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Politics

Reality versus fantasy divides Republicans in the impeachment hearings

Essential Politics

As the first week of public hearings over impeaching President Trump ends, Republicans remain united in the president’s defense, but divided on an important issue — whether to engage with reality.

Several Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee, which is conducting the hearings, have taken on the role that’s been played in past impeachments by members of the president’s party — lawyer for the defense. They’ve poked at weak spots in the Democratic case against Trump, challenged the strength of witnesses’ testimony and offered alternative, exculpatory theories of the case.

Others have pursued fantastical theories that have taken hold in some parts of the conservative media world but which have no grounding in facts. Friday’s hearing featuring Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, highlighted the damage that those falsehoods can cause when they’re loosed into the real world.

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THE REALITY DIVIDE

In Wednesday’s initial impeachment hearing, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) sharply questioned the two witnesses, William B. Taylor Jr., the current top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, and George Kent, the State Department’s senior Ukraine expert, pressing the point that neither of them had direct contact with Trump and that their statements relied on second- or in some cases third-hand information about what the president was doing.

As Evan Halper and Jennifer Haberkorn wrote, Jordan also tested out a new Republican defense argument -- that Trump might have reasonably held up aid to Ukraine earlier this year in an effort to determine whether the country’s newly elected president, Volodymyr Zelensky, was truly committed to fighting corruption.

Democrats have rebuttal arguments against both of Jordan’s points, and neither of them is a slam-dunk case against impeachment. The argument that Taylor and Kent are secondhand witnesses, for example, highlights the White House’s continued effort to prevent firsthand witnesses from testifying.

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But while Jordan’s arguments may not be airtight, they were clearly based on the factual record. The lack of direct testimony about Trump’s motivation does remain a significant hole in the Democratic case. That’s one big reason that testimony from former national security advisor John Bolton remains a tantalizing possibility.

By contrast, in both Wednesday and Friday’s hearings, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare) devoted significant parts of his opening statements and question times to obscure sidelights. One illustrative example involves Alexandra Chalupa, a Ukrainian American Democratic political consultant who, despite being little known, has figured prominently in conspiracy theories propagated on conservative media.

Chalupa worked against Trump in 2016 -- not surprising given her role as the co-chair of a Democratic National Committee panel. Among other activities, she got information from Ukrainian contacts to publicize potential corrupt activities in Ukraine by Paul Manafort, who served as Trump’s campaign chairman.

Earlier this year, Manafort was sentenced to seven years in federal prison for conspiracy and financial crimes related to that work in Ukraine. That would certainly suggest Chalupa was on the right track. And there’s been no evidence to suggest that her campaign activities in the 2016 election involved any wrongdoing or were part of any overarching Ukrainian government policy to undermine Trump’s candidacy.

But that’s exactly the case that some conservative operatives and elements of conservative media have strenuously tried to build over the last three years. They’ve tried to create a narrative in which allegations that Ukraine supported Hillary Clinton could counterbalance the finding by U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia supported Trump.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has pushed that line too. His statements in support of it are a “classic” example of “an intelligence officer trying to throw off the scent and create an alternative narrative,” Yovanovitch said at Friday’s hearing.

Trump’s lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, has also actively fed that theory, playing to the president’s penchant for seeing himself as a victim of conspiracies. Ultimately in the Ukraine case, Trump appears to have become so caught up in the web of conspiracy which Giuliani and others spun that he acted out a conspiracy of his own which now endangers his presidency.

Republicans added Jordan to the Intelligence Committee last week. As Sarah Wire wrote at the time, they insisted that the addition didn’t reflect any lack of confidence in Nunes, but rank-and-file Republican members of Congress had been commenting for weeks about Nunes skipping committee hearings and asking relatively few questions.

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As the impeachment hearings continue next week, a key question for the GOP will be whether they stick to the partisan, but still fact-based, approach that Jordan has taken so far or follow Nunes down the rabbit holes of conspiracy theory.

AMBASSADOR AS VICTIM

Democrats weren’t subtle about the role they saw for Yovanovitch in the impeachment proceedings: In advance of Friday’s hearing, they made clear that she was cast as the victim of the plot.

The evidence in the case shows that Giuliani and his associates, two of whom are now under federal indictment, spread false tales about Yovanovitch, including that she had expressed disdain for Trump, and ultimately succeeded in having her recalled from office.

