WASHINGTON ― The White House reacted to the first day of public impeachment hearings with unfocused statements, personal attacks and occasional exclamation-pointed Twitter statements by President Donald Trump himself ― in other words, as if it were any normal Wednesday.
The White House press staff announced midmorning that Trump was “not watching, but working,” only to see the president’s Twitter account repeatedly post about the testimony. Press secretary Stephanie Grisham declared the hearing to be “boring,” not long before Trump in a photo opportunity said the hearing that he supposedly was not watching featured “television lawyers.”
Trump’s Republican allies on Capitol Hill, meanwhile, brought up various elements of a conspiracy theory about Ukraine in their questions to the two witnesses testifying before the House Intelligence Committee.
“Democrats are talking facts, what Trump did, what Trump said,” former Illinois Rep. Joe Walsh, who is running against Trump for the 2020 Republican presidential nomination, told HuffPost. “Republicans are responding with ‘Deep state! Hillary! The dossier! Witch hunt!’”
After the testimony in the House wrapped up for the day, Trump claimed not to even remember the one key new piece of information revealed Wednesday in his alleged extortion scheme: a July 26 phone call with his political donor-turned-ambassador Gordon Sondland.
Career diplomat William Taylor, currently the interim ambassador to Ukraine, testified in the House that one of his staff members there overheard that call in which Trump specifically asked Sondland “about the investigation” and that Sondland then told Taylor’s staffer that “President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden” than about Ukraine.
At a news conference later Wednesday afternoon, Trump said he had no memory of that conversation. “I know nothing about that. First time I’ve heard it,” he said. “I don’t recall. No, not at all. Not even a little bit.”
It was unclear what role, if any, two White House staffers recently hired specifically to handle impeachment investigation response played on Wednesday. Former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi and former Treasury spokesman Tony Sayegh were announced with some fanfare last week as those who would provide “proactive impeachment messaging,” but neither appeared to make an appreciable difference in the Trump White House’s functioning on Wednesday.
One senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Trump’s West Wing is, in fact, setting up a rapid-response team, sharing talking points with outside surrogates, arranging media interviews and working to place friendly op-eds. “We’re doing what White House communications teams do,” the official said, but acknowledged that Trump was not necessarily bound by their plan and would continue to put out his own message whenever he wanted to.
Taylor and State Department official George Kent were the first of multiple witnesses expected to publicly lay out the details behind Trump’s attempt to use congressionally approved military aid as leverage to coerce Ukraine into investigating both the Democrat he has feared most in 2020, former Vice President Joe Biden, and a conspiracy theory that tries to clear Russia of helping Trump win the 2016 election.
That theory claims that Ukraine actually helped Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s campaign while planting false evidence to make it appear that Russia had helped Trump. It also claims that billionaire George Soros, a favorite bogeyman of the conservative fringe, was behind the whole scheme.
Tom Bossert, Trump’s former homeland security adviser, recently called the conspiracy theory “completely debunked.”
The president and his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani nevertheless appear to believe it. Trump referred to it in his July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in which he also mentioned Biden by name.
It was Trump’s release of a rough transcript of that call ― he continues to describe the call as “perfect” ― that helped swing dozens of Democratic members of Congress as well as millions of Americans generally from opposing impeachment to supporting it.
Since that time, Trump and his GOP allies have criticized the anonymous whistleblower who brought the contents of that call to light. They’ve also gone after Hunter Biden, the former vice president’s son, who served on the board of a Ukrainian natural gas company during the time his father was spearheading U.S. anti-corruption efforts in Ukraine.
Apart from attacking Hunter Biden and the whistleblower, Republicans on Wednesday made two principal arguments in Trump’s defense. The president ultimately released the aid without Ukraine having announced any of the demanded investigations, they claimed, and Ukraine did not even know about the hold on the $391 million until well after the July 25 phone call. Because of this, they said, Trump could not have coerced Ukraine.
But the chronology of events shows that the military aid was only released on Sept. 11 ― two days after White House officials learned that a whistleblower from the intelligence community had filed a formal complaint about the effort, which would soon make its way to Congress. Further, Ukrainian officials learned of Trump’s block on the aid by early August, and by the middle of that month Zelensky was reluctantly leaning toward announcing the investigations as demanded in a televised interview.
Other Trump allies, meanwhile, pushed a separate argument: that Trump was completely within his rights to set U.S. policy regarding Ukraine as he wished.
“This is a foreign policy debate between the permanent political class of both parties and ‘America First,’” said Stephen Bannon, a former senior White House aide to Trump who is now producing a daily podcast to defend the president.
Critics pointed out that this argument essentially means that presidents are permitted to fashion foreign policy largely to help their own reelections and to harm their political opponents.
Democrats said that approach is illegal and clearly impeachable. “One cannot, even as president, use the public trust of high office for personal gain,” Rep. Peter Welch of Vermont said during the hearing. “The law prohibits any one of us here on the dais from seeking foreign assistance in our campaigns.”
“It seems to me that the president of the United States either committed extortion and bribery of a foreign official or attempted extortion and bribery of a foreign official,” said Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas.
With the facts of the episode all arrayed against them, Trump’s defenders seem to be relying on the concept of “jury nullification,” Danya Perry, a former federal prosecutor in New York City, said to HuffPost. That’s when juries who believe the defendant is guilty vote to acquit anyway because they don’t think the punishment is warranted.
“House Republicans seem to believe that their best hope lies in persuading the voting public and their representatives in the Senate to nullify in spite of the facts presented at the hearings,” Perry said.