The Seven Ways Wednesday’s Hearing Clarified Trump’s Real Motives

Republicans added to the mountain of evidence that the president abused his power.

Steve Castor leaning over to talk to Jim Jordan.
Minority legal counsel Steve Castor, left, speaks with Republican Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio during the impeachment hearing on Capitol Hill on Wednesday. Jim Lo Scalzo/Pool via Reuters

For two months, evidence has been piling up that President Donald Trump, through his extortion of Ukraine, betrayed our country. He blocked military aid to Ukraine and a meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky based on his personal interests, not the national interest of the United States. The evidence began with a transcript that showed Trump pressing Zelensky, in a July 25 phone call, to investigate Trump’s political opponents. Then came text messages in which Trump’s agents in Ukraine relayed similar demands. Then, in congressional depositions, witnesses recounted behavior by Trump and his agents that belied the president’s professed interest in combating Ukrainian corruption.

On Wednesday, the House Intelligence Committee held its first open hearing on the extortion plot. For Republicans, it was an opportunity to present evidence that Trump acted out of concern for the national interest. They produced no such evidence. Instead, they added to the pile of incriminating facts against him. The hearing covered several episodes and criteria that clarified Trump’s real motives. He flunked every test.

1. The consistency question. One measure of the president’s sincerity is whether he demands investigations of corruption everywhere it exists, or only in Ukraine. In the hearing, Republicans failed to name any other country in which Trump has applied such pressure. Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, an Illinois Democrat, asked one of the witnesses, acting U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor, whether “irregular channels of diplomacy” like the one Trump deployed in Ukraine had been used by the administration anywhere else in the world. “I’ve not heard of any other separate channel that has this kind of influence,” said Taylor.

2. The reform gap. Taylor and George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state responsible for Ukraine, testified that U.S. anti-corruption policy traditionally focuses on building honest institutions: police, investigators, prosecutors, and courts. Kent described specific steps to advance this mission in Ukraine. Republicans offered no evidence that Trump ever expressed interest in these steps. Rep. Adam Schiff, the committee’s Democratic chairman, noted that Trump, in his call with Zelensky, never mentioned the principal reforms in Ukraine: “setting up an anti-corruption court or looking into corruption among oligarchs or companies in general.” Schiff pointed out that Trump instead pressed Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and other Democrats. Kent confirmed this account of the call.

3. The Yovanovitch ouster. Kent testified that Marie Yovanovitch—the U.S. ambassador Trump removed from Kyiv after she opposed the partisan meddling of Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani—had fought resolutely against corruption in Ukraine. Republicans didn’t even try to present a more charitable explanation for her removal. Instead, Republican Rep. John Ratcliffe of Texas argued that “all ambassadors serve at the pleasure of the president” and that it wasn’t an abuse of power “to remove an ambassador for political reasons because you don’t like what they’re doing.” This line of argument all but concedes Trump’s crooked motives.

4. The Pentagon certification. Republican Rep. Chris Stewart of Utah said the president was entitled to suspend aid to Ukraine based on the National Defense Authorization Act. “Availability of funds under assistance to the Ukraine—it has to be certified,” Stewart observed, quoting the law. “And what has to be certified? Quote, ‘For the purposes of decreasing corruption.’ ” But Kent pointed out that “the secretary of defense had already certified that that conditionality had been met.” By ignoring this certification, Trump proved his talk of corruption was insincere.

5. The “check him out” lie. Republican Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio told a fantastic story. He claimed that when Trump blocked the aid in mid-July, the president said, “Time out. Let’s check out this new guy. Let’s see if Zelensky’s the real deal.” Jordan continued: “So for 55 days, we checked him out. President Zelensky had five interactions with senior U.S. officials in that time frame.” Jordan said that senators, former National Security Adviser John Bolton, and Vice President Mike Pence “all became convinced that Zelensky was in fact worth the risk, he was in fact legit and the real deal and a real change. And guess what? They told the president, ‘He’s a reformer. Release the money.’ And that’s exactly what President Trump did.”

This story is a complete fabrication. Bolton needed no convincing; he supported the aid all along. So did the Republican senators who were advising Trump on Ukraine. We also have a video-recorded statement from Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, who blocked the aid on Trump’s instructions and later released it. Mulvaney said the suspension was lifted for reasons that had nothing to do with corruption.

6. The phone call. Kent detailed the history of Burisma, the Ukrainian company that hired Hunter Biden, Joe Biden’s son, to serve on its board. He said the Bidens had nothing to do with the company’s problematic past. The suspicious character, Kent explained, was Burisma’s owner, Mykola Zlochevsky, who allegedly awarded deals to his own companies when he was a Ukrainian official from 2010 to 2012. That was two years before Hunter Biden joined Burisma’s board. Based on this chronology, you can make a case for investigating Zlochevsky or Burisma, but not for investigating the Bidens.

Trump did the opposite. In an exchange with Schiff, Kent confirmed that in the July 25 call, Trump never mentioned Burisma or Zlochevsky. Instead, Trump pressed Zelensky to investigate the Bidens. Trump didn’t even mention corruption. Taylor heard the same pitch from Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, who was relaying Trump’s demands to Ukraine. Trump told Sondland that he specifically wanted an investigation of the Bidens.

7. The Yermak invitation. Taylor testified that in August, Andriy Yermak, an aide to Zelensky, “asked that the United States submit an official request for an investigation into Burisma’s alleged violations of Ukrainian law, if that is what the United States desired.” This would have been the logical course if Trump were sincere about investigating corruption rather than smearing the Bidens. But Trump never pursued it. When Rep. Eric Swalwell, a California Democrat, asked Kent whether the Department of Justice had formally requested investigative cooperation from Ukraine, Kent said he knew of no such request.

Instead of building a case for Trump’s innocence, Republicans added to the mountain of evidence that he abused his power for personal reasons. Rep. Devin Nunes of California, the committee’s ranking Republican, complained that during the 2016 election, “the Ukrainian embassy supported the Hillary Clinton campaign,” Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States “wrote an op-ed … criticizing then-candidate Trump,” and a former Ukrainian government minister “mocked and disparaged then-candidate Trump on Facebook and Twitter.” That, said Nunes, was “what concerned” Trump about Ukraine. “It was numerous indications of Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election to oppose his campaign,” said Nunes. “Once you know that, it’s easy to understand the president’s desire to get to the bottom of this corruption and to discover exactly what happened in the 2016 election.”

Steve Castor, the committee’s Republican legal counsel, cited the testimony of multiple witnesses to support this revenge theory. “Didn’t [Trump] lament that the Ukrainians were out to get him?” Castor asked Taylor, referring to a May 23 Oval Office meeting. Castor recounted Ukraine’s alleged sins against Trump: the op-ed, the criticism, and the “unkind things on social media.” That, said Castor, was why “President Trump was very concerned that some elements of the Ukrainian establishment … were out to get him.”

The question of whether to impeach and remove Trump boils down to motive. Even Republican senators acknowledge this. If the president pressed Ukraine to investigate corruption, that’s fine. If he pressed Ukraine to target his political opponents, that’s an abuse of power. Four layers of evidence—transcript, texts, depositions, and public testimony—have settled this question. Trump didn’t care about corruption. He betrayed his oath and his country.

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