“It’s not as outlandish as it could be.”
Of all the excuses, defenses, distractions and outright non sequiturs President Trump’s defenders deployed at Wednesday’s first public impeachment hearing — the whistleblower is biased! Hunter Biden is corrupt! Adam Schiff wanted nude photos of Trump! — the most telling came from Steve Castor, the Republicans’ chief counsel, as he questioned Bill Taylor, America’s man in Kyiv.
Describing the “irregular channel” Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani and his team of “amigos” used to coerce Ukraine’s president to announce investigations into Trump’s political opponents, Castor asked Taylor: “In fairness, this irregular channel of diplomacy, it’s not as outlandish as it could be — is that correct?”
Taylor seemed to think Castor was telling a joke. “It’s not as outlandish as it could be,” he said with a laugh. “I agree.”
True! Giuliani could have conducted the entire scheme in drag. Or they could have threatened the Ukrainian president with a Nerf gun instead of merely withholding military aid. But Castor wasn’t kidding. He defended his point at length, then asked again: “It may be irregular, but it’s certainly not outlandish?”
Taylor smiled, shook his head and nodded, as if to convey: Whatever you say.
Taylor, fifth in his class at West Point, decorated officer in Vietnam, longtime diplomat, knows outlandish when he sees it. On top of his extensive previous testimony about the details of Trump pressuring Ukraine for help with his reelection, Taylor, hand-picked by the Trump administration for the Ukraine job, added further testimony Wednesday about Trump himself asking an envoy about “the investigations” and the envoy complaining that Trump cares “more about the investigations of Biden” than about Ukraine. Taylor tried to underscore the gravity of Trump’s suspension of military aid. “Even as we sit here today, the Russians are attacking Ukrainian soldiers in their own country,” he said. “I saw this on the front line last week.”
Against that solemn backdrop — both the gravity of impeachment and the life-and-death nature of the aid Trump suspended for his personal benefit — Republicans behaved in a manner that was, well, outlandish (if entirely regular). The juxtaposition was jarring: The witnesses, and most Democrats, kept a narrow focus on this year’s events in Ukraine — while Republicans assailed the Ukrainians, the Democrats, the diplomatic corps, the FBI, the Justice Department, Fusion GPS, the “Black Ledger” — you name it. In a big moment, they went small.
They decorated the dais with posters targeting the whistleblower’s lawyer, a Democratic backbencher and Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff. In the audience, Republican lawmakers not on the committee interrupted proceedings with groans and derisive laughter and an occasional “Hear, hear.” Rep. Louie Gohmert (Texas) took a selfie. At the White House, Trump tweeted messages, including from some on the panel and in the audience: “Sham.” “Cover-up.” “Hoax.” “Fantasy.”
On the stage, Republicans made two parliamentary inquiries, a point of order and a motion to subpoena the whistleblower and interrupted proceedings with several other complaints — all before Taylor answered a single question. They decried the “televised, theatrical performance” (after demanding public proceedings), and they dismissed witness accounts as “hearsay” (after supporting Trump’s refusal to allow those with firsthand knowledge to testify).
In lieu of an opening statement, Devin Nunes (California), the ranking Republican, read slogans and epithets: “Russia hoax … preposterous allegations … Media smear … Cultlike … Purely fictitious … Star chamber … Low-rent Ukrainian sequel … politicized bureaucracy.” He later informed Taylor that “you did not do due diligence” by investigating whether the Ukrainians really were out to get Trump in 2016.
Taylor pointed out that Ukrainians were angry with Trump not because of a conspiracy but because Trump had made the “amazingly inflammatory” statement that Crimea might want to be part of Russia.
Nunes responded by denouncing Barack Obama’s meeting with Russia’s president. In 2012.
Perhaps fearing such ineptitude, GOP leaders had installed the pugilistic Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio) on the committee — and he immediately assailed Taylor’s credibility because Trump released the military aid without the announcement of a Biden investigation. Omitted by Jordan: Trump released the aid as the scandal was about to explode publicly.
“You’re their star witness?” Jordan asked with scorn. “I have seen church prayer chains that are easier to understand” than Taylor’s testimony.
“I’m not here to take one side or another,” Taylor replied. “My understanding is only coming from people that I talked to.”
“We got that,” Jordan said with a sneer. He then shared a laugh with Castor.
Minutes later, Jordan resumed his attack on the veteran diplomat. “What you heard did not happen,” he said. “So you had to be wrong.” Taylor pointed out that the withheld aid “shook the confidence of a close partner.”
Jordan cut him off. “That’s not what this proceeding is about,” he said.
No, it’s about savaging an honorable public servant — part of an anything-goes strategy to obscure a president’s wrongdoing.
That’s as outlandish as it could be.
Dana Milbank is a columnist for The Washington Post.