The president’s Republican allies have spent weeks strategizing ways to discredit the impeachment inquiry into Trump’s effort to compel the Ukrainian government to investigate his political rivals in exchange for military assistance. But none of that planning was evident on Wednesday, when they questioned State Department officials Bill Taylor and George Kent.
Throughout the nearly six-hour hearing, Republican members of the House Intelligence Committee veered between defending the idea of investigating corruption in Ukraine, and Hunter Biden in particular, and simultaneously claiming it was outrageous to suggest the president would do so. They shouted easily refutable criticism of the witnesses’ testimony and spoke of baseless conspiracy theories popularized in the deep reaches of conservative media. At times the witnesses — both experts in U.S. policy on Ukraine — appeared confused by the far-right line of questioning.
One possible explanation for the Republican members’ tactics was that they were aimed at hardening the opinions of the true believers in the vast television viewing audience, including one particular viewer likely watching from the White House.
“I think it’ll be effective with the base,” Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) told HuffPost after the hearing. “I just remind them that when they, you know, when they talk about the witnesses and debunked conspiracy theories, we’re in the Capitol, not Area 51.”
Alternately, House Republicans were perhaps testing various defenses in hopes that one would stick — or at least that the confusion would muddy the case for impeachment.
Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the ranking member of the committee, used his opening statement to claim that the “Democrats cooperated in Ukrainian election meddling” in 2016 to hurt Trump’s chances of winning. Nunes’ claim is based on a 2017 Politico article that described how a Ukrainian-American political operative helped the Democratic National Committee get information about then-Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s shady past work in Ukraine.
Contrary to Nunes’ claims, there is no evidence of broad collusion between the Ukrainian government and the Democratic Party. Nonetheless, the notion of Democratic-Ukrainian collusion has morphed into an elaborate conspiracy theory in which Ukraine somehow framed Russia for hacking the DNC and the cybersecurity firm Crowdstrike helped cover it up. This baseless theory has been used by Republican operatives to justify Trump’s desire to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to launch an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter and Ukraine’s supposed role in the 2016 election.
But hours later, Nunes contradicted himself. When it was his turn to question the witnesses, he claimed it made no sense to suggest that Trump would want Ukraine to launch an investigation. “I think one of the mothers of all conspiracy theories is that somehow the president of the United States would want a country that he doesn’t even like, he doesn’t want to give foreign aid to, to have the Ukrainians start an investigation into the Bidens,” Nunes said.
The Republicans face a difficult task in undermining the impeachment inquiry. The anonymous whistleblower complaint that prompted the inquiry has been largely proved accurate by the White House’s transcript of Trump’s July 25 call with Zelensky and text messages between U.S. officials. Trump’s acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, has confirmed the quid pro quo request. And on Wednesday, longtime State Department officials provided detailed testimony of how they learned about Trump and his allies’ effort to withhold military aid to Ukraine until the country publicly announced the launch of the investigations requested by the president.
In response to Taylor’s detailed description of how a ragtag team of Trump allies co-opted the State Department’s Ukraine policy to personally benefit the president, GOP counsel Steve Castor countered, “It’s not as outlandish as it could be, correct?”
Several House Republicans tried to cast Taylor and Kent as unreliable witnesses because they had not spoken directly to Trump about his dealings with Ukraine. Democrats pointed out that the White House was blocking several government officials — including Mulvaney, former national security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — from testifying.
Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas) argued that Trump’s Ukraine arrangement couldn’t be a quid pro quo because Zelensky did not yet know the Trump administration had placed a hold on military aid when Trump asked him in a July 25 phone call to investigate the Bidens. But Zelensky did find out about the security assistance delay the next month. U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, a Trump campaign donor, made clear to Zelensky that he needed to “clear things up” to avoid a “stalemate,” Taylor testified. Zelensky understood the terms of the deal and made plans to give a statement on CNN.
Ratcliffe also tried to point to Zelenksy’s claim in an October news conference that he did not feel pressured to follow Trump’s demands in exchange for weapons. But victims of extortion often have compelling reasons to deny they are being extorted, as former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara pointed out. In Zelensky’s case, he was still reliant on Trump for military equipment to defend his country against Russia — and the revelation that he was willing to do Trump’s bidding would have destroyed his reputation at home as an anti-corruption reformer.
By the end of the hearing, some Republicans appeared exhausted trying to come up with defenses for the president. All that matters, according to Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), is that, “Number one: Ukraine received the aid. Number two: there was, in fact, no investigation into Biden.”
In other words, it doesn’t matter because Trump got caught before he could pull it off.
Arthur Delaney contributed reporting.