Republican defenses hold as Trump impeachment hits the halfway point
Nine weeks since the Ukraine scandal broke into public view, we’ve reached halftime in the impeachment struggle over President Trump.
After five days of public hearings and a dozen witnesses, Democrats wrapped up their case Thursday with an impassioned summary by Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank) and a stern warning from Fiona Hill, Trump’s former top National Security Council Russia expert, that in their defense of the president, some Republicans were parroting a “fictional narrative” pushed by “Russian security services.”
But neither testimony nor argument has broken Republican support for Trump, which is backed by the firm views of most of the party’s voters. As Congress prepares to leave town for its Thanksgiving break, here’s where the case stands:
THE CASE FOR THE DEFENSE
To Schiff and many of his Democratic colleagues, the case against Trump is simple and built on the president’s own words in his July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky: “I would like you to do us a favor though.”
Inside the White House, those words triggered such alarm that one senior official, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, reported it to a National Security Council lawyer. A CIA analyst who had worked at the White House learned of the call and began preparing a complaint under the federal whistleblower statute.
The favor Trump asked for was an announcement by the Ukrainians that they would investigate his Democratic rivals, especially Joe Biden and his son, Hunter.
To many Democrats, that was an abuse of power that all by itself merits impeachment. A president simply cannot use the power of his office to ask a foreign government to intervene in domestic U.S. politics, they say.
But Republicans have rejected that. They’ve adopted two defense arguments that contradict each other to some extent, but appeal to different factions of the party.
One argument, pushed by the Intelligence Committee’s senior Republican, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare) and the panel’s most energetic questioner, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), aligns with Trump’s insistence that the call was “perfect.”
Trump believed that some Ukrainians were corrupt and out to get him, as Jordan put it. He had every right to ask Zelensky to look into corruption in his own country. And if Hunter Biden was mixed up in that corruption, he shouldn’t be immune from investigation simply because his father is running for president.
The second argument, voiced by Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas) and by some Republican senators, is that Trump’s request was “inappropriate,” but not impeachable.
Because he doesn’t want to concede he did anything wrong, Trump has attacked some Republicans for saying that. Nonetheless, that argument is giving him a crucial lifeline.
Hurd and others say that precisely what Trump wanted from the Ukrainians is unclear. But, in the end, the Ukrainians never did open an investigation of Biden, so there’s just not enough there to justify removing a president from office.
“An impeachable offense should be compelling, overwhelmingly clear and unambiguous. And it’s not something to be rushed or taken lightly,” Hurd said Thursday. “I have not heard evidence proving the president committed bribery or extortion.”
Polls show the vast majority of Republican voters, and some independents, divide between those two views, with a minority of Republicans — but a sizable minority — saying that what Trump did was wrong, but not impeachable.
The testimony over the past two weeks was mostly an effort by Democrats to rebut those two arguments.
SUMMARIZING THE WITNESSES
The major witnesses in the case have significantly bolstered the Democratic case, but they’ve fallen short in one crucial area: None of them have been able to shed much direct light on Trump’s intent.
As Evan Halper, Jennifer Haberkorn and Noah Bierman wrote, the initial two witnesses, Ambassador William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, and George Kent, the State Department’s senior Ukraine expert, laid out in detail how Trump gave his personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, a decisive voice in Ukraine policy. Giuliani used that influence to orchestrate a pressure campaign to push the Ukrainians to announce a Biden investigation.
Marie Yovanovitch, the former ambassador to Ukraine, described how that effort included a smear campaign that succeeded in driving her from her post and why that harmed U.S. interests. Trump amplified her point by attacking her again as she testified, Sarah Wire reported.
And Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, testified that at Trump’s direction, the administration offered Ukraine a clear quid pro quo: Announce investigations in return for getting a White House meeting between the two presidents and having the security assistance restored.
He “followed the president’s orders,” Sondland testified. “Everyone was in the loop.”
The testimony rebutted the argument that Trump had an entirely innocent purpose for what he asked of Zelensky. It particularly undermined the claim that Trump had a broad, general interest in fighting corruption in Ukraine.
Testimony by David Holmes, a senior diplomat in the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, showed that. After he overheard part of a cellphone conversation between Sondland and Trump, Sondland told him that Trump “didn’t give a ... " about Ukraine, only about the Biden investigation, Holmes said.
Indeed, as Sondland testified, the administration didn’t even care if the Ukrainians followed through, so long as Zelensky announced an investigation on U.S. television.
Zelensky “had to announce the investigations; he didn’t actually have to do them, as I understood it,” Sondland said.
To Democrats, the testimony amplified the case against Trump to bribery: The president was offering an official act — the promised White House meeting as well as the security assistance — in return for Ukraine giving him something politically valuable.
The fact that the White House lifted its hold on the security assistance without Ukraine making any such announcement doesn’t matter, Schiff and his colleagues said. The restoration of the money came only on Sept. 11, two days after Congress began looking into the whistleblower’s complaint, they point out.
“He was caught,” Schiff said.
But Republicans noted repeatedly that Sondland, the only witness who spoke directly with Trump about the Ukraine matter, could cite no direct order from the president about a quid pro quo. Sondland said he had “presumed” what Trump wanted.
“Two plus two equals four,” as he said.
Witnesses who could provide more direct evidence about Trump’s state of mind, notably his acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, and his former national security advisor, John Bolton, have so far declined to testify.
To Republicans like Hurd, that lack of direct testimony has provided enough ambiguity to justify opposition to impeachment.
There’s no question that at this point, most Republican senators will take a similar stand. But nine weeks into the impeachment saga, with a Senate trial unlikely to begin before January, the final outcome remains significantly in doubt.
THE DEMOCRATS DEBATE
Wednesday’s installment of the impeachment hearings had barely ended by the time the Democratic candidates took the stage in Atlanta for their fourth debate.
In the previous three encounters, the chief dynamic was the field ganging up on the perceived front-runner — Joe Biden in June and September, Sen. Elizabeth Warren in October.
This time was different. With Mayor Pete Buttigieg topping recent polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, but Biden still leading nationally and both Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders remaining strong contenders, the contest seems more unsettled.
Did you miss the debate? Need a catch-up? Here are Mark Barabak’s key takeaways.
As Evan Halper, Melanie Mason and Seema Mehta wrote, the candidates clashed over issues of race and political leadership.
The racial debate reflected a risky feature of the current race for the Democrats, Janet Hook wrote: The party depends on voters of color, but the top four candidates are all white.
In large part, that’s been because, even as Biden’s support has declined, he has held on to the lion’s share of black voters, preventing any of the three African American candidates from gaining traction.
For a brief period after the first debate, in June, Sen. Kamala Harris seemed like she might be able to shake Biden’s support, but she lost that momentum and never regained it. Sen. Cory Booker has often seemed attractive in debates — he once again won strong mentions for his performance on Wednesday — but hasn’t been able to translate that into support from voters.
And the newest entrant into the race, former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, who is also African American, wasn’t on the debate stage and has mostly been pictured speaking to empty rooms since his late entry to the race just over a week ago.
With former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg poised to announce soon whether he’s going to jump into the race, the Democratic contest feels, if anything, less settled than it did a month ago. The first contests are now just over two months away.
That wraps up this week.
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