Congress

GOP relies on familiar defenses as impeachment hearings open

Jordan presses witnesses on Ukraine aid being released without investigation sought

Ranking member Devin Nunes, R-Calif., Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, and minority counsel Stephen Castor, confer during the House Intelligence Committee hearing on the impeachment inquiry of President Trump. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Republicans reached for oft-cited complaints about the impeachment process Wednesday to counter arguments from Democrats and detailed statements from two career diplomats at the start of what will likely be several weeks of contentious hearings into President Donald Trump's dealings with Ukraine.

It wasn’t until early afternoon, when a temporary member added to the House Intelligence Committee roster to bolster questioning during the televised proceedings, provided the most forceful defense of Trump in a hearing that otherwise shed little new light — for the viewing public, at least — on the weeks-long inquiry.

After sitting quietly for the first several hours of the hearing, Ohio Republican Jim Jordan argued Ukrainian officials were not aware that the U.S. had withheld military aid earlier this year, generally securing agreement from the panel’s two witnesses.

Jordan established that not only did the U.S. dispense aid to Ukraine, but Washington did so without the “favor” Trump purportedly sought, including Kyiv announcing an investigation into Burisma, the energy company that paid former Vice President Joe Biden’s son Hunter nearly $600,000 per year to sit on its board. There have been no findings of wrongdoing by either Biden.

Jordan’s questioning followed 45 minutes of disjointed queries from GOP counsel that vacillated from discussions on the 2016 elections to Burisma. Jordan had a bit of extra time to drill down on his line of questioning.

After House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., took more than seven minutes to question the witnesses, Schiff granted the panel’s top Republican, fellow Californian Devin Nunes ,the same amount of time for his questioning. Nunes ceded his time to Jordan, who easily slid into his attack-dog role.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., added Jordan to the Intelligence Committee last week in place of Arizona Republican Rick Crawford. Jordan will remain on the committee until the end of the House Democrats’ impeachment efforts.

Democrats evolve messaging

Prior to the hearing, Democrats had struggled to establish a coherent message in service of impeaching Trump.

Democrats, largely, began the impeachment inquiry by accusing Trump of seeking a quid pro quo. The Latin phrase didn’t catch on, so some Democrats just quoted the White House-released transcript by reminding the country that Trump asked Zelenzkiy for a “favor.”

Over the weekend, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi used the word “bribery” to describe Trump’s interactions with Zelenskiy.

During Wednesday's hearing, Texas Democrat Joaquin Castro sought to distill those talking points into an impeachable offense, a “high crime or misdemeanor.”

After Republicans repeated that no favor was done in return for granting military aid, Castro reminded his colleagues that attempted crimes are, in fact, crimes.

“Is attempted murder a crime?” Castro asked the witnesses, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and the Caucasus George Kent and William Taylor, the top American diplomat for Ukraine 

“Attempted murder is a crime,” Taylor responded.

“Is attempted robbery a crime?” Castro asked.

“I'll go out on a limb,” Taylor said reminding the panel that he is not a lawyer, “and say yes, it is.”

“Is attempted extortion and bribery a crime?” Castro asked.

“I don't know, sir,” Taylor said.

Factual accounting

The hearings opened with Schiff attempting to give a factual recounting of the Trump administration’s dealings with Ukraine as described in closed depositions taken by House committees at earlier hearings behind closed doors.

Nunes used his opening statement to belittle the depositions as “auditions” for the public portion of the inquiry. He congratulated the witnesses for making the cut.

[Prepared opening statements from Kent and Taylor]

Both career diplomats, Kent and Taylor laid out in painstaking detail much of what they had said behind closed doors. They largely bolstered Schiff’s assertions in his opening statement, highlighting the strategic importance of Ukraine and the threat it faced from Russia while criticizing shadow diplomacy being carried out by Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. Schiff had also focused squarely on Giuliani’s involvement.

“Giuliani pressed Ukrainian authorities to investigate Burisma, the country’s largest natural gas producer, and the Bidens, since Vice President Joe Biden was seen as a strong potential challenger to Trump,” he said in his opening statement.

Schiff said Giuliani promoted conspiracy theories that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 presidential election, and that the former New York City mayor undertook a “smear campaign” against former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch so he could use unofficial channels to facilitate Ukrainian investigations into the Bidens.

Giuliani’s work, Schiff argued, paved the way for Trump’s July 25 call with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy during which Trump asked Zelenskiy for “a favor.”

That favor, Schiff said, was Ukraine investigating the Bidens in exchange for a nearly $400 million military aid package.

Taylor publicly retold earlier comments that is was “crazy” to withhold the aid to Ukraine, acknowledging in response to a question later that he has never before seen military aid conditioned on the personal or political interests of a president.

Taylor said the push to have Zelenskiy commit publicly to investigate Burisma and Ukrainian involvement in the 2016 U.S. elections, “showed how the official foreign policy of the United States was undercut by the irregular efforts led by Mr. Giuliani.”

Change in tone

Schiff’s statement was starkly different from the way he opened a hearing in September, when he gave what he later called a “parody” account of Trump’s phone call, at one point purposely misquoting the White House released account of the call. That portrayal became a Republican talking point to attack Schiff.

On Wednesday, it was Nunes who struck a mocking tone, blasting the hearing as a “televised, theatrical performance staged by the Democrats.” The entire impeachment inquiry, he said, was a “low-rent Ukrainian sequel” to the special counsel investigation into Russian interference into the 2016 elections.

Nunes also demanded to know if Hunter Biden’s seat on Burisma’s board affected U.S. government policy during the Obama administration, and whether Ukraine was involved in the 2016 election.

Nunes lamented that those questions would go unanswered as Schiff has blocked witnesses, including Hunter Biden and the anonymous whistleblower, Republicans have requested.

Tensions in the room

Just a few minutes into the Republicans’ 45 minutes of initial questioning, an interjection from Schiff kicked off a heated exchange over questions from lawmakers or counsel that assume facts not supported by evidence.

When Republican counsel Steve Castor asked a question about Trump being concerned that some elements of the Ukrainian establishment were against him and “were out to get him,” Schiff jumped in.

“You are seriously interrupting our time here?” asked Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas.

[Who’s holding the impeachment hearings? Meet the House Intelligence Committee]

Schiff moved forward, issuing a warning to Taylor. He also clarified that he would not take the time from his interjection away from the Republicans’ time to question the witnesses.

“I wanted to be clear, ambassador, if you can verify the things that the counsel has identified in the prerequisites, but for the majority or the minority without the facts before you, should be cautioned about that,” Schiff said.

Louie Gohmert, a Republican seated in the audience, was indignant and let it be known.

“Are you kidding me, you have the nerve to say that?” Gohmert exclaimed in response to Schiff.

Ratcliffe jumped in again to ask if he, too, had the right to raise objection to questions that he deemed to be not related to facts already in evidence.

“I sat here through the first 45 minutes and literally had an objection to almost the foundation of every question that Mr. Goldman asked regarding facts not in evidence and leading,” Ratcliffe said. “Is your position that I need to be inserting objections that violate the rules of evidence? Let me know now, because this hearing is going to change significantly.”

At the end of the hearing, the majority tabled a motion from Texas Republican K. Michael Conaway to subpoena the whistleblower on a 13-9 party line vote.

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