On Capitol Hill, Old School Washington Keeps Circus at Bay

On Capitol Hill, Old School Washington Keeps Circus at Bay

WASHINGTON — After so much noise, a formal feeling fell upon the Capitol. The civil servants had entered the room.

In a sense, seriousness itself stood trial on Wednesday as William B. Taylor Jr., the top American diplomat in Ukraine, and George P. Kent, a top State Department official, strode into the velvet-draped hearing room just after 10 a.m. They wore stern stares and were seemingly oblivious to the discord that brought them there.

If they were annoyed about being lumped among the “unelected bureaucrats” or “deep-state operators” by the president’s defenders, or “human scum” by the president himself, it did not show. Cameras clacked and commotion swirled as they held up their hands.

The swearing-in photo flurry that followed is a staple of momentous Washington hearings. But this was also a resolute statement: The witnesses had come to tell a story, in defiance of the White House and willing to be dismissed, in the words of the ranking Republican, Representative Devin Nunes, as pawns in “the Democrats’ scorched-earth war against President Trump.”

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Credit…Anna Moneymaker/The New York Times
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Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

“I am not here to take one side or another or to advocate for any particular outcome,” Mr. Taylor said at the outset of his opening statement, his anchorman voice becoming a Twitter sensation within seconds. “My sole purpose is to provide facts.”

It helped that he, and the bow-tied Mr. Kent, presented as traditionalists of an ilk distinct from any Trumpian vintage. With his wire-rimmed glasses and up-arrow eyebrows, Mr. Taylor in particular resembled a prep school headmaster, tough but fair and near impossible to discredit.

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Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

In pursuing an impeachment inquiry, Democrats were not only asserting authority over a president they believe had run amok. They were also showcasing career diplomats who embodied so-called “permanent Washington” — the quiet norms that President Trump has so thoroughly rejected to the delight of so many of his supporters.

This collision was probably inevitable from the second the 45th president took his hand off the Bible in January 2017. It was a clash between Trump Washington and old Washington, the disrupter and disrupted, the bull and the china shop. But by their showing up, Mr. Taylor and Mr. Kent offered a salvo in a new phase — the impeachment spectacle that no doubt will last months, heading wherever it does.

“There are few actions as consequential as the impeachment of the president,” said Representative Adam B. Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, in his opening statement. This would appear self-evident but was also part of the challenge of the day — to reassert some gravity on what might have devolved into Romper Room.

This was the start of only the third impeachment hearings in modern history. There is sober comfort in rituals and traditions, the sanctity of rules and proceedings like this.

House Democrats quite clearly viewed Mr. Taylor, the leadoff witness, as their ringer. At 72, he packed the sturdiest of credentials: fifth in has class at West Point, 101st Airborne in Vietnam, a career procession of hot-spot diplomatic postings. The last of which landed him in the Ukraine job — and, eventually, here.

It offered a spotlight turn for this classic Washington character. The city is filled with Bill Taylor-types. They are steady and unsung and proud to order their service by the number of administrations of both parties they served in

Along with Mr. Kent, Mr. Taylor’s words had been registered in private testimony and subsequent public transcripts. Their view of the case was well known and unambiguously damning to the president. Who was paying attention?

Mr. Trump said Wednesday he would not be watching the hearing, and afterward said he heard it was a “hoax.” No shortage of House and Senate Republicans claimed to have tuned out themselves.

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Credit…Anna Moneymaker/The New York Times
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Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

“I think it will be a sham circus,” predicted Representative Louie Gohmert, a Texas Republican and one of several House members not on the intelligence committee who watched from the gallery.

“Circus” was something of a fighting word, especially verboten among Democrats. If order could be maintained and the spectacle kept at bay, normal Washington would carry this day. “Let’s not use that word,” said Representative David Cicilline, Democrat of Rhode Island, when someone did. “This is not a circus, it is a solemn moment.”

Standing a few feet away, Mr. Gohmert snapped a selfie with the hearing table in the background.

Mr. Taylor faced most of the questions and did the bulk of the talking. He maintained a steady, almost nonchalant mien, unbothered by Republican detours into “Democratic witch hunts” and “smear campaigns against a duly elected president.”

“This is a sad day for this country,” said Representative Jim Jordan, Republican of Ohio. Mr. Jordan, a firebrand defender of Mr. Trump, was deployed days ago by Republicans to the Intelligence Committee — a panel he does not normally sit on — as a designated bulldog.

Mr. Taylor did appear fazed when Mr. Jordan suggested he was working on behalf of Democrats. “You are their star witness,” charged Mr. Jordan by way of disparaging his testimony.

“I don’t consider myself a star witness for anything,” Mr. Taylor cautioned. “I’m not here to take one side or another,” he said again.

After a few hours, Mr. Taylor and Mr. Kent were asked if they needed a break. They turned to each other, turned up their palms and shrugged simultaneously. Mr. Schiff announced a five-minute recess. Mr. Taylor made a beeline for a side exit and the men’s room, where he was greeted as a “star witness” by a fellow relief seeker.

“I don’t know about that star witness thing,” he said again, shaking his head.

As the afternoon wore on, Mr. Schiff seemed to relax a bit in his bigwig chair. ““I appreciate members on both sides of the aisle who I think participated today in a serious way and in a civil way,” he said. In a different version of Washington — something in the ballpark of the old normal, whatever that was — the sentiment could be ignored as a boilerplate pleasantry.

But this is Mr. Trump’s spectacle, with so much uncharted space on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. You never know what to expect and that can be unnerving.

As he put Day 1 in the books, Mr. Schiff’s voice assumed a suggestion of calm. Order had prevailed in a tense Washington contest, at least for a day.


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