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Opinion

Opinion: Devin Nunes is trying to make impeachment about 2016 instead of Trump

Republican Rep. Devin Nunes of Tulare submitted the GOP’s proposed witness list for the first set of public hearings to be held in the House impeachment inquiry.
Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare), the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, submitted the GOP’s proposed witness list for the first set of public hearings to be held in the House impeachment inquiry.
(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare) didn’t show a lot of interest in the closed-door impeachment hearings that the House Intelligence Committee (on which he serves as the top Republican) has been holding in recent weeks. In fact, the transcripts indicate that he skipped several of them.

Maybe that’s because the focus was, understandably, on what President Trump did this year, rather than what was going on in Ukraine in 2016. Because at least half of the witnesses Nunes wants to call in the inquiry’s first set of open hearings know nothing about what Trump and his aides sought from Ukraine’s new government in 2019. Instead, the GOP wants to ask them about what Ukrainians were doing in 2016.

Whether they get the chance will be up to House Democrats, who make up the majority of the members on the committees conducting the inquiry.

The challenge for Nunes and company is to overcome the overwhelming amount of evidence, some of it from Trump’s own mouth, that the president and his aides pressed the new administration of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to perform two through-the-looking-glass investigations that would serve Trump’s political interests, not the United States’ national interests.

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One investigation was intended to paint former Vice President Joe Biden, who led the Obama administration’s efforts to push Ukraine to crack down on corruption, as corruptly halting a Ukrainian probe of Burisma, the Ukrainian energy company that put Biden’s son Hunter on its board of directors in 2014. The other was intended to show that Ukrainians, not Russians, meddled in the 2016 election, and that their goal was to help Hillary Clinton, not Trump — a narrative that elides the results of multiple probes showing Russian interference.

On Saturday, Nunes submitted a list of at least 14 witnesses Republicans want to call at the public hearings, as per the resolution the House adopted setting rules for the ongoing inquiry. They appear designed to advance four narratives Republicans have been pushing throughout the inquiry:

  • That Trump had reason to be concerned about Ukrainian meddling in the 2016 election. That’s why Republicans want to question Alexandra Chalupa, a Ukrainian American consultant hired by the Democratic National Committee to do outreach in the 2016 campaign, but whom Politico reported in 2017 was working with journalists on stories about connections between Trump, his then-campaign manager Paul Manafort and Russia. They also want to hear from Nellie Ohr of Fusion GPS, the opposition-research company behind the infamous Steele dossier, about how Ukrainians might have provided information for that document.
  • That Hunter Biden’s role in Ukraine needs to be scrutinized. Nunes’ list includes both the younger Biden and his business partner and fellow Burisma board member Devon Archer, whose “firsthand experiences with Burisma can help the American people understand the nature and extent of Ukraine’s pervasive corruption, information that bears directly on President Trump’s longstanding and deeply held skepticism of the country,” Nunes wrote.
  • That the whistleblower who reported concerns about Trump’s attempt to pressure Ukraine for political purposes is biased against Trump, is sympathetic to the elder Biden and has fed the public a “false narrative.” Nunes wants the public to hear not just from the anonymous whistleblower (Donald Trump Jr. and other Republicans have been publicizing the name of a man they believe to be the whistleblower, so “anonymous” may be an exaggeration), but also from “all the individuals” the whistleblower relied upon in drafting the complaint.
  • That Trump’s actions were, in fact, reasonable and did not meaningfully affect Ukraine. Nunes’ list includes three Trump administration foreign policy or national security officials who’ve already been deposed in private during the impeachment inquiry, at least one of whom testified that there was nothing wrong with calling on the Ukrainian government to investigate possible meddling in the 2016 election — if for no other reason than to gain Trump’s confidence.

The problem with these arguments is that they ignore the central allegations of the inquiry, which are that Trump sought to obtain a foreign government’s help in burnishing his political standing at home, and that his administration then tried to cover up that behavior. No amount of concern Trump may have had about Ukraine’s behavior in the past gave the White House the authority to hold up almost $400 million in congressionally approved aid to Ukraine after federal agencies had certified that Ukraine met the requirements to receive it. And that’s exactly what happened here.

Impeachment is as much a political question as a legal one, so the point of the public hearings is not simply to help the public understand what Trump did, but also to establish the context for and the gravity of his actions. Judging by Nunes’ list, Republicans are focused more on the latter than the former.

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Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank) should call all the witnesses from the administration whom Republicans want to testify. They all were involved to some degree in Trump’s July 25 call or the president’s policy toward Ukraine, so their perspective is relevant. At the same time, the whistleblower’s input is irrelevant. As Nunes notes in his letter, the whistleblower’s information was secondhand; the committee should stick to people with firsthand knowledge.

As for Biden, Archer, Ohr and Chalupa, they’re stars of a sideshow that will play regardless of whether Schiff calls them to testify in public or not. And he’s already indicated that he probably won’t:

The worst thing about the GOP’s fascination with Ukrainian corruption and election interference circa 2016 is that, as former Trump national security aide Fiona Hill said in a private deposition, any meddling by Ukraine is dwarfed by what Russia was doing and is still attempting to do.

Responding to a question from Republican staffer Steve Castor about the Politico report, Hill said, “If you’re also trying to peddle an alternative variation of whether the Ukrainians subverted our election, I don’t want to be a part of that, and I will not be part of it .... I just want to, if I’ve done anything, leave a message to you that we should all be greatly concerned about what the Russians intend to do in 2020. And any information that they can provide, you know, that basically deflects our attention away from what they did and what they’re planning on doing is very useful to them.”


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