The House GOP's impeachment gambit is extremely risky
Before the impeachment hearings into President Trump's extortion and bribery plot against the government of Ukraine began, leading Republicans had a strategic choice: They could, as some pro-Trump analysts were urging them to do, frame the inquiry with a narrative that what Trump did was wrong but not impeachable. He obviously should not have dangled a White House meeting and jammed up military aid in exchange for an announcement from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that he was opening investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden's son Hunter, as well as Ukraine's role in the 2016 election, but nor should he be removed from office for doing so.
This was the most sensible strategy. After all, very little of the underlying factual record is in serious dispute. Trump inexplicably released a rough transcript of his July 25th phone call with Zelensky, which confirms the plot's general outlines, and multiple witnesses have now come forward and gone on record detailing the sordid extortion scheme spearheaded by the president's personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, with the cooperation of people like Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland and acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney. Tellingly, the White House refuses to release documents and has ordered critical witnesses, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, not to testify. It is hard to imagine how they could possibly look guiltier.
But it became clear very early on in the public hearing that House Republicans have elected to pursue a strategy of total denial of any wrongdoing. This approach is not only implausible, it's extremely risky.
Wednesday's hearings were for two witnesses: bowtie-sporting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs George Kent, and Acting Ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor. Both emphasized in their opening statements their belief in the importance of the U.S.-Ukraine strategic relationship, and even if you find the foreign policy logic to be dubious, there is no question that these guys believed what they were saying about it. Both men came off very much like career public servants, rather than the rabid Never Trumpers GOP operatives have been making them out to be, and capably detailed the nature of the Trumpworld malfeasance they witnessed and heard about. None of their smarmy GOP inquisitors were able to dent their integrity.
Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) set the tone for the Republican pushback early on, calling the hearings "an impeachment process in search of a crime." In his remarks, Nunes threw a potful of nonsense jambalaya against the wall, claiming that former Special Counsel Robert Mueller's July 25th testimony before Congress was "a last-ditch effort to convince the American people that President Trump is a Russian agent," that House Intelligence Committee Chair Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) was hiding the whistleblower, and that it was all a charade to overturn the results of the 2016 election.
Through questioning from Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas), Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and others, the Republican strategy quickly came into view. The tone of Trump's defense will be aggressive, combative, and loud, straight out of the rage-filled, Brett Kavanaugh, audience-of-one playbook, full of faked indignity and unapologetic gaslighting. First, Republicans will argue that there is credible evidence that Ukraine meddled in the 2016 election, and thus that Trump's request to pursue an investigation of it is entirely valid. Or as Nunes put it during some extended grandstanding, "After all, if there actually were indications of Ukraine election meddling and if foreign election meddling is a dire threat, then President Trump would have a perfectly good reason for wanting to find out what happened."
Second, they will advance the theory that there was something improper in Hunter Biden's service on the board of Ukrainian energy firm Burisma while his father was vice president, and that this too is something Trump has the right to get to the bottom of. As GOP lawyer Steve Castor put it, "So to the extent a new regime was coming in under President Zelensky, it certainly would be fair for the new prosecutor, a genuine prosecutor, to reexamine old crimes that hadn't sufficiently been brought to justice, right?"
Finally, they will claim that because the aid was ultimately dispersed, and Zelensky never did announce any investigations, there was no crime committed by the president. As Jordan, exuding very strong ask-to-speak-to-the-manager energy, shouted at Taylor and Kent: "The money was going to get released, but not until there was an investigation, and that in fact didn't happen." Multiple Republicans hammered this point.
There are a number of primary risks to this gambit. It is deeply vulnerable to further revelations and testimony. Trump clearly personally instructed a number of people to carry out the extortion scheme. He is gambling that none of those people will ever sing, and that there is no paper, text, or email trail with evidence that Trump himself was aware of the attempted extortion plot. This strategy also ties Senate Republicans to a dubious narrative advanced by particularly shameless people who are obviously doing the president's bidding. It makes little sense for House Republicans to advance one line of defense only for Senate Republicans to admit that the whole thing was a smokescreen and then acquit the president on the grounds that what he did simply does not rise to the level of impeachment. Yet numerous Senate Republicans will have trouble making the kind of absurd claims bandied about yesterday with a straight face.
It also has the disadvantage of being implausible to anyone willing to fairly consider the evidence of the case. The kitchen-sink nature of the GOP's interrogation of Taylor and Kent suggests that they are willing to simultaneously argue that a) Trump's withholding of the aid was entirely appropriate given his interest in Ukrainian corruption, and that b) because Zelensky never announced the investigations, that no harm was done anyway. These two threads are obviously incompatible. As reporting has made clear, Zelensky was prepared to do Trump's extortion bidding before the whistleblower report led to the release of the aid. Zelensky, in fact, was scheduled to go on Fareed Zakaria's CNN program on September 13th. Zakaria has confirmed this. The plot, in other words, was foiled by the unfolding scandal. This is something that House Democrats can prove very easily.
Finally, bringing the GOP's ridiculous Ukraine conspiracy theory out into the open like this, away from pliant Fox hosts and friendly Breitbart writers, risks exposing its fundamental absurdity and therefore destroying a key plank of Republican denialism about Trump's misdeeds. If the Department of Justice had anything remotely convincing in the works, Attorney General William Barr would not have been ostentatiously jetting around the globe begging foreign intelligence chiefs for corroboration of Trump's InfoWars-spiked fever dreams. At some point, House Republicans are going to have to lay out for a national audience their theory of the 2016 election in which Hillary Clinton and the DNC conspired to hack their own emails and then decided to withhold the key details of the Russia hoax they cooked up together until after Clinton had lost the election to Trump.
That is not going to go well.
The overall strategy is very clear here. Republicans are counting on the various mandarins of their nationwide alternate media universe to faithfully relay the full range of conspiracy theories, laughable innuendo, and puzzling non-sequiturs to their audiences. They know that as long as the closed loop of denial and what-aboutism remains intact, they can shape the perceptions of Republican loyalists and Fox News devotees however they want. The goal is not to win in the overall court of public opinion, a battlefield long ago vacated by the Trump administration, but rather to buttress Trump's fortunes with the rank-and-file, force the Senate to acquit him, and then give him a fighting chance to defeat the Democratic nominee next fall.
Republicans, therefore, are probably not worried that they turned Wednesday's hearing into an ugly trainwreck. The theatrics served their purpose of being more memorable than Kent and Taylor's damning testimony. And Democrats, rather than plodding along and playing it straight, are going to have to take the GOP's bad faith grandstanding head on.
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