WASHINGTON — It could have been worse.
That’s the argument Republicans put forward during the first televised impeachment hearing Wednesday, when two longtime diplomats testified for nearly six hours about Rudy Giuliani’s attempts to hijack US diplomacy on behalf of President Trump and pressure Ukraine to open an investigation into former vice president Joe Biden and his son.
“This irregular channel of diplomacy, it’s not as outlandish as it could be, is that correct?” the Republicans’ staff counsel, Steve Castor, asked William Taylor, the US ambassador to Ukraine.
Taylor, an unflappable witness with a radio announcer voice, laughed out loud and then conceded the situation could conceivably have been even weirder.
The Republican counsel’s modest goal of establishing that the events in Ukraine fell short of being truly outrageous was the latest effort by the GOP to offer a defense of Trump. It even differed from the president’s own message that the hearing is a made up “witch hunt” propagated by political enemies.
As the diplomats arrived on Capitol Hill Wednesday morning and Americans prepared to tune in to the historic live broadcast, Trump took to Twitter to levy his gravest insult. “NEVER TRUMPERS!” he called the first witnesses. (The two men, who’ve served under both Republican and Democratic presidents, rejected that label.)
But even Trump’s most ardent defenders did not take up his line of argument for the most part, suggesting he faces a rocky road over the coming days of public impeachment hearings by the House Intelligence Committee. Instead, his allies in Congress painted the State Department officials’ testimony as “hearsay,” argued that the Ukrainian president has not publicly raised concerns about what happened, and demanded to hear from the anonymous whistle-blower whose complaint began the probe, along with other witnesses.
“We’re supposed to believe that President Trump committed a terrible crime that never actually occurred and which the supposed victim denies ever happened,” said Representative Devin Nunes of California, the committee’s top Republican.
Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio lambasted Taylor for relying at times on what he’d heard from his colleagues, given he never spoke to Trump himself. “You’re their star witness,” Jordan yelled at the ambassador in disbelief.
“Let me just say I don’t consider myself a star witness for anything,” Taylor, a decorated Vietnam War veteran who has served as a diplomat since 1985, responded affably. “I’m not here to take one side or the other.”
Republicans have criticized Democrats for holding impeachment hearings behind closed doors, which House minority leader Kevin McCarthy panned as a “Soviet-style” process and Representative Elise Stefanik of New York termed a “regime of secrecy.” Two dozen Republicans even stormed a secure facility where questioning was taking place last month, violating congressional rules by bringing their cellphones inside in a protest for more “transparency.”
Wednesday’s testimony, however, kicks off a two-week bonanza of public hearings featuring more than 10 witnesses that may leave Republicans nostalgic for those closed depositions. One witness who could be particularly damaging to their “hearsay” defense of Trump is Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union who has said he told Ukrainian officials military aid was tied to investigating the Bidens. Taylor revealed Wednesday that Sondland was in contact with Trump directly, according to one of his staffers who overheard a cellphone call between them in Ukraine.
Republicans were able to score some political points Wednesday, particularly around questions about why Biden’s son Hunter Biden was qualified for a board seat at a Ukranian gas company when his father was serving as vice president. But the hearing overall went poorly for them. Taylor and George Kent, a deputy assistant secretary at the State Department, painted a picture of US foreign policy cast aside by Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney, to serve the president’s political interests. When asked if they believed Giuliani cared about the US foreign policy goals in Ukraine, both men said no.
“I believe he was looking to dig up dirt on a potential rival,” Kent said of Giuliani.
Taylor testified that the newly elected president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, planned to make a statement on CNN about investigating the Bidens in order to secure a meeting with Trump and the release of US military assistance. Taylor became increasingly concerned when he realized hundreds of millions in security aid was being held up over the matter.
“It’s one thing to leverage a meeting in the White House. It’s another thing, I thought, to leverage security assistance to a country at war,” Taylor said. “It was much more alarming.”
As Republicans struggled to spin the day’s events, at times they struck an existential note.
“I think what happens is when we start to look at the facts, everyone has their own impression of what truth is,” North Carolina Representative Mark Meadows, a staunch Trump ally, told a swarm of reporters Wednesday morning outside of the hearing hall. “The ultimate judge will be the American people.”
Inside, lawmakers erected giant posterboards behind the dais to call into question the legitimacy of the process. One quoted a Democratic representative saying he fears Trump will get reelected if he’s not impeached. Another featured an old tweet from the lawyer representing the whistle-blower pushing for impeachment.
“You’ve been cast in the low-rent Ukrainian sequel” of the Russia investigation, Nunes told the witnesses.
But when it came to defending the president on the substance of the charges, Republicans were less strident. Jordan, who joined his GOP colleagues after the hearing for a fiery press conference, repeatedly dodged a question about whether it’s appropriate for a president to hold up military aid in exchange for an investigation on a political rival. Meadows also ducked a similar question: “Well obviously . . . this is a bigger question than just that,” he said.
Trump tweeted in his own defense Wednesday but told reporters he hadn’t had time to tune in to the testimony, due to a diplomatic visit from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “I haven’t watched for one minute,” he said.
At times, it appeared as if Republicans and Democrats were operating in different worlds, with Nunes and others boosting Trump’s theory that Ukraine — not Russia — meddled in the 2016 election, while Democrats somberly invoked the Constitution and founding fathers as they weighed impeachment.
Taylor’s and Kent’s testimony was not enough to move the needle for the lone Republican on the committee who could conceivably back impeachment, Texas Representative Will Hurd, who is retiring.
“I still think it’s premature,” Hurd said, as he quickly left the room and declined to answer further questions from reporters who trailed him.