reporter, it’s a chore to digest and synthesize the context and importance of the hearing with Yovanovitch on Friday – then swing into action around 4:30 pm for a deposition running until nearly 10 p.m. Then, be back at it the next morning for a closed-door deposition Saturday with Office of Management and Budget official Mark Sandy – and comprehend two lengthy transcripts from Morrison and Williams released a few hours later.
If it’s hard for reporters to keep it straight, consider the task facing the public.
This has been a chief problem facing Democrats. Many party lawmakers, in the middle of building a case against the president, have been trying to weave together a complicated mosaic of alleged international skullduggery, possible intimidation, perceived aspirations of personal gain over country, bribery and flat-out corruption. But, it’s unclear how the public may interpret this challenging narrative and if it would make a difference.
The public struggled with the concept of “quid pro quo,” and later, Democrats amended the verbiage to “extortion” and “bribery.” People have heard of “Kiev,” but statements about Ukraine’s capital repeatedly spelled it “Kyiv.” Witnesses familiar with the region pronounced it “KEEV” during the hearings.
This dense impeachment casserole may be hard for members of the public to filet – especially if they’re paying only casual attention.
Everyone has been there. They have to study up for a big test the next morning, cramming about chromium and nitrogen and iodine. What’s unknown is whether the public may focus on something else.