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Trump Defenders Sputter in First Public Impeachment Hearings

The standard playbook of the Trump apologists—distract, deflect, and attack—didn’t work yesterday.
November 14, 2019
Trump Defenders Sputter in First Public Impeachment Hearings
Top U.S. diplomat to Ukraine, William B. Taylor (right), and Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs George P. Kent are sworn in prior to testifying before the House Intelligence Committee, November 13, 2019. (Drew Angerer / Getty)

Going into yesterday’s hearing—the first public hearing in the House Intelligence Committee’s part of the Trump impeachment proceedings—Republicans held a fairly weak hand. And they did not play it well.

Since the start of the Trump administration, congressional Republicans have faced plenty of hearings that might have reflected poorly on them. But Republicans have largely been able to turn the public’s attention away from the substance of the hearings by making scenes bigger and louder than the actual business before them. It’s an old debating trick: When you can’t win on the merits, distract, deflect, and attack. Or, as they say in the law, when the facts are on your side, pound the facts; when the facts aren’t on your side, pound the table.

Think back to February, when Michael Cohen was summoned to testify before a House committee about President Trump’s alleged violations of campaign finance law (and various other legal and ethical lapses). Republicans interrupted the proceedings with a futile attempt to delay the hearing. They spent the rest of the hearing excoriating the witness. While their mistrust of a man convicted of lying to Congress is understandable, their antics did nothing to refute the substance of his testimony.

But yesterday was different. In the past, the Republicans’ shtick was at least exciting enough to be effective as a distraction. Yesterday, they were stultifying when it mattered most.

There are two reasons for that. One is that Democrats put on a good show. They finally figured out that letting a lawyer take his time with a line of questioning is—shocker!—more compelling than letting a dozen committee members each grab their own soundbite for five minutes. (Both sides still did that—they just saved it for the latter part of the hearing, after the staff counsels had exhausted the most important material.)

Democrats made a good choice in their counsel. Daniel Goldman, a former assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, was calm, clear, direct. Under his questioning, witnesses George Kent, a State Department official, and William Taylor, the acting ambassador to Ukraine, made clear and powerful points.

By contrast, the Republican counsel, Steve Castor, has been working on congressional committees since 2005. For most of that time, he’s reportedly acted as a “behind-the-scenes player” in the Republican-led investigations into the Obama-era Fast and Furious and Benghazi scandals. Castor discovered yesterday that playing defense is harder than offense. He led the witnesses down meandering, murky paths. Some of his questions involved years-old episodes of corruption in Ukraine that involved no Americans. For what felt like three hours of his 45 minutes, it seemed like his goal was to bore the entire audience enough that they’d tune out before they could hear any other incriminating information about the president. Which, come to think of it, might have been the best tactic he could avail himself of.

Still, it would be unfair to blame Castor’s deficiency or Goldman’s effectiveness for the failure of the Republican message yesterday. The president’s congressional allies had a much more difficult task than their Democratic colleagues, and it showed.

The Democrats’ point can be summed up in one sentence: President Trump illegally withheld military aid from a struggling ally on the condition of an illegal in-kind donation to his reelection campaign, and he oversaw a disruptive shadow foreign policy conducted by his personal lawyer. The former is a classic shakedown familiar to everyone who faced a bully in elementary school, except it requires more uses of the word “illegal.” The latter is a hot mess.

The Republicans, on the other hand, were trying to argue that the real scandal is that Hunter Biden was given a lucrative position on the board of a Ukrainian gas company because his father was vice president, and that the same Ukrainian gas company had years before been implicated in a corruption scandal that involved American money, but also President Trump’s attempted extortion of a foreign leader and possible conspiracy to commit a campaign finance violation and/or conspiracy against the United States is just completely made up, since every administration tries to get things in exchange for aid, and besides, the evidence that the witnesses produced was mere hearsay, and the fact that the withheld aid was eventually given to Ukraine means that the whole inquiry is bogus. Capiche?

Not even every Republican appeared enthused about their talking points. This was at least partially predictable, as the beginning of public hearings obviated most of their previous complaints, which had focused on the impeachment procedure.

One intriguing bit of foreshadowing? President Trump’s champions on Capitol Hill may now have reason to doubt that all 197 House Republicans will rush with gusto to his defense. Three members of the Intelligence Committee—Reps. Brad Wenstrup, Mike Conaway, and Will Hurd—effectively refused to support their Republican colleagues’ line of argument (such as it was).

Another hearing is planned for Friday, with Marie Yovanovitch, the former ambassador to Ukraine. And the committee is scheduled to hear from eight more witnesses next week.

Benjamin Parker

Benjamin Parker is a senior editor at The Bulwark.