The Slatest

The GOP Impeachment Defense Depends on Ignoring the Evidence Trump Released Himself

Five men, three of whom are seated, have a discussion.
Republican members of Congress and a Republican staff attorney at Wednesday’s House Intelligence Committee hearing. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Wednesday’s House Intelligence Committee hearing was the first to publicly address the details of the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump’s conduct toward Ukraine. State Department official George Kent and interim Ukraine Ambassador William Taylor, who were called as witnesses, are both nonpartisan civil servants whose testimony appears to be in accordance with events that are matters of public record and with the accounts of other figures involved in the story. Given that, Republicans largely used the hearing not to dispute the details of what Kent and Taylor said about Trump’s behavior but to present a more general case for the defense, arguing that his actions were appropriate and that the impeachment process has been procedurally biased against him.

Five hours into the hearing, Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan gave a monologue that summed up many of the arguments he and his colleagues had made on Trump’s behalf. His points:

• Trump didn’t withhold military aid from Ukraine in order to extort the country’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, into launching bogus investigations of the Bidens and of 2016 election “interference,” but because he wanted to personally confirm that Zelensky was not corrupt: “Our president said timeout. Timeout. Let’s check out this new guy. Let’s see if Zelensky’s the real deal.”

• Zelensky was never even under the impression that investigating—or making a public statement that he was investigating—the Bidens or 2016 was an issue that was related to U.S. aid: “President Zelensky had five interactions with senior U.S. officials in that time frame. One was of course the phone call, the July 25 phone call between President Trump and President Zelensky. And there were four other face-to-face meetings with other senior U.S. officials. And guess what? Not one of those interactions, not one, were security assistance dollars linked to investigating Burisma or Biden.”

• The evidence presented by Democrats is suspect because the accounts of Trump’s activities it relies on are secondhand: “Over the next few weeks, we’re going to have more witnesses like we’ve had today, that the Democrats will parade in here, and they’re all going to say this: ‘So-and-so said such-and-such to so-and-so, and therefore, we’ve got to impeach the president.’ ”

• It is suspicious that Democrats will not reveal the name of the intelligence agency whistleblower who triggered the impeachment investigation by complaining that the Trump administration was using official leverage to advance the narrow interests of the president’s reelection campaign: “Now, there is one witness, one witness that they won’t bring in front of us. [That] they won’t bring in front of the American people. And that’s the guy who started it all. The whistleblower. Nope.”

These points might have been convincing had Jordan made them in early to mid-September, when sketchy reports first emerged that Trump may have done something inappropriate involving Ukraine and that someone in the national security apparatus had formally complained about it. But House Republicans’ various claims and doubts are mooted by the edited transcript-style account of the July 25 Trump-Zelensky phone call that the White House released voluntarily on Sept. 24 in what was apparently the deluded belief that it proved Trump’s conduct was on the up and up.

In the account, Trump tells Zelensky that “the United States has been very, very good to Ukraine” and complains that Ukraine has not been “reciprocal” enough in response. When Zelensky asks specifically if the country can “buy more Javelins from the United States for defense purposes,” Trump replies, “I would like you to do us a favor, though,” and asks him to “get to the bottom” of nonsensical allegations that the cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike is hiding evidence related to the 2016 hack of the Democratic National Committee in Ukraine. In a subsequent exchange, Trump tells Zelensky to speak to Rudy Giuliani about “Biden” and “Biden’s son.”

Fixating on the whistleblower’s identity or motivations seems a little beside the point once we have a record of the call the whistle was blown about, and which confirms the whistleblower’s concerns. The firsthand evidence—unmediated by the whistleblower or any Democratic witnesses—shows Trump telling Zelensky there was a connection between U.S. aid to Ukraine and the Biden/DNC server investigations.

Making the case that Donald Trump didn’t attempt to extort Ukraine into launching personally beneficial sham prosecutions involving his Democratic rivals is hard to do!