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Risks for all sides as Trump impeachment hearings swing open

WASHINGTON — The closed doors of the Trump impeachment investigation are swinging wide open.

When the gavel strikes at the start of the House hearing Wednesday morning, America and the rest of the world will have the chance to see and hear for themselves for the first time about President Donald Trump’s actions toward Ukraine and consider whether they are, in fact, impeachable offenses.

It’s a remarkable moment, even for a White House full of them.

All on TV, committee leaders will set the stage, then comes the main feature: Two seasoned diplomats, William Taylor, the graying former infantry officer now chargé d’affaires in Ukraine, and George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary in Washington, telling the striking, if sometimes complicated story of a president allegedly using foreign policy for personal and political gain ahead of the 2020 election.

So far, the narrative is splitting Americans, mostly along the same lines as Trump’s unusual presidency. The Constitution sets a dramatic, but vague, bar for impeachment, and there’s no consensus yet that Trump’s actions at the heart of the inquiry meet the threshold of “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

Whether Wednesday’s proceedings begin to end a presidency or help secure Trump’s position, it’s certain that his chaotic term has finally arrived at a place he cannot control and a force, the constitutional system of checks and balances, that he cannot ignore.

‘Solemn undertaking’

The country has been here just three times before, and never against the backdrop of social media and real-time commentary, including from the president himself.

“These hearings will address subjects of profound consequence for the Nation and the functioning of our government under the Constitution,” said Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the chairman of the Intelligence Committee leading the inquiry, in a memo to lawmakers.

Schiff called it a “solemn undertaking,” and counseled colleagues to “approach these proceedings with the seriousness of purpose and love of country that they demand.”

“Total impeachment scam,” tweeted the president, as he does virtually every day.

Impeachments are rare, historians say, because they amount to nothing short of the nullification of an election. Starting down this road poses risks for both Democrats and Republicans as proceedings push into the 2020 campaign.

Unlike the Watergate hearings and Richard Nixon, there is not yet a “cancer on the presidency” moment galvanizing public opinion. Nor is there the national shrug, as happened when Bill Clinton’s impeachment ultimately didn’t result in his removal from office. It’s perhaps most like the partisanship-infused impeachment of Andrew Johnson after the Civil War.

Trump calls the whole thing a “witch hunt,” arguing that the Democrats have been trying to get rid of this president since he first took office, starting with former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference to help Trump in the 2016 election.

First Russia, now Ukraine

Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was initially reluctant to launch a formal impeachment inquiry. As Democrats took control of the House in January, Pelosi said impeachment would be “too divisive” for the country and it was simply “not worth it.”

After Mueller’s appearance on Capitol Hill in July for the end of the Russia probe, the door to impeachment proceedings seemed closed.

But the next day Trump got on the phone.

For the past month, witness after witness has testified under oath about his July 25 phone call with Ukraine’s newly elected president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, and the alarms it set off in U.S. diplomatic and national security circles.

In a secure room in the Capitol basement, current and former officials have been telling lawmakers what they know. They’ve said an earlier Trump call in April congratulating Zelenskiy on his election victory seemed fine. The former U.S. reality TV host and the young Ukrainian comedian hit it off.

But in the July call, things turned.

An anonymous whistleblower first alerted officials to the phone call. “I have received information from multiple U.S. Government officials that the President of the United States is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 election,” the person wrote in August to the House and Senate intelligence committees. Democrats fought for the letter to be released to them as required.

“I am deeply concerned,” the whistleblower wrote.

Trump insisted the call was “perfect” and the White House released a transcript of the call. Pelosi, given the nod from her most centrist freshman lawmakers, opened the inquiry.

“The president has his opportunity to prove his innocence,” she told Noticias Telemundo on Tuesday.

Defying White House orders not to appear, witnesses have testified that Trump’s acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, was withholding U.S. military aid to the budding democracy until the new Ukraine government conducted investigations Trump wanted into Democrats in the 2016 election and his potential 2020 rival, Joe Biden, and his son, Hunter.

