WASHINGTON ― Republican lawmakers shrugged off a pair of bombshell stories that broke in the past 24 hours and bolstered Democrats’ argument that President Donald Trump abused his power and should be removed from office.
On Wednesday evening, an associate of Trump’s private lawyer said on national television that Trump knew all about their schemes to push the president of Ukraine into announcing a sham investigation of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son Hunter.
And on Thursday morning, the Government Accountability Office announced that the White House broke the law when it withheld security assistance for Ukraine in that effort to pressure Ukraine into doing Trump’s bidding.
Rep. Steve Scalise (La.), the number two Republican in the House, dismissed the news.
“Ultimately, Ukraine got the money,” he told HuffPost, adding that the U.S. assistance package included lethal weapons to fight off a Russian siege.
“This administration’s done more to help Ukraine stand up to Russia than President Obama did in his whole eight years,” Scalise claimed.
It’s the same thing Republicans have been saying for months, even though the White House only released the Ukraine aid after learning that someone from within the administration had filed a formal whistleblower complaint about the illegal holdup.
The GAO is a nonpartisan investigative agency that works for Congress. It examined whether it was legal for Trump to withhold the aid, which the president and his defenders said (after the fact) had been done to make sure Ukrainians cleaned up corruption in their government.
“Faithful execution of the law does not permit the President to substitute his own policy priorities for those that Congress has enacted into law,” the GAO said. (The watchdog’s decisions are authoritative but they can’t force executive branch agencies to take action.)
Rep. Doug Collins (Ga.), the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, said Thursday morning that although he hadn’t read the GAO report, he was skeptical of the conclusion. “How can money that does not need to be appropriated until Sept. 30 — and it was appropriated before Sept. 30 — how are they saying that’s illegal?” Collins said.
Senate Republicans were similarly dismissive of the developments.
“This happened about seven other times,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said Thursday, referring to other instances of the Office of Management and Budget withholding appropriated funds. “It’s a civil matter, not a criminal matter. Obviously it’s not directed at the president ― it’s the Office of Management and Budget, with whom I’ve had a few disagreements.”
Lev Parnas is an associate of Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, who served as a go-between for Giuliani and various officials in the Ukrainian government. In the interview with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow that aired Wednesday evening, Parnas said Trump was fully aware of the efforts to pressure Ukraine into announcing an investigation into Biden.
“President Trump knew exactly what was going on,” Parnas said. “He was aware of all of my movements. I wouldn’t do anything without the consent of Rudy Giuliani or the president. I have no intent, I have reason to speak to any of these officials. They have no reason to speak to me.”
Trump has said he didn’t know Parnas.
“He lied,” said Parnas, who has also handed over to the House documents reflecting the Ukraine work he said he did for the president. “He knew exactly who I was.”
As for the idea that Trump cared about corruption in Ukraine: “It was all about Joe Biden, Hunter Biden,” Parnas said. “It was never about corruption.”
In the course of its impeachment inquiry, the House interviewed several diplomats who testified that the president had perverted U.S. foreign policy for his own personal benefit. Republicans seized on the fact that few of those State Department officials had spoken to the president directly. Parnas’ statements have corroborated the diplomats’ accounts.
But several Republicans brushed aside Parnas’ words on Thursday. Cornyn said Parnas “seems like a seedy, shady character to me.”
“Is that the indicted guy?” said Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.), the number four Senate Republican, referring to the fact that Parnas has been indicted for violating campaign finance law in a scheme to funnel foreign money into U.S. elections.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) also expressed skepticism about Parnas’ allegations, telling reporters that he takes “anything I hear from anybody who’s involved with this with a huge grain of salt.”
“What I don’t think we should be doing is going different avenues to do this. We have two articles of impeachment. I don’t think it’s the Senate’s job to open up different avenues of inquiry,” Johnson added.
Other GOP senators refused to answer questions about the trial at all. The Senate has even instituted new rules restricting reporter access to senators. When a CNN reporter asked Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) whether the Senate should hear new evidence, she called him “a liberal hack” and kept walking.
Democrats, for their part, argued that Parnas’ allegations ought to be investigated regardless of his background and considered as part of the Senate trial.
“Everything he has said is consistent with what we have heard in the past. It just seems like an open-and-shut case to me that the president directed this scheme and Parnas’ testimony fits neatly with what we’ve already heard,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said.
The Senate trial is due to begin Tuesday, and Democrats say the Senate ought to call witnesses like Parnas who could shed additional light on the Ukraine scheme. Republicans have resisted on the grounds that the new material wasn’t included in the impeachment articles that the House approved back in December.
Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), a member of the House Judiciary Committee, which drafted the impeachment articles, said it would be ridiculous to ignore things like the GAO report or the documents that Parnas has now provided.
“It’s totally within the power of the Senate, and I would argue within the duty of the Senate, to take all the relevant evidence,” Raskin said. “It’s only if they don’t care about the evidence that they would exclude it.”