The ambassador carried out the victim’s role with aplomb, conveying a more-in-sorrow-than-anger tone as she warned of the danger to U.S. interests that could come from the spectacle of a U.S. ambassador forced out of office by a “campaign of disinformation,” as she put it.

“Shady interests the world over have learned how little it takes to remove an American ambassador who does not give them what they want,” she said. “What continues to amaze me is that they found Americans willing to partner with them.”

Amazingly — but not surprisingly — Trump played directly into the Democratic plan, attacking Yovanovitch in a tweet even as she testified.

“Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad,” he wrote.

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The verbal assault was “very intimidating,” she said under questioning from Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank).

“Some of us here take witness intimidation very, very seriously,” Schiff responded.

The Republican rapid-response team sought to downplay the incident.

“Newsflash for Democrats: Hurt feelings aren’t grounds for impeachment,” the Republican spokesperson said in a statement sent to reporters.

That may be true, although Schiff clearly sees an opening for a witness intimidation accusation, which could be part of an impeachment resolution. But focusing solely on what’s impeachable ignores the wider political context in which the hearings are taking place.

Suburban women are a key voting bloc in the election, one that has turned sharply against Trump. Yovanovitch, an accomplished professional woman sandbagged by a literal old-boys’ network, could hardly have been a better reminder for many voters of what they dislike about the president and his associates.

Ever since the advent of television, congressional hearings have been to a large extent theatrical performances. Few new facts have emerged because the witnesses’ previous deposition testimony was already public. The one major new development has been the disclosure that U.S. Embassy staff members in Kyiv overheard a cellphone call from a U.S. ambassador to Trump at a Kyiv restaurant, as Noah Bierman wrote.

Republicans took advantage of hearings-as-theater when they had the majority, and they’ve complained about Democrats’ use of it now that they’re out of power. But Trump’s willingness to play the role of the heavy doesn’t do much to help the Republican case.

THE DEMOCRATIC FIELD GROWS

Deval Patrick, the former governor of Massachusetts, entered the Democratic presidential race on Thursday. As Halper and Bierman wrote, he comes in with some significant strengths, but also some huge weaknesses.

Patrick is a longtime friend of former President Obama, a gifted orator and an accomplished politician who became the first African American governor of his state.

He has also spent much of the last four years working for Bain Capital, the financial firm that Democrats excoriated in 2012 during the campaign of Bain’s founder, Mitt Romney. He’s entering the race at nearly the last minute — the deadline to file for the New Hampshire primary was Friday — in a race that others have pursued for nearly a year. Several of his previous advisors and strategists now work for other candidates, and he’ll need to build a staff on the run.

There’s also the problem that voters don’t seem to be searching for additional candidates. Polls show a large majority of Democratic voters are satisfied with their choices. That’s a problem for both Patrick and former New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who is continuing to flirt with getting into the race.

Some prominent Democratic donors and strategists — a notoriously nervous group — have been casting about for alternative candidates, worried that former Vice President Joe Biden is faltering, that Pete Buttigieg is too young and inexperienced and that Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are too liberal. But whether that desire for alternatives extends to many voters remains very much unknown.

CANDIDATES IN CALIFORNIA

California Democrats are meeting in Long Beach this weekend, which has drawn many of the presidential candidates to the state.

Biden held his first 2020 rally in the state Thursday, and as Seema Mehta wrote, he expressed rage over school shootings. Meanwhile, as Mehta also wrote, party activists have a range of activities planned as the candidates woo Californians.

TRUMP’S TAXES HEAD TO THE HIGH COURT

Two federal appeals courts have ruled that Trump’s accountants must turn over copies of his tax returns to investigators — one case involves a subpoena from a House committee, the other a subpoena from Cyrus R. Vance Jr., the district attorney in New York. One case has already landed at the Supreme Court, as David Savage wrote. The other likely will land in the justices’ laps shortly. The court hasn’t decided yet whether it will consider the case, but a high court clash over presidential immunity seems likely.

ASYLUM OFFICERS REBEL

Trump policies restricting asylum have troubled many asylum officers and some of them have begun to rebel, as Molly O’Toole wrote. Her account provides a powerful story of how the Trump policies have roiled the career civil servants who handle asylum cases.

LOGISTICS

That wraps up this week. Until next time, keep track of all the developments in national politics and the Trump administration on our Politics page and on Twitter @latimespolitics.

Send your comments, suggestions and news tips to politics@latimes.com.

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david.lauter@latimes.com


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