WASHINGTON ― As Democrats continue to lay out their case for impeaching President Donald Trump, one thing is becoming increasingly clear: There is nothing Republican lawmakers could hear that would change their minds.
“It’s all bullshit,” Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) told HuffPost on Tuesday.
King said he hasn’t seen anything in the House Intelligence Committee’s hearings that has made him uncomfortable. “There’s nothing there,” he said. “There’s absolutely nothing there.”
Asked if there were any evidence that would make him uncomfortable, King said he wouldn’t get into hypotheticals. “The whole thing is a fraud, just like the Russia thing,” he said.
Republicans complained on Tuesday that Democrats were using all the wrong words. They argued that Trump was asking for a favor ― a legitimate one, in their minds ― not “demanding” that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky open an investigation into Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son, Hunter. They argued that administration officials have merely been interpreting Trump’s motivations while the president himself (shockingly) has not admitted to seeking a quid pro quo. They even suggested that a key impeachment witness might be wearing the wrong clothes.
During Tuesday morning’s hearing, Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah) noted that Alexander Vindman was wearing his military uniform, even though he generally wears a suit to the White House. Vindman had corrected Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) for referring to him as “Mister” instead of by his rank ― “Lieutenant Colonel” ― so Stewart asked if he always insisted that civilians call him by his rank. Vindman said people in the press and on Twitter had “marginalized” him as a military officer.
After the hearing, Stewart said he did not mean to imply that Vindman should not have worn his military uniform.
“I was saying it’s a great reminder of his service,” Stewart said. “I don’t know how you could interpret it any other way.”
Republicans appear convinced that Trump did nothing wrong, and no matter what comes out in the Intelligence Committee, no matter who testifies, it seems the overwhelming majority of Republicans in Congress are never going to accept that the president acted improperly.
“It’s perfectly within the purview of the president’s authority,” Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) told HuffPost.
Perry said it was “totally appropriate” for Trump to safeguard American taxpayers by withholding military security aid for Ukraine, and he dismissed those testifying that there was a connection between the withholding of the aid and the possibility of Zelensky announcing an investigation because “they’re not the president.”
Asked if there was anything Congress could find out that would make him uncomfortable, Perry said if Zelensky were trying to bribe Trump or Trump were trying to bribe Zelensky, then he’d be uncomfortable. “But I haven’t seen any of that,” Perry said.
Republicans are increasingly clinging to the talking point that all these White House aides and State Department officials were operating with a false understanding of the president’s intentions. To the GOP lawmakers, because there’s no evidence that Trump ever directly said there was a connection between the security aid and an investigation into the Bidens, there could not have been a connection.
“If you read the actual transcript of the call, to me there’s nothing impeachable there,” Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.) told HuffPost.
In the rough transcript of their July 25 call released by the White House, Trump asked Zelensky to “do us a favor” and investigate possible Ukrainian involvement in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. He also raised the topic of investigating Joe and Hunter Biden. But Lesko said that because Trump did not mention either Biden immediately after the word “favor,” he wasn’t asking for an investigation into the Bidens.
“Biden was not in that same paragraph,” Lesko said.
Multiple U.S. officials who worked on supplying nearly $400 million in aid to Ukraine have testified that it was their understanding the aid would not be released until Zelensky announced such an investigation. Democrats say the aid was only released without that promise because the whistleblower came forward and shined a light on the president’s scheme.
But Republicans have jumped to the opposite conclusion: that the aid was released because Trump’s intentions were pure. And no amount of testimony to the contrary looks likely to change their minds.
“Democrats are striking out here,” Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas) said. “Not a single witness has stated that any crime has been committed. Certainly no impeachable crimes.”
Brady also mocked Democrats for shifting from alleging a quid pro quo to alleging bribery. “Maybe it’s bribery with puppies and sprinkles on top,” he said.
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) insisted that because the witnesses didn’t directly hear from the president that the push for a Biden investigation was politically motivated or that it was tied to the aid, that means it wasn’t. He said the case for impeachment was built on “an interpretation of a phone call by somebody that never met the president, never talked to the president.”
Testimony from Gordon Sondland, a major Trump campaign donor whom the president named U.S. ambassador to the European Union, might be more enlightening, the congressman said.
“Let’s talk about people that have real knowledge of why the aid was withheld, and we’ll get some of that tomorrow,” Meadows said on Tuesday. “Ambassador Sondland will certainly be able to speak to that more directly than any witness today.”
Sondland has already amended his testimony once to note that he now remembers having a conversation with a Ukrainian official in which he made it clear that a White House meeting with Zelensky and the security aid were contingent on Ukraine opening an inquiry into Burisma, the Ukrainian gas company on whose board Hunter Biden sat.
Acting U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor testified last week that one of his aides overheard a conversation between Trump and Sondland in which the president asked about “the investigations.” If that is true, Sondland’s already shaky testimony will look even more unreliable.
Sondland initially testified behind closed doors that he did not believe there was a quid pro quo, and Republicans are counting on him to reiterate that belief on Wednesday, even though his amended testimony now makes it clear he did believe there was a quid pro quo.
Still, even if Sondland ends up supporting the conclusions that Democrats are drawing, Republicans are unlikely to be convinced.
“What I would say is, there are conversations and things that have been held that may not always follow best practices,” Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.) told HuffPost on Tuesday. “But to jump to the point where it’s treasonous or high crimes, I think that leap is so far that, in the end, most Americans will say, ‘Democrats, you’ve lost your credibility here.’”
“I want to find the facts, that’s what I want. And this process is not planned to do that when you have partisan politicians doing this investigation.”
There are, of course, some Republicans who have sounded less resolute about supporting Trump. The shakiest of them all is Rep. Francis Rooney (R-Fla.), who told reporters Tuesday that the officials who are testifying deserve respect.
Rooney said lawmakers were caught off guard last week when the president tweeted during testimony by former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch that everywhere she went “turned bad” ― a possible example of witness intimidation by the president.
“That was a pretty strong tweet from the president of the United States,” Rooney said.
And Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), whose district is only mildly Republican, said he wished the FBI was doing the investigation instead of congressional Democrats. He declined to defend Trump but denigrated the impeachment inquiry.
“I want to find the facts, that’s what I want,” Fitzpatrick said. “And this process is not planned to do that when you have partisan politicians doing this investigation.”
But, notably, Rooney and Fitzpatrick both voted against even opening the impeachment inquiry ― along with every other Republican in the House.
Former Republican ― now independent ― Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan said his old GOP colleagues were “caught up in a lot of word games.”
“The Republicans will use whatever excuse they need to against whichever particular set of witnesses,” Amash said.