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House Democratic leaders. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Three key witnesses in the House Democrats' impeachment inquiry will testify this week in a series of nationally televised hearings that Democrats are hoping will shock Americans enough to convince them that President Trump must be removed from office.

Why it matters: This public phase of impeachment is arguably the most important part of Democrats' efforts so far, as public sentiment will determine how this plays out.

What to expect: First up on Wednesday is the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine Bill Taylor, whose explosive closed-door testimony last month has been described by many Democrats as the most damaging to Trump.

  • State Department official George Kent will also appear on Wednesday. The committee will interview former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch on Friday.
  • The public hearings will begin with roughly 45 minutes of questioning from Intelligence staff, followed by questions from committee members.
  • Sources familiar with the layout of the hearings say they were deliberately organized to ensure the substance of their testimony is heard at the top.

Democratic House aides told Axios that House Intel chair Adam Schiff chose to present Taylor, Kent and Yovanovitch first because they believe each has "unimpeachable character," as one aide described it, and are apolitical career officials.

  • "You've got to have a blockbuster opener and closer. That's why we went with Taylor and Kent," a second aide said.
  • "Yovanovitch was the first victim of the president's scheme with Giuliani,” the aide added. That draws the "sympathy of the audience."

Schiff's team has asked Democratic members not to share any information about their preparations ahead of the hearings.

  • Schiff himself will be laying low and will not do any media before Wednesday, one aide said.
  • And while a lot of their prep is being spent on how to counter and preempt Republicans' "theatrics," Schiff has directed members and staffers to be "serious as f--k," as the aide described it, and advised them to treat the hearings as a somber moment in American history.

Behind the scenes: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was not happy with how House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler — who, according to House rules, will eventually have to take ownership of the impeachment fight — handled the Russia hearings, particularly Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s hearing, two Democratic sources familiar with her thinking tell Axios.

  • She thought Nadler lost control of the hearing and let it devolve into confusion.
  • This is why she has kept Schiff in charge and has commandeered the impeachment process behind the scenes.
  • This has also led to talk of lending Intelligence Committee staff to the Judiciary Committee when the inquiry ultimately lands there, the sources said.

What's next: More public hearings will follow. One of the aides said they hadn’t settled on week two witnesses yet, but thought Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a decorated military officer and the NSC's director of European Affairs, would be a natural closer.

  • "He'd come in his dress blues — how powerful would that be?" the aide said.

Go deeper: Inside Republicans' defense strategy for impeachment

Go deeper

Updated 3 hours ago - Health

California surpasses 50,000 COVID-19 deaths

A man prepares a funeral arrangement in in Los Angeles, California, Feb. 12. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

California's death toll from COVID-19 surpassed 50,000 on Wednesday, per Johns Hopkins data.

The big picture: It's the first state to record more than 50,000 deaths from the coronavirus.

4 hours ago - Technology

Facebook bans Myanmar military

A protester holds a placard with a three-finger salute in front of a military tank parked aside the street in front of the Central Bank building during a demonstration in Yangon, Myanmar. Photo by Aung Kyaw Htet/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Facebook said on Wednesday it would ban the rest of the Myanmar military from its platform.

The big picture: It comes some three weeks after the military overthrew the civilian government in a coup and detained leader Aung San Suu Kyi, causing massive protests to erupt throughout the country. Military leaders have been using internet blackouts to try to maintain power in light of the coup.

It's harder to fill the Cabinet

Data: Chamberlain, 2020, "United States of America Cabinet Appointments Dataset" Chart: Will Chase/Axios

It's harder now for presidents to win Senate confirmation for their Cabinet picks, an Axios data analysis of votes for and against nominees found.

Why it matters: It's not just Neera Tanden. The trend is a product of growing polarization, rougher political discourse and slimming Senate majorities, experts say. It means some of the nation's most vital federal agencies go without a leader and the legislative authority that comes with one.