By BRIAN A. HOWEY

INDIANAPOLIS  – A polarized nation watched its executive and legislative branches lurch into a fourth impeachment sequence on Wednesday.

Democratic Judiciary Chairman Adam Schiff portrayed a scheme by President Trump’s White House to have a desperate ally – Ukraine, under invasion from Russian proxy forces – supply political dirt on a potential political rival.

Republicans from Trump himself to his allies on Capitol Hill called the probe a “witch hunt” designed to overturn the 2016 presidential election. “Today, America will see one party try and overturn the constitutional election of a president of the United States of America, a goal since @realDonaldTrump  was elected,” tweeted U.S. Rep. Jim Banks, an ardent defender of Trump.

“The questions presented by this impeachment inquiry are whether President Trump sought to exploit that ally’s vulnerability and invite Ukraine’s interference in our elections?” Schiff said. “Whether President Trump sought to condition official acts, such as a White House meeting or U.S. military assistance, on Ukraine’s willingness to assist with two political investigations that would help his reelection campaign? And if President Trump did either, whether such an abuse of his power is compatible with the office of the presidency? The matter is as simple, and as terrible as that. 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 may come to expect from their commander-in-chief.” 

Republicans sought to portray the proceedings as a partisan farce. Rep. Devin Nunes of California, the top Republican on the Intelligence panel, cited a “three-year-long operation” to “overturn the results of the 2016 election” by congressional Democrats. “This is a carefully orchestrated media smear campaign,” Nunes said, and described the Ukraine controversy as a “low-rent” sequel to the investigation of the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russians. Republicans argue that the proceedings are an attempt to abrogate the 2016 election that thrust Trump into a shocking upset that gained him the White House.

This fourth impeachment proceedings are expected to yield an indictment of President Trump in the House, and an acquittal in the Senate. The Indiana congressional delegation enters this process along partisan lines, with Democrat Rep. Andre Carson and the retiring Pete Visclosky supporting the impeachment inquiry, while Republican are opposed.

U.S. Rep. Andre Carson was the lone Hoosier to participate in the House proceedings on Wednesday.

The two potential “jurors,” U.S. Sens. Mike Braun and Todd Young, have been largely mum on the proceedings. Braun said last week he didn’t believe there is enough evidence to force President Trump from office, telling WIBC, “The quid pro quo seems to be an interpretation and not to where there actually was one,” Braun said. “I think that makes a difference.”

In his opening statement, Chairman Adam Schiff framed the proccedings: “Earlier this year Volodymyr Zelensky was elected president of Ukraine on a platform of ending the conflict and tackling corruption. He was a newcomer to politics and immediately sought to establish a relationship with Ukraine’s most powerful patron, the United States. The questions presented by this impeachment inquiry are whether President Trump sought to exploit that ally’s vulnerability and invite Ukraine’s interference in our elections? Whether President Trump sought to condition official acts, such as a White House meeting or U.S. military assistance, on Ukraine’s willingness to assist with two political investigations that would help his reelection campaign? And if President Trump did either, whether such an abuse of his power is compatible with the office of the presidency?

“The matter is as simple, and as terrible as that,” Schiff said. “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 may come to expect from their commander-in-chief.”

“These are the questions we must ask and answer. Without rancor if we can, without delay regardless, and without party favor or prejudice if we are true to our responsibilities,” Schiff said. “Benjamin Franklin was asked what kind of a country America was to become, “A Republic,” he answered, ‘if you can keep it.’ The fundamental issue raised by the impeachment inquiry into Donald J. Trump is: Can we keep it?”

Nunez said, “What we will witness today is a televised theatrical performance staged by the Democrats. ... It will take years if not decades to restore faith in these institutions. This spectacle’s doing great damage to our country. It’s nothing more than an impeachment process in search of a crime.”

President Trump has characterized the proceedings as a “witch hunt.” He said in the Oval Office around noon Wednesday, “It’s a witch hunt, it’s a hoax. I’m too busy to watch it. I have not been briefed. ... They’re using lawyers that are television lawyers.”

