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Opinion

Opinion: Faced with the most damning impeachment testimony yet, Republicans go into full clown mode

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William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat to Ukraine, arrived at the Capitol to testify Tuesday behind closed doors in the House impeachment inquiry.
(Los Angeles Times)

How bad was diplomat William Taylor’s testimony for President Trump?

Bad enough to prompt dozens of House Republicans on Wednesday to interrupt the impeachment inquiry, arguing that the process should be conducted in public, not in secret. Three House committees have been taking depositions privately in day-long sessions held in a secure room in the Capitol; Taylor, who appeared Tuesday, outlined how Trump demanded a quid pro quo (through his personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani and his appointee Gordon Sondland) from new Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in exchange for getting the military aid and the White House meetings Zelensky desperately sought.

The price Trump demanded, according to Taylor? That Zelensky publicly announce that Ukraine would launch two investigations — one into alleged meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, and one into a Ukrainian energy company that employed the son of former Vice President Joe Biden — that could help Trump’s political fortunes.

It’s so much easier for Trump’s supporters on Capitol Hill to bleat about the process of the inquiry than it is to deny Taylor’s account or defend the quid pro quo.

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Bear in mind that Republicans sit on the three committees and have participated in all the depositions. The lawmakers who descended on the secure room where the committees have been meeting were not members of those panels; instead, they argued that they were trying to expose what they deemed a “sham.”

Oh and yes, the stunt was coordinated with House GOP leaders and, reportedly, endorsed by Trump himself, although Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), the self-proclaimed leader of the group, denied any White House involvement.

The problem with the storm-and-tweet tactic is so obvious, I feel silly even pointing it out. The secret sessions are the preliminaries, designed to figure out whether the allegations made by the as-yet unnamed whistleblower had a basis in reality. Once the committees have established the evidentiary baseline, they will switch to public sessions involving many of the same witnesses. The purpose of the secret sessions is at least twofold: to try to prevent witnesses in the first phase from coordinating their testimony, and to have a record of sworn testimony that can be used to prevent witnesses from changing their stories when the hearings go public.

In other words, the secret sessions will soon give way to public ones. And what will the Republican protesters say then? Perhaps they’ll focus on the fact that the full House hasn’t voted on whether to conduct an impeachment inquiry, but the more we hear from witnesses like Taylor, the more difficult such a vote becomes for Republicans, and the easier for swing-district Democrats.

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Wednesday’s stunt may slow down the march toward a resolution, but it won’t stop the inquiry. Eventually, every member of Congress is going to have to decide what to do about the facts laid out by Taylor and the others who’ve been deposed, including Sondland. And while the choices are too consequential to be easy for any member, they are particularly challenging for Republicans.

Option 1 is to say it’s all hearsay, and that Trump was either misunderstood or misrepresented by Giuliani and others who conveyed his feelings about the matter. After all, Trump has insisted there was no quid pro quo, and he never lies, right? And yet a reconstructed White House memo of his July 25 call with Zelensky shows him noting how dependent Ukraine is on U.S. help, then asking for “a favor”: that Zelensky conduct an investigation into a wild-hair conspiracy theory that Ukrainians, not Russians, hacked into Democratic National Committee computers in 2016. Trump then asked Zelensky for an investigation into the Bidens’ actions in Ukraine.

Option 2 is to say there was a quid pro quo, but it doesn’t matter. Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick “Get Over It” Mulvaney floated this line of thought Thursday, only to backtrack later and insist that the president held up Ukraine’s military aid because of perfectly legitimate concerns about corruption in Ukraine and a lack of support from other allies. The problem there is that the president has no authority to hold up congressionally appropriated funds for such reasons, but at least that’s less obviously problematic than what Taylor described.

Option 3 is to say that there was a quid pro quo for the military aid, but it doesn’t rise to the level of an impeachable offense. That’s akin to saying a president can use the frightening power of his office to pressure other countries to help him win re-election, which seems like the sort of thing the public might find distasteful. But OK, run with that. Perhaps there’s some other form of sanction you could propose instead of impeachment, such as a formal censure.

Option 4 is to say that there was a quid pro and it is an impeachable offense, leaving it to the Senate to decide whether it’s bad enough to justify removing Trump. It’s hard to see any of the Republicans who packed the hearing room today ending up in this column, at least not unless their constituents get there first.


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