On Wednesday, we saw the uneven result.
Republican members of the House Intelligence Committee and a GOP counsel who began the questioning spent much of their allotted time driving at a number of talking points aimed at muddying the waters. Their arguments, though, relied on a series of obvious logical fallacies. Indeed, the fact that the witnesses themselves didn’t point this out is a testament to the fact that these aren’t the partisan deep-staters Trump has alleged they are.
Perhaps the central GOP argument was that because the withheld military aid to Ukraine was released without Ukraine announcing Trump’s desired investigations — one involving the Bidens and one involving 2016 election interference — there wasn’t a corrupt quid pro quo. The problem with that is that it ignored three things:
- That at the time there was building pressure to release the aid both from a bipartisan group of senators and a newly emerging whistleblower complaint that unearthed this whole scandal.
- That the other alleged leverage used as part of a quid pro quo — an Oval Office meeting for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky — still hasn’t been delivered, even though Trump appeared to agree to it when Zelensky suggested he would accede to Trump’s requests.
- That Zelensky had agreed around the same time to appear on CNN and announce the investigations, as Taylor testified.
Perhaps the second most frequently trafficked argument during Wednesday’s hearing was that Zelensky himself didn’t complain that he felt pressured or blackmailed or extorted by Trump or his team. The problem with that, as House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) soon noted, was that Zelensky could never admit such a thing. If he did, he could jeopardize a relationship with Trump that is clearly very important to him — and not just because of military aid. The top U.S. diplomat to Ukraine, William B. Taylor Jr., even suggested Wednesday that Zelensky needs the legitimacy of a Trump meeting to be able to effectively deal with the threat posed by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Republicans on the committee were also fond of pointing out that the Trump administration provided more and deadlier weaponry to Ukraine than the Obama administration did, even after Russia invaded Crimea in 2014. “Not once were these security dollars related to investigating Burisma or Biden,” exclaimed Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio). It’s true that the Trump administration has gone quite a bit further than the Obama administration on this front. But as with the tougher posture toward Russia, it’s not clear that’s because of Trump personally, and it may even be despite him. In fact, Taylor’s testified Wednesday that he was told Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland had said Trump “cares more about the investigations of Biden” than about Ukraine as a country.
Republicans repeatedly alluded in the hearing to things Taylor had said about the Trump administration doing more for Ukraine than Obama had. That may have driven home the above point, but it also undermined the idea that Taylor was somehow hostile to Trump.
Jordan was the designated GOP attack dog on Wednesday. (He was appointed to the Intelligence Committee last week to serve just that purpose.) He repeatedly suggested Taylor and State Department official George Kent, the other witness Wednesday, were simply passing along claims they had heard at the end of a long game of telephone. And it’s true that they were often testifying to things they had heard from other witnesses, rather than events they witnessed firsthand. But they also spoke to several central witnesses and have had their testimonies corroborated.
Jordan at one point had an aide deliver Sondland’s clarification to his testimony last week, in which Sondland detailed the long chain of information that led to Taylor’s testimony. Except, as Taylor noted at the end of his exchange with Jordan, “The way I read this, [Sondland] understands this the same way I do.”
Sondland had indeed confirmed Taylor’s central testimony: that Sondland had conveyed a quid pro quo to a top Ukrainian official.
Rep. Jordan highlights part of Sondland's amended statement (highlighted) that included a multi-character explanation of why he was changing his testimony.— Toluse Olorunnipa (@ToluseO) November 13, 2019
Jordan didn't get to the substance of the amended testimony (underlined), where Sondland confirms quid pro quo. pic.twitter.com/YfRBBVanTf
The last mainstay of the GOP’s defense was that corruption is endemic in Ukraine and that the company Hunter Biden worked for, Burisma Holdings, has significant issues. Both are true. Kent in particular testified to a number of reservations the U.S. government and he personally had about Burisma. He has also testified that he raised concerns with then-Vice President Joe Biden’s office in 2015 about the appearance of a conflict of interest when Hunter Biden’s employment began. The whole thing reinforced that Hunter Biden’s employment was problematic and that there might be a real reason to investigate Burisma.
What Republicans did not do, however, is ever actually connect that to Trump’s request for an investigation.
Trump explicitly asked Zelensky to not just investigate Burisma or Hunter Biden’s employment; he asked Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden’s intervention to get a top Ukrainian prosecutor removed. But Joe Biden did so at a time when that prosecutor wasn’t actively investigating Burisma. And in fact, many Western leaders wanted the prosecutor removed precisely because he wasn’t tough enough on corruption.
That last one is telling. Republicans are doing plenty to try to poke holes in the prevailing Democratic narratives, but they’re rarely connecting their arguments to the actual facts on the ground. They’re essentially trying to muddy the waters without actually defending Trump’s actions. They spent very little time Wednesday dwelling upon what Trump actually requested and what the aides around him did to make it happen.
And they’ve still got a lot more time to fill before this is over.