Trump later tweeted: “The Impeachment Scam hearings begin today! This is a complete Fake Hearing (trial) to interview Never Trumpers and a Pelosi-Schiff SCAM against the Republican Party and me. It’s obvious they hate me, but more importantly, they HATE YOU. The Democrats know they can’t win in 2020, so they want to rip the power from your hands by ERASING your VOTE, ERASING your VOICE, and ERASING your FUTURE!”

But Republicans were not fully unified. Attorney George Conway, husband of senior White House official Kellyanne Conway, explained on MSNBC’s Morning Joe Wednesday, “When you take on that duty… you are promising to take that awesome power that’s being thrust upon you and use it for the nation’s benefit, and not for your own benefit. And the problem with Donald Trump is he always sees himself first. Trump is all about Trump. That’s what this is all about, he’s using, he was using the power of the presidency at its most unchecked area, foreign affairs, to advance his own personal interests as opposed to the country.”

This impeachment effort is different than the first three involving Presidents Andrew Johnson in 1868, Richard Nixon in 1974 and Bill Clinton in 1998-99, in that it comes during Trump’s first term and while he is seeking reelection. Johnson opted not to seek a second term in 1868, while Nixon and Clinton were prosecuted during second terms after winning landslide reelections.

The political implications are impossible to weigh. For much of the year, President Trump seemed to be goading Democrats to impeach him, believing it would help him win a second term in 2020.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi resisted the bait for much of the year, until it was learned that on July 25,  literally a day after President Trump seemed to dodge the Russia collusion investigation of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, that he appeared to extort political dirt on Joe and Hunter Biden from Ukraine President Zelensky.

As Schiff explained, “A week later, on July 18, a representative from OMB, the White House agency that oversees federal spending, announced on a video conference call that Mulvaney, at the direction of the president, was freezing nearly $400 million in security assistance authorized and appropriated by Congress and which the entirety of the U.S. national security establishment supported. One week after that, Donald Trump would have the now infamous July 25th phone call with Ukrainian President Zelensky. During that call, Trump complained that the U.S. relationship with Ukraine had not been ‘reciprocal.’ Later, Zelensky thanks Trump for his support ‘in the area of defense,’ and says that Ukraine was ready to purchase more Javelins, an antitank weapon that was among the most important deterrents of further Russian military action. Trump’s immediate response: ‘I would like you to do us a favor, though.’

Schiff added, “Trump then requested that Zelensky investigate the discredited 2016 ‘Crowdstrike’ conspiracy theory, and even more ominously, look into the Bidens. Neither of these investigations was in the U.S. national interest, and neither was part of the official preparatory material for the call.”

Echoing many of the same terms used by President Trump to describe the Democrat-led impeachment hearing, alternately referring to it as a “hoax,” a “scam” and a “carefully orchestrated media smear campaign,” Nunes charged that the proceeding was just the latest in long-running Democratic efforts to oust Trump from the White House.

Nunes also posited that Wednesday’s first witnesses at the live broadcast, longtime U.S. Ambassadors George Kent and William Taylor, could be participants in a Democrat-led effort. “It seems you agreed, wittingly or unwittingly, to participate in a drama,” said Nunes to the pair. “But the main performance, the Russia hoax, has ended. And you have been cast in the low-rent Ukrainian sequel.”

Nunes in particular objected to Democrats’ refusal to summon Hunter Biden to testify. In a July phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Trump requested that the nation probe Biden and his former Vice President father for alleged wrongdoing in the nation.

There was some new ground. Politico called ”the most explosive revelation” came from Taylor, who told lawmakers that one of his aides overheard Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union and a Trump campaign donor, on the phone with the president, during which the aide could hear Trump ask about “the investigations.” Taylor said Sondland told the president that the Ukrainians were “ready to move forward.”

The aide told Taylor that Sondland subsequently relayed “that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden, which Giuliani was pressing for.” Taylor said he was “not aware of this information” when he testified at a private deposition on Oct. 22.

When pressed by Schiff about whether he took Trump’s remarks on the call with Sondland to mean that Trump cares more about a Biden investigation than he does about Ukraine, Taylor responded: “Yes, sir.”

