Five days inside the Trump Impeachment hearings

The five days of historic impeachment hearings held by the House Intelligence Committee this month clearly demonstrated the sharp partisan divide over the question of whether President Donald Trump tried to use the reward of a White House meeting or the threat of withholding military aid to push the government of Ukraine to announce investigations which could benefit Mr. Trump politically.

As Democrats headed home for the Thanksgiving break, the final plans were still being worked out by lawmakers on what's next - which could culminate in a House vote just before Christmas on actual articles of impeachment against the President, leading to a trial before the full Senate at some point next year.

Regardless of whether you think the impeachment investigation is a sham, or should proceed to a vote in the full House, it was an interesting time to be in the room with a view of the proceedings.

Here's some of what I saw from my vantage point in room 1100 of the Longworth House Office Building.

1. Trump becomes part of the hearings in real time. Obviously, the impeachment hearings are about the President. While no one would expect any testimony by a President in this situation, Mr. Trump was able to use the social media tool of Twitter to impact the hearings in real time, sending out tweets ridiculing the diplomatic work of his former Ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch. Democrats swiftly took those remarks and read them to Yovanovitch to get her reaction. As a reporter, it was a remarkable moment to sit in the room and see something happen outside - in real time - and have that become the major part of the story, upending whatever plans GOP lawmakers may have had that day to deal with the Ambassador's testimony.

2. GOP jawbones over real time news headlines. Just as the President electronically elbowed his way into the hearings in real time on Twitter - right along with the social media power exercised by the White House - the other change which was evident from these impeachment hearings was Republican lawmakers trying to fight the way news of the testimony was being reported in real time. When Kurt Volker testified, Rep. Mike Turner (R-OH) relayed a headline from The Daily Mail - a British newspaper which for some reason gets an out sized amount of attention from American media outlets - with Turner arguing the headline was false, with which Volker agreed. During testimony from Gordon Sondland, Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-TX) complained that media reports were citing "blockbuster testimony" from Sondland about "quid pro quo and new evidence." While Ratcliffe groused about that description, it was all over the internet as he spoke - and was the blaring morning headline in newspapers all over America the next day.

3. The Trump witnesses who may never talk. One of the main GOP complaints about the evidence provided by the impeachment hearing witnesses was a lack of firsthand accounts related to actions by President Trump. The main reason for that is pretty simple - those people with the largest amount of firsthand evidence are refusing to testify. Energy Secretary Rick Perry. The acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney. Officials in the White House budget office. And then there is Rudy Giuliani, the former Mayor of New York, who led the charge for President Trump with back channel efforts in Ukraine. Giuliani has defied subpoenas as well, and has made clear he won't testify before Congress. Their lack of public questioning raises big questions about what lawmakers can do in the investigation - if the key players refuse to cooperate.  Those refusals were especially interesting in the light of some of Giuliani's real time tweets about the impeachment hearings.

4. Kurt Volker proves it is a small world. One of the key players in the Ukraine story is Kurt Volker, who worked as a special U.S. envoy to Ukraine under President Trump. The name was instantly familiar to me, as over thirty years ago, I met Volker when he was going to graduate school in Washington, D.C., starting his trek into the diplomatic world. After a few years of fun in our twenties with a group of common friends, Volker headed overseas for the State Department. Before his public testimony, the last time I had seen Volker was at the U.S. Embassy in London, in November of 1988, just a month before I got my current job covering Congress. One can only imagine how much all of us would have laughed if we had predicted then, that almost 31 years later to the day, he would be testifying before impeachment hearings of an American President, with me watching and reporting from inside the same room. You can't make this stuff up.

5. A Return to Gucci Gulch. The House Intelligence Committee doesn't really have a public hearing room it calls home - because it works in secret for the most part, so the panel used the historic hearing room of the House Ways and Means Committee. It's extremely familiar to me, because I worked for the committee as an intern in the summer of 1982, which featured long hours as lawmakers forged agreement on a major tax bill, the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act. The hallways outside are known as "Gucci Gulch," for the well-heeled tax lobbyists who plied the hallways in the 1980's, when the Ways and Means Committee churned out a series of major tax measures, culminating in the tax reforms of 1986. Don't be surprised if you see more impeachment action in that room - which still seems jarring to me.

6. Working inside the impeachment hearings. For those who don't know, I'm a radio reporter. But because of a mystery ailment, I have lost the ability to speak properly. I am still on the radio because of a computer generated voice created from my audio archives. So, I'm the only person who is "broadcasting" from inside the impeachment hearing room. I have the hearing audio in my left ear from my tape recorder. I have a second earplug in my right ear from my laptop, where I am creating my text-to-speech stories, and going through audio from the hearing. Plus I'm tweeting and updating my blog. Over and over. Hour after hour. And then I have to be ready to post a full blog story once the hearing ends - right away - so I'm writing that at the same time. It's fun stuff. One ironic note is that, if I were still able to speak, I would have been back in my broadcast booths in the Capitol for the most part to file my stories - not in the hearing room.

7. The still photographers. Among the busiest people in the hearings were the legion of photographers who send out pictures for major newspapers across America and the world. The major papers like the New York Times and the Washington Post have multiple people at these hearings, with remote cameras which wirelessly send pictures to their phones and computers, editors who are determining which photos are filed, as they juggle who gets assigned to what task. As a one-man band in radio, it is always fun to watch how others do their work. You will see a picture below which is standard for a number of the photographers, as they have used Velcro to attach a variety of gadgets, for power, the internet, and more, to their laptops. When the hearing is in recess, the photographers also leave their cameras - their very expensive cameras - sitting on the floor, to stake their claim to a spot for a money-shot photo.

8. C-SPAN does the basics for every TV network. When I arrived on Capitol Hill as a reporter in 1986, C-SPAN was still a relative newcomer to Congress. At that time, the major TV networks frowned on the cable TV creation, with little cooperation. At big hearings, C-SPAN would set up their own microphones and cameras, and so would the networks. Things were so regimented that I remember network TV technicians pulling my cable out of the audio box at a hearing, because I was a lowly independent radio reporter. So, C-SPAN became my friend and ally on Capitol Hill, and at events around the country. But over the years, things have changed, as the networks relaxed their union rules and mellowed. C-SPAN is now regularly in charge of televising major events, as their cameras fed the televised coverage to every network, whether it was Fox News, ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, or anything else. All of official proceedings at the hearings was filmed by C-SPAN. A tip of the cap to them.

9. What was it like inside? The questions I got asked the most by friends, readers, and listeners were along the lines of: What was it like to be in there? Was the room tense? Who was the best witness? I have to say I find those hard to answer, simply because I am doing so much work while the hearing is going on in front of me.  If I had to pick the biggest day of impeachment testimony - I would say that was Gordon Sondland. To me, the room felt on edge at times, especially as Republicans jabbed at him. What was my view of the proceedings? Well, unfortunately, there was a giant TV screen sitting in front me. But I could still see the witnesses, and it was a treat to be on hand.

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