House Republicans overlook oversight in Trump defense

Some experts view Republican questions at impeachment proceedings as a betrayal of Congress’ constitutional role

Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan questions Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, on Wednesday as House Intelligence ranking member Devin Nunes looks on. Both have asked questions that directly or indirectly sought information on the identify of the whistleblower. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan questions Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, on Wednesday as House Intelligence ranking member Devin Nunes looks on. Both have asked questions that directly or indirectly sought information on the identify of the whistleblower. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted November 21, 2019 at 5:00am

Tactics that House Republicans have used during the ongoing impeachment hearings to defend President Donald Trump’s interests come at a cost to Congress’ constitutional role as a check on the president, some congressional watchers warn.

Republicans clearly have a duty to test the credibility and potential bias of witnesses at the House Intelligence Committee and to vigorously object to what they see as an unfair and overly partisan process.

But some of Trump’s congressional allies have gone beyond that in ways that could ultimately abdicate the responsibility to do oversight of the executive branch to ensure the president doesn’t undermine U.S. policies and properly dispenses appropriated funds, experts say.

Among the concerns: Attacks on the loyalty and political motivations of national security officials testifying on a subpoena; efforts to directly or indirectly disclose the name of a whistleblower; not backing demands that Trump officials testify; and concluding that the investigation itself is without merit.

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“Even if you grant that Democrats are reckless partisans and there’s nothing impeachable in the Ukraine affair, many House Republicans are still acting shamefully,” said Gregg Nunziata, a former senior policy adviser to Florida GOP Sen. Marco Rubio. “Just as a pure oversight matter, they should care about what happened here.”

[Republicans abandon tradition of whistleblower protection at impeachment hearing]

California Rep. Devin Nunes, the Intelligence Committee’s top Republican, has repeatedly questioned the legitimacy of the probe, and on Wednesday he asked whether House Democrats are “honestly searching for the truth.”

“They are the actions of partisan extremists who hijacked the Intelligence Committee, transformed it into the impeachment committee, abandoned its core oversight functions and turned it into a beachhead for ousting an elected president from office,” Nunes said.

But strip away the impeachment part of the hearings and all the partisan drama around it, and the committee’s hearings focus on a straightforward oversight question about how the president handled nearly $400 million in military aid that Congress had approved for Ukraine on a bipartisan basis.

Long before Trump, the Constitution gave Congress, as representatives of the people, the power to spend money as an ultimate check on the power of the president. Congress has asserted and the Supreme Court has backed investigations and oversight as an essential role of the legislative branch.

Democrats say Trump abused his power because he used the funds meant for national security as leverage for personal political gain. Witnesses have described how Trump went around the usual foreign relations process and conditioned release of the aid on a public announcement from the Ukrainian president of an investigation into potential 2020 rival Joe Biden, his son Hunter, and a Ukrainian energy company, Burisma.

But Republicans such as Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan have countered that the aid was eventually released without any such announcement. Republicans also haven’t backed Democrats in criticizing the Trump administration for ignoring congressional subpoenas for documents to Congress and testimony from key officials.

At the very least, Nunziata said, the evidence suggests that Trump was reckless in how he handled funds Congress meant for Ukraine, undermining a policy that most congressional Republicans voted for and support.

“Whatever you think about this president and this series of events, if you are a member of Congress, you should care about setting a precedent for future presidents you may not like subverting the will of Congress and resisting oversight,” Nunziata said.

Frank O. Bowman III, a law professor at the University of Missouri and author of “High Crimes and Misdemeanors: A History of Impeachment for the Age of Trump,” said the Republican approach differs from the impeachment proceedings of Presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton.

Those prior impeachment inquiries were partisan, but both parties generally sought to determine the facts and then argue about whether the president should be impeached or removed from office, Bowman said.

During the hearings now, the dominant tone from Republicans is “one of abuse and personal name-calling” that bodes poorly for the future of the House.

“The increased volume and emotionalism and vitriol on the part of the Republicans, if anything, demonstrates that the facts are getting worse and worse and worse, and their perceived need … to distract from the facts is becoming greater and greater,” Bowman said.

Members of Congress have a responsibility to voters in their district, the public at large and Congress as an institution to determine whether or not the president is adhering to his oath of office or has engaged in inappropriate behavior, Bowman said.

“The most important point here is that the job of any congressman, whether they are a Republican or a Democrat, is not to reflexively defend the interests of the person in the White House who happens to wear the same political jersey they do,” he added.

Nunes and Jordan, for instance, have asked questions that directly or indirectly sought information about the identity of the whistleblower that reenergized the impeachment probe.

Trump and his congressional allies have pointed to the potential partisan bias of that person as evidence of a Democratic hit job that seeks to remove Trump from office.

But even some Republicans have balked at such a move because it could discourage future whistleblowers, which Congress relies on for oversight of the intelligence communities as well as the federal government and the private sector.

“The whole government depends on whistleblowers,” said former House Intelligence Chairman Dan Glickman, a Kansas Democrat.

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Casting doubt

Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a Ukraine expert on the National Security Council, was on a key phone call between Trump and the Ukrainian president. When he appeared on a subpoena to tell lawmakers what he knew, Republicans did not focus on the aid or whether Trump acted inappropriately.

Instead, their lines of questioning looked to cast doubt on an American citizen born in Ukraine, who earned a Purple Heart during military operations in Iraq. Why did he wear his military uniform, what about job offers from an official from Ukraine, and what about his performance review?

Those Republican questions and others like them throughout a week of public testimony align with the president’s immediate political interests. In the long run, however, they cut against Congress’ core responsibility: oversight of the executive branch to ensure the president doesn’t undermine U.S. policies and properly dispenses appropriated funds, experts say.

Glickman called it “extraordinary” that Republicans did not really question the story or the facts, focusing instead on attacking the credibility of witnesses, including a current NSC official.

Republicans on the committee brushed off such criticisms and say the partisanship goes both ways. Texas Rep. K. Michael Conaway said Tuesday he hasn’t seen anything that’s been disrespectful but added that Democrats are acting “like jurors who’ve already made their mind up before all the facts and evidence.”

“This is an adversarial relationship on both sides,” Conaway said. “Had we been allowed to bring the witnesses that we wanted, my guess is the Democrats would be very aggressive with our witnesses.”

In his characteristic rapid fire, Jordan pointed out that 63 million people voted for Trump, it’s less than a year before a presidential election, Democrats have been trying to remove Trump from office since the day he was sworn in and five members of the Intelligence Committee voted to move forward with impeachment before Trump’s telephone call that is now at the heart of the impeachment inquiry.

“And you’re talking about my motivation, are you kidding me?” Jordan said. “That’s the craziest question I’ve ever heard.”

Members have less political room than they did decades ago to draw a distinction between themselves and the party or the president because politics has become more national, said Joshua Huder, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute.

There might be clear questions about the implementation of aid that passed Congress on a broad bipartisan vote, but that’s not the main concern for many members, Huder said.

“Those institutional concerns are shoved under the rug to reaffirm this kind of partisan defense of the president because the political fortunes of these individuals mean they don’t pay as much attention to the institutional purpose of the bills and laws that they pass,” Huder said.