No first-hand knowledge

It was all part of what Taylor, the long-serving top diplomat in Ukraine, called the “irregular” foreign policy being led by Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, outside of traditional channels.

Taylor said it was “crazy” that the Trump administration was withholding U.S. military assistance to the East European ally over the political investigations, with Russian forces on Ukraine’s border on watch for a moment of weakness.

Kent, the bow tie-wearing State Department official, told investigators there were three things Trump wanted of Ukraine: “Investigations, Biden, Clinton.”

On Friday, the public is scheduled to hear from Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, who told investigators she was warned to “watch my back” as Trump undercut and then recalled her.

“What this affords is the opportunity for the cream of our diplomatic corps to tell the American people a clear and consistent story of what the president did,” said Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., a member of the intelligence panel.

“It takes a lot of courage to do what they are doing,” he said, “and they are probably just going to be abused for it.”

Republicans, led on the panel by Rep. Devin Nunes, a longtime Trump ally from California, will argue that none of those witnesses has first-hand knowledge of the president’s actions. They will say Ukraine never felt pressured and the aid money eventually flowed, in September.

Yet Republicans are struggling to form a unified defense of Trump. Instead they often fall back on criticism of the process.

Some Republicans align with Trump’s view that Ukraine was involved in 2016 U.S. election interference. They want to hear from Hunter Biden, who served on the board of a gas company in Ukraine, Burisma, while his father was the vice president. And they are trying to bring forward the still-anonymous whistleblower, whose identity Democrats have vowed to protect.

The Framers of the Constitution provided few details about how the impeachment proceedings should be run, leaving much for Congress to decide. Democrats say the White House’s refusal to provide witnesses or produce documents is obstruction and itself impeachable.

Hearings are expected to continue and will shift, likely by Thanksgiving, to the Judiciary Committee to consider actual articles of impeachment.

The House, which is controlled by Democrats, is expected to vote by Christmas.

That would launch a trial in the Senate, where Republicans have the majority, in the new year.

Georgia doctor keynote speaker at Memorial Fountain Ceremony

HUNTINGTON — When Southern Airways Flight 932 crashed Nov. 14, 1970, into a hillside near Huntington, sons and daughters were taken from their parents and parents were taken from their sons and daughters.

Dr. Matthew M. Ralsten III and his sister were among those who lost their parents on that fateful night that took the lives of 75 Thundering Herd football players, coaches, staff, supporters and flight crew members on board the plane. Ralsten will return to Huntington on Thursday as the keynote speaker for the 49th Memorial Fountain Ceremony honoring those 75 people.

Ralsten said the ceremony has become an important part of the fabric of Marshall University and the surrounding community.

“The loss of the 75 lives that tragic evening included many of the leaders in our academic, business and political community, as well as the players, coaches, pilots and crew,” Ralsten said in a release from the university. “The ceremony allows us to remember our loved ones, while allowing us to also celebrate the amazing progress our school and community continues to achieve.”

Ralsten said the crash had a particularly profound effect on his family, especially on him and his sister, Molly.

“My sister and I lost both of our parents,” said Ralsten. “The impact of such a loss is hard to describe, but we were very fortunate to have been raised by our amazing extended family.”

Ralsten’s parents, Matthew Murrill Ralsten and Helen Ralsten, were among the 24 Marshall supporters who died in the crash. At the time, his father operated a clothing store called The Ralsten Ltd. and was also a member of Huntington City Council. His mother was a schoolteacher in Chesapeake, Ohio. Both were Marshall graduates.

A 2002 graduate of the Marshall University School of Medicine, Ralsten works as an obstetrician-gynecologist. His wife, Tammy, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in nursing from Marshall in 1996. They reside in Fayetteville, Georgia, and have twins, Matthew Murrill Ralsten IV, a student at the University of South Carolina, and Helen Claire Ralsten, a student at the University of Georgia.

Ralsten said he is honored to be the keynote speaker and is excited to return home to see family, friends and former classmates.

“The ‘Marshall Family’ are those who have shared their memories of my parents with me and those who I continue to meet, sharing the virtues of our state, community and Marshall University,” he said.

