We interrupt this impeachment hearing to bring you a message from Donald Trump: “Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad.”
That tweet, read on live television by House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, was shocking because it sought to affect the testimony of a key witness in an impeachment hearing as she spoke. Moreover, it marked what may be a first — and potentially devastating turn — in American history. As described by Schiff, it was: “Witness intimidation in real time by the president of the United States.”
Yovanovitch, whose testimony was calm, considered and effective, was explaining how Trump and his facilitators sought to smear her as she served as the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. She said she was “shocked” when she learned that Trump called her “bad news” in his controversial phone call last July with Ukraine’s president. As she spoke Friday morning, Trump took to Twitter, and his reelection campaign sent out an email.
With the subject line, “Impeachment Hearing BS,” Trump emailed his supporters that the hearings were “fake” and a “witch hunt trial.”
As is often the case in matters regarding Trump’s malfeasance, the most useful insight comes from those courageous journalists at Fox News who are willing to criticize the president. Bret Baier stated that Trump’s tweet raised the real possibility of an additional impeachment charge against Trump for “witness tampering or intimidation.”
Baier’s colleague Chris Wallace added: “If you were not moved by the testimony of Marie Yovanovitch, you don’t have a pulse.”
Clearly, Trump was moved, so much so that he tweeted about Yovanovitch during her live testimony. Apparently he couldn’t help himself — after telling reporters earlier in the week that he wasn’t even watching the impeachment hearings.
As fascinating as the first two days of hearings have been — with even more critically important testimony scheduled for next week — Trump has shifted the focus to the crime of witness tampering. By blasting Yovanovitch in real time was the president hoping to silence her? Or, more likely, was he sending a thinly-veiled message to future witnesses that if they testify they risk public humiliation?
This behavior, made possible by digital access to tens of millions of Americans with a single click, never existed during the impeachment hearings involving Nixon and Clinton. Trump is acting in uncharted territory. His tweets reach roughly 20 percent of all Americans with Twitter accounts.
Speaking of developments in real time, less than an hour after Trump’s attempt to intimidate those who would testify against him in a congressional hearing, his associate, Roger Stone, was convicted of lying to Congress to protect Donald Trump.
What drama. Trump signals witnesses that they should fear testifying against him. And a court underscores the fact that lying to Congress can lead to a lengthy prison sentence.
When digital malfeasance by the Russians came up in the 2016 election, then-candidate Trump said, “It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, OK?”
Friday, there was digital interference that was equally troubling. It was by somebody, sitting possibly on their bed at the White House, that weighs 240 pounds. Clearly, not OK.
Peter Funt is a writer and speaker.