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Republican moderate breaks with party over identifying whistleblower

Republican Rep. Will Hurd of Texas.
Republican Rep. Will Hurd of Texas.
(Bill Clark / CQ-Roll Call)

As the impeachment inquiry against President Trump moves into a public phase this week, leading Democrats — joined by at least one GOP lawmaker — on Sunday rejected Republican demands for public testimony by the whistleblower whose complaint set the process in motion.

Rep. Will Hurd of Texas, who has broken with the White House on other issues, said Sunday the whistleblower should not have been included on a list of witnesses the Republicans wanted to testify in open hearings set to begin Wednesday.

The person’s confidential complaint, formally filed in August, voiced alarm about Trump pressuring Ukraine to dig up dirt on Democrats, including former Vice President Joe Biden, a leading 2020 Democratic presidential contender, and his son Hunter. There has been no evidence of wrongdoing by the Bidens in Ukraine.

Democrats in late September convened an impeachment inquiry centering on whether Trump abused his power by withholding $400 million in crucial aid to Ukraine, a vulnerable ally, in order to advance his own political agenda. The president also pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate baseless claims that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

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The scattered and sometimes contradictory White House response to the allegations made by a parade of impeachment witnesses who have testified behind closed doors over the past several weeks were reflected in appearances by several senior Republican lawmakers on Sunday’s news-talk shows.

They variously declared that Trump’s conduct might have been questionable but was not impeachable, or that testimony by former and current administration officials represented a misreading of Trump’s intent in his dealings with Ukraine’s president. Or they simply asserted that the president did nothing wrong.

In advance of the public hearings, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), who is spearheading the impeachment inquiry, has not yet finalized the witness list. But in a letter sent Saturday to Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare), the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, Schiff said there would be no facilitating of efforts to “threaten, intimidate and retaliate against the whistleblower who courageously raised the initial alarm.”

Hurd, a former CIA officer who also sits on the Intelligence Committee, defended the unidentified individual’s right to privacy, citing laws shielding those who seek to expose fraud, abuse and wrongdoing in government. “We should be protecting the identity of the whistleblower,” he told “Fox News Sunday.”

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Hurd, who is not running for reelection, is unusual in risking Trump’s ire by publicly supporting protections for the whistleblower. But the overall White House impeachment-defense strategy, which has included a furious personal focus by Trump on the individual behind the complaint, has prompted some unease in Republican ranks.

At campaign-style rallies, including one in Louisiana last week, Trump has again and again called for publication of the whistleblower’s identity, drawing sharp objections from the individual’s legal team. Right-wing media outlets have circulated the person’s purported name, and Trump’s son Donald Jr. last week tweeted out a Breitbart article that included it.

Although Trump consistently tells rally crowds that the whistleblower’s account has been shown to be false, closed-door testimony by current and former administration officials has in fact corroborated core elements of the complaint, which centered on Trump’s efforts to pressure Zelensky to investigate the 2016 election as well as Biden’s son Hunter, who formerly sat on the board of directors of a Ukrainian energy company.

Democrats say the whistleblower’s complaint is no longer relevant because Trump has acknowledged that he made the request, even as he was withholding the aid, though he has said the two things were not related. A rough White House transcript of the telephone call between the leaders described Trump as asking Zelensky for a “favor” — to open the investigations. U.S. diplomats have since described the demand as a quid pro quo in which a foreign government was pressured to get involved in the 2020 election for the personal benefit of Trump.

While continuing to attack the inquiry process as tainted, Republicans signaled with Saturday’s proposed witness list that they intended to try to turn the spotlight away from accusations that the president abused his power for political ends and instead would seek to discredit U.S. intelligence findings, reaffirmed by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, that Russia interfered with the 2016 election with the aim of aiding Trump.

Other Republicans steered clear of the substance of allegations or questioned their significance. On ABC’s “This Week,” Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), said that although Trump’s behavior might have been inappropriate, “I do not believe it was impeachable.”

Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, one of Trump’s staunchest allies, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that there was ample precedent for successive presidents using aid as an incentive or deterrent for certain behavior by foreign governments.

“I think we’ve gotten lost in this whole idea of quid pro quo,” Paul said, using the Latin phrase meaning “something for something,” which describes a service or favor being expected in return for one provided. “Presidents have withheld aid before because of corruption.” Trump has said he withheld the $400 million in aid to Ukraine because he was concerned the government was not doing enough to fight corruption.

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Democrats contend that for the president and his allies, expressing worry about corruption was code for pressuring authorities in Kyiv to procure information that could be damaging to the Bidens and Democrats. That, witness testimony by diplomats and national-security officials has suggested, was part of a shadow foreign policy carried out by Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani, with the aid of figures such as EU ambassador Gordon Sondland, who relayed the president’s demands to Ukraine.

Another GOP senator, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” that officials’ closed-door testimony offered so far did not establish that Trump’s motive in pressuring Zelensky was personal political gain.

“That’s their impression,” Johnson said of the officials who painted a picture of Trump improperly pressing Zelensky to go after the Bidens. “I never heard the president say, ‘I want to dig up dirt on a 2020 opponent.’ ”

The requested-witness list also reflected Republicans’ desire to spotlight Hunter Biden, who was paid $50,000 a month for his work for Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company, while his father was vice president. Ukrainian officials say Hunter Biden is not suspected of any wrongdoing.

While breaking ranks with fellow Republicans over the call for the whistleblower’s testimony, Hurd said in his “Fox News Sunday” interview that he agreed the younger Biden should be called to appear.

One Democratic member of the House Intelligence Committee, also interviewed on Fox, suggested that the main consideration in summoning witnesses should be whether they had “knowledge or evidence about the president’s conduct” in regard to Ukraine. Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney of New York said he couldn’t speak for Schiff but that figures like Hunter Biden and the whistleblower would not fall into that category.

Nor, Maloney said, would Nellie Ohr, a contractor with Fusion GPS, a research firm that hired former British intelligence official Christopher Steele to investigate allegations about ties between Russia and Trump’s 2016 campaign. She is also on the Republicans’ list of requested witnesses in the impeachment inquiry.


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