The ceremony begins at noon on the Memorial Student Center plaza. The fountain will be turned off for the winter during a moment of silence.

The ceremony will be live streamed at www.marshall.edu/it/livestream.

Hardin trial delayed as current sentence nears end

HUNTINGTON — As his discharge date nears for a battery charge, a trial for an accused rapist was postponed in Cabell County Circuit Court on Tuesday to give attorneys more time to go through extensive evidence in the case.

Joseph Chase Hardin, 22, of Huntington, is charged with four counts of second-degree sexual assault related to two fall 2018 incidents involving two 18-year-old women. His trial for the four charges was set to begin Tuesday, but instead was reset to Feb. 25, 2020.

Defense attorneys Kerry Nessel and Abe Saad said they had a hard drive with evidence on it and had not yet been able to go through it all.

“We supplied a 1 terabyte external hard drive to the prosecutor, and (the police) took a while to download these items. It’s rather voluminous,” Nessel said. “There are thousands upon thousands of items that need to be reviewed.”

Assistant Prosecutor Kelli Neal said prosecutors also had retained an expert to testify at trial as to typical rape survivor behavior and how it applies to the alleged victims in this case. Nessel said he needed time to decide if the defense needed its own expert to refute that testimony.

Both parties agreed that a continuance would be best.

Hardin is housed at Western Regional Jail on those charges while also serving a one-year jail sentence for a previous misdemeanor battery. The battery conviction came in a case in which Hardin was accused of another sexual assault.

He had originally been placed on three years’ probation, but the alternative sentence was revoked due to the new charges and allegations that Hardin had consumed alcohol.

Hardin is set to be discharged from his battery sentence Dec. 5; however, he will remain jailed because of the 2019 indictment. Nessel requested Cabell Circuit Judge Alfred E. Ferguson let his client out of jail three weeks early at Tuesday’s hearing, but Ferguson said that decision was up to the jail authority and denied the request.

Ferguson was also asked to set a bond on the new indictment so Hardin could be released on bond once his battery sentence is completed. In requesting a $50,000 standard condition bond, Nessel said Hardin has a limited criminal history, has a job lined up and has been accepted to Ohio University to take courses online once he is released.

Neal asked for a “substantial bond,” with all or at least some of it being cash only. She also requested he be required to serve home confinement lockdown if released from jail.

“I understand what he is saying about his past record,” she said. “But as the court knows, his past record involved a similar type of offense and we have two other alleged victims in this case.”

She also pointed out that Hardin was only in jail because he violated his probation, meaning he might not be a good candidate to be released to home confinement, she said.

Ferguson took the request under advisement and said he expects to make a ruling later this week.

In the two new cases, Huntington Police Detective Ted Backus previously testified the first assault, which was reported to police in November, had occurred Oct. 7 in a vehicle in the parking lot of a Huntington museum. Sometime later a second allegation was made against Hardin to police. That alleged rape occurred Sept. 1, 2018, at off-campus student housing in Huntington as the pair was watching a movie.

Both victims did not immediately go to police to report the assaults, but individually decided to come forward after discussing the matter with friends. Both said they were scared of Hardin and embarrassed and that’s why they did not come forward, Backus said.

Hardin was a Marshall student at the time of all the attacks, but was expelled by the university after the new allegations came to light. His battery victim and two new alleged sexual assault victims attended Marshall at the time of the allegations.

Follow reporter Courtney Hessler at Facebook.com/CHesslerHD and via Twitter @HesslerHD.

Arctic blast brings snow, low temps to region

HUNTINGTON — An arctic blast brought snow and unusually cold temperatures to the Tri-State on Tuesday. Low-lying areas, including Cabell County, received a light dusting, while higher elevations saw up to 3 inches of snowfall.

The cold front was expected to continue into Wednesday morning, bringing a threat of record-low temperatures in many areas, according to a briefing from the National Weather Service in Charleston.

There will be widespread “bitterly cold” temperatures in the teens for much of Wednesday. Temperatures were expected to remain below average for the remainder of the week before warming up this weekend.