Bill Taylor, George Kent, and the Power of Expertise

With their deep knowledge and clear confidence in their own neutrality, the first impeachment hearing witnesses painted a clear picture of what’s at stake.

Kent and Taylor in the hearing room, raising their right hands to be sworn in.
George Kent and Bill Taylor at the House Intelligence Committee impeachment hearing in Washington on Wednesday. Reuters Marketplace/USA Today News Entertainment

Watch enough hearings and you’ll inevitably find yourself analyzing the performance. Politics are theater at a basic and obvious level, but theater criticism substituting for serious political inquiry is, unfortunately, everywhere now. Following today’s historic hearings, we’ll no doubt be regaled by pundits analyzing who’s from (in Trump’s phrase) “central casting” and whose performance failed to compel; less than halfway through the hearing, Eric Trump was cattily negging George Kent and Bill Taylor’s damning testimony by calling it “boring.” As if the objective of an impeachment hearing was to entertain.

What America saw today was a shocking demonstration of what it looks like when actual experts testify to things they know about. Taylor and Kent were composed and matter-of-fact, like many witnesses we’ve watched during this presidency. But their testimony accomplished something the Robert Mueller hearing never could: It made the stakes clear. The “national security” mentioned during the Mueller hearings often felt too abstract for the average person to care about, especially given how much remained classified, how hard to follow much of it was. The story of what has happened in Ukraine is not simple. But through their testimony, Taylor and Kent made the country spring to life as an actual place with actual people whose concerns deserve consideration and whose urgent circumstances they can very capably communicate.

Taylor made the case for urgency by saying obvious but true things: This is a country that was and is being attacked, literally, right now, by Russia. People died while aid was delayed for no apparent reason. He implicitly shamed everyone who’d been treating a country as a pawn in a game of chess for or against Trump, and morally annihilated those still clinging—bizarrely—to the conspiracy theory that Russia has been framed for its destructive policies in Ukraine and its intervention in U.S. elections. He explained why the White House visit mattered to Zelensky (negotiation leverage) and why he advised against Zelensky saying what Trump wanted him to in that CNN interview (bipartisan support is crucial for Ukraine to keep, and involvement in U.S. domestic politics would annihilate that). In so doing, he might have gotten at least a few Americans thinking about the fact that Ukraine has extremely delicate political considerations all its own that are worth at least remembering every time some Republican suggests that Zelensky felt no pressure from Trump.

Kent functioned as a kind of Wikipedia wizard, offering context and history for every Ukrainian business, politician, and entrepreneur mentioned in the course of the proceedings. Just as crucially, he clarified how American foreign policy ordinarily works, and who belongs where and why. He sketched out what an actual anti-corruption effort looks like and why Trump’s wasn’t one; he explained why neither he nor Taylor was involved in the notorious call. In sum, he served an amazingly useful function: At every step, he was the guy in the room with enough expertise to say this is what normal looks like and this is why this was not normal.

The witnesses were able to do what witnesses rarely really get to do in hearings like these: inform.

The GOP members did what they could to stop it. The ways they fell short are instructive. Against that wealth of information from seasoned experts, they spun the usual bubbles, but their imagined reality could not upset the clear picture the witnesses had drawn. It was interesting, though, to watch their strategies of stagecraft age. For three years now, Republicans have taken Newt Gingrich’s directive to treat feelings as fact—and consider facts irrelevant—to heart. They’ve aimed a Gingrichian firehose at every proceeding. In hearings, in short, they rage, they bluster, they propagate conspiracy theories. They whine and interrupt.
They are always apparently aggrieved and furious. The effect is less a defense than a bilious Gish gallop whose main objectives—deflect and disorient—have worked well enough. Trump, who switches subjects midsentence but channels feeling quite well, has relieved the party of the need to make sense, and the congressmen have followed his example, often with terrific, base-rallying results.

The trouble is that any tactic suffers from too much exposure and overuse. Neither Bill Taylor nor George Kent seemed even slightly discomfited by Jim Jordan’s very fast reading of questions, for example. Perhaps this is because they are so well versed in their subject that speed talking doesn’t disrupt. Or perhaps they just realized such childish displays were coming. Either way, none of it seemed very effective. The witnesses seemed considerably less agonized over their participation than the Mueller witnesses, who hedged, sometimes to the point of absurdity. They also both seemed, as witnesses, completely committed to the idea that they were there to inform, not to convince, and their reliance on objectivity in this way actually freed them from having to engage in a good deal of Republican drama.

To the extent that Republicans have a case, it seems to be that a) there isn’t enough firsthand information (they always fail to mention that the White House has specifically forbidden witnesses with firsthand information from testifying); b) Trump didn’t actually succeed at extorting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky because others interfered, so therefore it doesn’t count and, trust them, he won’t try again; or c) Trump was sincerely concerned about Ukrainian corruption and was merely attempting to root it out, even though he didn’t mention it once in the infamous phone call (and also, since when does Trump care about corruption?). I guess I should append the other two defenses that cropped up: d) A foreign president won’t publicly admit that he felt any pressure to follow Trump’s requests (it would be politically devastating for him to do so), and e) it is wrong for someone who hasn’t talked directly to Trump to be a witness in a hearing, period. Needless to say, this is sad, weak stuff.

It’s a truism of the past several years that American faith in expertise suffered a serious blow. This sentiment crystallized after the 2016 election, when the United States had to face a president who knew nothing about government and grapple with how he got there. Analyses of electoral defeats almost always end up endorsing weird and unsupported ideas about what the results really meant. One underappreciated side effect of Hillary Clinton’s defeat—which was frequently framed as the wonk trumped by the “outsider”—was that experience and knowledge got treated, suddenly, as a political liability. The polls were wrong, and expertise worthless. “The current view is that liberals have a whole set of statistics that theoretically might be right, but it’s not where human beings are,” Gingrich said two weeks before the election, and a lot of people took the results as confirmation of this foundational Republican unwisdom. Actual knowledge has since been treated as suspect, and insisting on it is characterized in some GOP quarters as borderline treason, particularly if it conflicts with the president’s understanding. Trump surrounds himself with people who know how to flatter him; that seems to be the only expertise the party as presently constituted respects.

But today, expertise seemed to reassert itself. Kent and Taylor appeared as nonpartisan career officials and occupied that increasingly embattled space with unusual ease. Mueller never found the right confidence to fulfill that function. (Perhaps this is understandable: He’d been elevated to the unenviable position of being both a symbol and a punching bag.) Kent and Taylor rejected any representative or tactical characterization with remarkable, blunt ease. Every time a Republican tried to call Taylor the Democrats’ “star witness,” he repeated that he was simply there to offer what facts he had. They presented themselves as exactly what they were: experts on one very specific topic. What remains to be seen is if America has the capacity to listen.