WASHINGTON — Republicans will show their cards at Wednesday’s kickoff hearings for the House impeachment inquiry, either focusing their defense on complaints about the process or devoting more time to trying to undermine the Democratic theory of the case.
The degree to which they tilt in either direction will provide insight into whether Republicans have given up hope of staving off an impeachment of President Donald Trump later this year in the House. If they focus heavily on process arguments aimed at delegitimizing the hearings, Republicans will send the signal that they realize there is little hope of preventing Trump from a House impeachment and instead are trying to shore up their political base. That way, Senate Republicans will serve as Trump’s political backstop, unwilling to vote to convict and remove him from office.
If instead Republicans go heavily into questioning a trio of career diplomats this week, trying to contradict their testimony, that will show they still believe there’s a chance of undermining the case laid out by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-California — and possibly preventing Trump from becoming just the third president to ever be impeached.
So far Republicans have tilted toward arguing about process, but they keep getting pulled back toward fighting about the facts, particularly whenever Trump chimes in.
That split was evident Tuesday as Republican leaders huddled with GOP members of the House Intelligence Committee to prep for the historic public hearings kicking off Wednesday. As House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-Louisiana, exited the closed-door meeting, he complained about the process and called it an “impeachment witch hunt.”
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-California, walking in a few moments later, said he wanted to “make sure the truth gets out.”
GOP advisers say the process and the facts are interwoven, so it’s hard to focus on one without complaining about the other. But they realize that one posture looks defensive while the other puts them on offense, if they can poke holes in the testimony starting Wednesday with William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, and George Kent, deputy assistant secretary at the State Department with deep history in the region.
Democrats believe that, beginning with their private depositions a few weeks ago, Kent and Taylor will lay out the facts that top State Department officials were told that the president demanded the new Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, had to investigate Trump’s domestic rivals to get a White House meeting and to secure nearly $400 million in security aid.
“POTUS wanted nothing less than President Zelensky to go to the microphone and say, ‘investigation,’ ‘Biden’ and ‘Clinton,’” Kent said in his testimony.
Democrats want to portray these facts — that the president engaged in something close to extortion — as incontrovertible, with the only dispute being whether they rise to a high crime that mandates Trump’s impeachment and removal from office.
“There aren’t many facts that are truly in dispute here. There may be a dispute about how we ought to respond to the facts, but so much of what the witnesses have had to say is consistent,” Schiff told NPR’s “All Things Considered” in an interview airing Wednesday.
But Republicans think they have a case that will undermine the Democrats’ case if they choose to focus on that front, and that is why their chief process argument includes calling as a witness Kurt Volker, the former ambassador to NATO who served as a special envoy to Ukraine and was the top intermediary with officials in Kyiv.
They believe Volker’s testimony is more valuable than that of the diplomats, who did not interact as often and as directly with Zelensky, nor did they have as much access to West Wing officials. Even without Volker appearing, GOP officials have transcripts from his early October deposition and should be able to try contradict claims from Kent and Taylor.
In particular, Volker testified that he did not let top Ukrainians know that the $400 million in security aid was on hold, so that when Trump spoke to Zelensky on July 25 his request that Ukraine “do us a favor” could not have been seen as an extortion attempt.
“This hold on security assistance was not significant,” Volker told lawmakers in his deposition. “I don’t believe — in fact, I am quite sure that at least I, Secretary [Mike] Pompeo, the official representatives of the U.S. — never communicated to Ukrainians that it is being held for a reason.”
If Republicans focus on Volker’s testimony, they will portray this entire endeavor as the complaints of career diplomats who fell out of favor of more senior officials in the State Department and the White House, ending up believing the worst of things about Trump that they never personally witnessed.
Early Tuesday, Trump echoed that sentiment by dismissing them on Twitter as “2nd and 3rd hand witnesses.”
Democrats counter that the timing does not matter, whether Zelensky knew on the July 25 phone call or not, because it was an attempt by Trump to force an issue.
“What really matters here is Ukraine was given these demands by the president. Ukraine found out that military aid that it desperately needed was being withheld. That’s, I think, the most important of the facts,” Schiff said on NPR.
Looking at the Democratic imperative to impeach, some Republicans worry that there is little point in arguing the facts of the case and instead want to just make the entire inquiry look like a three-ring circus that most independent voters tune out and most conservative base voters consider an attack on the president.
Which is why an 18-page memo, distributed by House Republicans in advance of the hearings, goes back and forth between making substantive arguments on Trump’s behalf and then expounds on how the process is illegitimate. On the final page, under “CONCLUSION,” the GOP devoted an equal amount of time to arguing that the process was marred by “selective leaks” in the inquiry that was “one sided, partisan and fundamentally unfair.”
After a brief discussion of the case, the memo ended: “The evidence gathered does not establish an impeachable offense.”