Taylor also testified: “I want to emphasize at the outset that, while I am aware that the Committee has requested my testimony as part of impeachment proceedings, I am not here to take one side or the other, or to advocate for any particular outcome of these proceedings. My sole purpose is to provide facts as I know them about the incidents in question as well as my views about the strategic importance of Ukraine to the United States.  Once I arrived in Kyiv, I discovered a weird combination of encouraging, confusing and ultimately alarming circumstances. There appeared to be two channels of U.S. policy-making and implementation, one regular and one highly irregular. I encountered an irregular, informal channel of U.S. policy-making with respect to Ukraine, unaccountable to Congress, a channel that included then-Special Envoy Kurt Volker, U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and, as I subsequently learned, Mr. Giuliani.”

The hidden story for history is Trump’s stonewalling of the investigation. 

Former soliciter general Neal K. Katyal writes in the New York Times, “He has been blocking government officials from testifying before Congress, invoking specious claims of constitutional privilege. And while the Ukraine allegations have rightly captured the attention of Congress and much of the public, Mr. Trump’s effort to hinder the House investigation of him is at least as great a threat to the rule of law. It strikes at the heart of American democracy, and it is itself the essence of an impeachable offense. President Trump has categorically refused to cooperate with the impeachment investigation. He has declined to turn over documents related to the inquiry and has instructed all members of his administration not to testify before Congress. Every member of the executive branch who has gone to tell the truth to the House impeachment investigators, like Marie Yovanovich and Alexander Vindman (and maybe Gordon Sondland, too, at least the second time around), has done so in defiance of the president’s instructions.”

“Mr. Trump’s stonewalling is a grave problem because it means there is no way to police executive branch wrongdoing,” Katyal said. “The attorney general, William Barr, has said a sitting president cannot be indicted. The president’s lawyers have gone so far as to say, in light of that principle, that he cannot even be criminally investigated. But every serious scholar who adheres to the view that a sitting president cannot be indicted combines that view with the belief that the impeachment process is the way to deal with a lawless president. Indeed, the very Justice Department opinions that Mr. Barr relied on to “clear” the president say exactly that. Otherwise a president could engage in extreme wrongdoing, and the American people would have no remedy.”

Reaction to opening testimony

Reaction to the first day of proceedings wasn’t completely predictable.

Fox News host Chris Wallace said that Ambassador William Taylor’s House testimony Wednesday was “very damaging” to President Donald Trump. “I think that William Taylor was a very impressive witness and was very damaging to the president,” Wallace said. “First of all, as you pointed out, he took very copious notes at almost every conversation when he put quotes in his opening statement, he said those were direct quotes from what was said. It also doesn’t hurt that he has a voice like Edward R. Murrow. He is a pretty impressive presence up there. And I think very non-political. He went out of his way to talk about what he knew, what he was specifically testament to.”

U.S. Rep. Andre Carson, who questioned Ambassador Taylor during the hearing, said, “The testimony from these two men further confirmed and corroborated what we’ve been hearing for several weeks now, first through the report from the anonymous whistleblower, and then through depositions with a variety of first-hand witnesses: That this President abused his power and compromised our national security in a scheme designed to force the Ukrainian government to investigate a political rival. Through the hearing, it became even clearer how the President and his associates used a White House meeting and hundreds of millions in U.S aid as a bargaining chip for Ukraine, putting our ally in a terrible position. And we learned new, deeply troubling details, like when Ambassador Taylor recounted a phone call in which President Trump asked Ambassador Sondland about the status of the investigation into Joe Biden.”

U.S. Rep. Jim Banks, R-Columbia City, called the first day of hearings by the House Intelligence Committee “a made-for-TV circus meant to smear the president.” U.S. Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-Jimtown, said majority Democrats in the House “have been working to impeach the president since day one.”

Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale said, “The entire world can read the transcript of President Trump’s conversation with President Zelensky, so people don’t need to rely on third-party opinions when they can see the facts for themselves. Despite that, today we heard from Democrats’ hand-picked star witnesses, who together were not on the Ukraine phone call, did not speak directly to President Trump, got third-hand hearsay from one side of a different phone call in a restaurant, and formed opinions based on stories in the pages of the New York Times.  We hate to break it to these unelected, career government bureaucrats who think they know best: The president of the United States sets foreign policy, not them.”