The Fact-Free Republican Impeachment Defense

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- After three days of public impeachment hearings, it’s becoming clear that there’s not much distance between Democrats and Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee when it comes to the facts as witnesses have presented them.

Republicans have occasionally pushed witnesses over a few specifics, but overall they seem to have little to say about the basic story of what President Donald Trump, his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland and other loyalists actually did. They don’t dispute that there was an official Ukraine policy that had been approved of by Congress, most of the executive branch and the president himself, and then another “irregular” one involving Giuliani, Sondland and also the president himself. They don’t dispute what Trump said to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on the July 25 phone call in which he dangled an invitation to the White House and pressed for an investigation of a leading Democratic rival, former Vice President Joe Biden. They don’t dispute a string of evidence of contacts between Ukrainian officials and Americans working on behalf of the irregular policy. 

The Trump defense at this point doesn’t dispute any of it. It simply asks Americans to ignore all of it. 

The Republican story is that there was a plot to get Trump that involved collusion between House Democrats and the anonymous whistle-blower who alerted intelligence officials to the July 25 call. Most astonishingly, we’re told — by Trump repeatedly and by committee Republicans at Tuesday morning’s session with Jennifer Williams, a foreign service officer who works for Vice President Mike Pence, and Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman of the National Security Council — that this Democratic plot was undermined by the release of the July 25 call record. Republican Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, facing two nonpartisan witnesses who had listened to the call and considered the president’s actions inappropriate or worse, simply claimed that the call was, as Trump puts it, perfect.

To be sure, Republicans have said other things in the hearings so far. They’ve complained a lot about the process. They’ve argued that the president and not staff makes policy, which is irrelevant to the question whether Trump did so corruptly in this case for his personal political benefit. On Tuesday, they argued that if the witnesses didn’t call Trump’s behavior bribery it couldn’t have been bribery, as if (as someone pointed out) what would matter isn’t whether someone reported seeing a house torched but whether the witness used the word “arson” to describe it. And Republicans, especially ranking member Devin Nunes of California, have spent a lot of time drawing attention to discredited accusations about Biden.   

In other words, the only Trump defense that's responsive to the accusations is that everybody should pretend that what Trump said on the call shouldn’t count. It’s not entirely clear whether the president’s claim is that it’s normal and fine for U.S. policy to be based on pressing foreign governments to help him win re-election, or if it’s that everything he and the others said really didn’t have any meaning at all. Either way, his position — and that of most committee Republicans — is that the incriminating call and all the other evidence of a Ukraine pressure campaign were, well, “perfect.” 

That’s going to be good enough for Trump’s strongest supporters, but it’s unlikely to convince anyone else. Very unlikely.

It’s not surprising that House Republicans try to defend a Republican president, although it’s somewhat surprising just how weak their efforts are. The more surprising thing here is how little Republicans on the committee — on the Intelligence Committee — seem to be interested in how U.S. policy was derailed in ways that harmed Ukraine and helped Russia. Even though several committee Republicans have been strong supporters of the regular policy track that Giuliani, Sondland and Trump were undermining.

There actually is room to claim that the irregular policy track was wrong, and that the president’s actions were mistaken and even improper, without agreeing that they merit impeachment and removal. But that would require saying that Trump’s actions were less than perfect, and the president and his radical House allies don’t want to cede that ground to anyone.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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