Ben Smith POLITICO Playbook: Impeachment’s trench warfare

Ben Smith These components are elegant!

LET’S STEP BACK FOR ONE SECOND AND TAKE STOCK OF WHERE WE ARE …

— IMPEACHMENT HASN’T WON ANY CONVERTS …Despite hours and hours of testimony, reams of coverage and enough background briefings to make your eyes bleed, nobody is changing any votes here. At least not on Capitol Hill, where both sides are dug in and digging deeper.

TOP HOUSE REPUBLICAN OFFICIALStold us Tuesday that not a single Republican is currently at risk of turning againstPresidentDONALD TRUMP.Again, may we repeat: As of right now, every single Republican would vote against impeachment in the House, multiple senior-level GOP lawmakers and aides told us. Internally, in the House GOP, there is exceeding confidence either thatTRUMPdidn’t do anything wrong, or that if he did, it’s not impeachable. (Although no one can say the latter, lest they risk ire from the president.) No endangered lawmakers are jittery, no retiring lawmakers are at risk of crossing over, and no one from the rank and file is, either. This is according to multiple people who are tracking public statements and private sentiments.

— HOUSE DEMOCRATShave long come to the conclusion that their Republican colleagues are not operating on the level, and believe the GOP’s sole goal is complete and total defense ofTRUMP.They find themselves having to blast through what they see as sideshows, misdirection and a smear campaign to keep the narrative they have worked to build. And, despite what SpeakerNANCY PELOSIsays publicly, every single Democrat we speak to is completely certain that they will impeachTRUMP.No more facts are needed, they say.

— BUT … THE HEARINGS HAVE BEEN A SLOG —important, but a slog. The hours upon hours of testimony have unearthed compelling evidence for Democrats, even if it’s not in the 30-second bites that our contemporary politics demand. Democrats have been forced to compress the entire impeachment process into a few months, which makes for a dizzying amount of testimony in a short period of time.

EVEN SO,Democrats are methodically building a case, piling up evidence that will eventually be tested in the Judiciary Committee, where the articles of impeachment will come together. Sure, the hearings have proven dense, long and at times confusing — even for those who are steeped in the subject matter. But, even in a Washington that’s been chewed up and spit out byTRUMP,the hearings are a throwback, of sorts, to yesteryear. They have mostly gone off without a hitch. There’s been no storming the doors, no massive waves of interruption. Just hours of Democrats trying to prove their argument, and equal time of Republicans trying to dismantle those same points.

— STILL,the process has its challenges. Viewers might tune in and see both sides hearing whatever they want to hear in each testimony. For example, eitherLt. Col.ALEXANDER VINDMANwas a heroic war veteran who called out irregular behavior when he heard it. Or he was an attention-hungry résumé inflator who hatedTRUMPand undermined his policies.

SOME OF THE MOST IMPORTANT AND POTENTIALLY IMPACTFUL MOMENTShave come at the least opportune times. House Intel ChairmanADAM SCHIFF’S(D-Calif.) closing Tuesday — which came late in the evening — was incredibly powerful. He made the case that Republicans haven’t defended the president’s behavior — mostly true — but, instead, have sought to out the people who ratted on him.SCHIFF:“That’s [Republicans’] objection. Not that the president engaged in this conduct, but that he got caught. Their defense is: Well, he ended up releasing the aid. Yes, after he got caught. That doesn’t make this any less odious.”Clip, via ABC

ALL THIS SAID,so much comes down to today, whenGORDON SONDLAND,the ambassador to the E.U., comes to the Capitol to testify. Theoretically, he should be a great witness for Democrats: He’s the man who, in their telling, was leading the effort to get Ukraine to commit to investigating the Bidens in exchange for aid and a visit with Trump.

HERE IS THE REPUBLICAN GAME PLAN TO DISCREDIT SONDLAND:The GOP will try to paint Sondland as a political hack who was carrying out what he thoughtTRUMPwanted, but not what the president told him directly.RUDY GIULIANI,Republicans will try to say, was making most of the orders, and maybe Trump was asking about them, but he was not directly giving them. Sondland’s testimony is full of holes; it’s already been corrected and questioned by other witnesses.REPUBLICANSfeel that if they can inject enough doubt about Sondland’s credibility, they can undermine some of the larger arguments about the substance. Republicans — especially in the White House — are exceedingly uncomfortable with Sondland, and unsure what he will say.

DEMOCRATS,of course, have a different game plan. That is to show that Sondland was, in fact, the agentTRUMPwas using to carry out his “shadow foreign policy.” He spoke to the president — there are witnesses to that. But it’s by no means clear how forthcoming he’ll be about those encounters, let alone whether he’ll make a compelling witness in general. (h/ts John Bresnahan, Kyle Cheney and Heather Caygle, who, as always, helped sharpen this top)

KYLE CHENEYbrings it all together on Sondland: “There’s a Gordon Sondland-sized gap in the House’s impeachment inquiry.

“The unconventional ambassador to the European Union— deployed by President Donald Trump to help squeeze Ukraine to investigate his political adversaries — has been the omnipresent shadow behind the series of witnesses who have testified publicly so far.

“In fact, across nearly 12 hours of testimony on Tuesday by four witnesses— in turns exhausting, exhilarating and excruciating — Democrats and Republicans really succeeded only in underscoring the growing set of unknowns that can be resolved by Sondland on Wednesday.

“He’s the inexplicable actor who confounded career diplomatsand seemed to push an agenda that wasn’t shared by the officials actually carrying out U.S. foreign policy — but often seemed aligned with Trump’s own private views on Ukraine. He’s the force behind many of the moments that led more practiced foreign policy hands like Fiona Hill to alert national security lawyers.” POLITICO

— QUOTE OF THE DAY,from a Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) who clearly thinks Sondland is going to struggle for Democrats, via WaPo’s Aaron Davis and Rachael Bade: “‘The impeachment effort comes down to one guy, Ambassador Sondland,’ said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), who like many Republicans has argued that only a first-person account of Trump leveraging U.S. power for personal gain could give Democrats grounds to impeach. ‘All the other testimony has a Sondland core to it and a Sondland connection.’” WaPo

Good Wednesday morning.

WRAPPING UP TUESDAY IN TWO PARAGRAPHS,by NYT’s Nick Fandos and Mike Shear on A1: “Two White House national security officials testified before the House’s impeachment inquiry on Tuesday that President Trump’s request to Ukraine’s president to investigate Democratic rivals was inappropriate, and one of them said it validated his ‘worst fear’ that American policy toward that country would veer off course.

“Hours later, two more witnesses — another former White Housenational security official and a former top American diplomat — charted a more careful course but sai

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