The GOP's bottom-line Trump defense: Get over it

Analysis: Ultimately, most Republicans said Monday at the Judiciary Committee's impeachment hearing, they saw no evil and heard no evil — except when it came to Trump rival Joe Biden.
Republican staff counsel Stephen Castor stands at the witness table during a break in testimony as the House Judiciary Committee holds a hearing on the impeachment inquiry on Capitol Hill
Republican staff counsel Stephen Castor stands at the witness table during a break in testimony as the House Judiciary Committee holds a hearing on the impeachment inquiry on Capitol Hill on Dec. 9, 2019.Erin Scott

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By Jonathan Allen

WASHINGTON — The impeachment of President Donald Trump boiled down to a reality test Monday as the Judiciary Committee moved a step closer to drafting articles formally charging the president.

Trump's fellow Republicans mounted a vigorous defense that held — all at once — he didn't do it, nothing he did was wrong and that they will impeach his rival for doing the same thing (even if it's not really the same thing) if the president eventually loses to that rival, former Vice President Joe Biden.

"We already we got the forms — all we have to do is eliminate Donald Trump’s name and put Joe Biden’s name," Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, said during a raucous and unusual Judiciary hearing in which lawyers for that panel and the House Intelligence Committee testified as witnesses.

Democrats argued Trump presents a clear threat to American democracy because he is directing an ongoing campaign to force a foreign nation to help him destroy his leading rival in the upcoming 2020 elections.

The risk is so imminent, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., said, that Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani's recent trip to Ukraine is part of a "pattern of conduct" that "represents a continuing risk to the country."

And yet, in a stirring moment toward the end of the hearing, it was Republican staff lawyer Steve Castor — a man who held firm for nine-plus hours as the president's champion — who quietly acknowledged that, at best, Trump had been pursuing a "good faith" belief in what amounts to a Russian disinformation campaign to frame Ukraine for interfering in the 2016 election.

Ultimately, most Republicans said they saw no evil and heard no evil, except when it came to Biden, who has been the leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination since announcing his bid in April and who by dint of his status as a private citizen is not susceptible to impeachment.

And they said they saw no apparent irony in arguing that Trump was justified in withholding Ukrainian aid, in contravention of legally enacted appropriations, to investigate whether Biden acted improperly in threatening to suspend aid to Ukraine when he was vice president.

Trump has maintained that Biden, whose son Hunter sat on the board of a Ukrainian gas company, acted out of personal interest — even though his move was in accordance with U.S. and international policy goals at the time and even though a probe into the company, Burisma, had been dormant for some time.

Dan Goldman, one of the Democratic staff lawyers who testified Monday, said there is an easy explanation for why Biden's move was proper and Trump's is part of a chain of impeachable offenses.

"There is a distinction between doing an official act for an official purpose and doing an official act for a personal purpose," Goldman said.

The Democratic lawyers detailed for the first time a full timeline of what they described as the president's "scheme" to strong-arm a dependent Ukraine into doing his bidding — specifically announcing investigations into Biden, his son Hunter and "Crowdstrike," the Russian-originated disinformation campaign designed to frame Ukraine for Russia's interference on behalf of Trump in the 2016 election.

"The scheme part is very important," Goldman said.

In their testimony, which reflected the evidence they gathered in their work for the Judiciary and Intelligence committees, they noted that Trump told Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, the ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, and the special representative to Ukraine, Kurt Volker, in a May 23 meeting in the Oval Office that they had to "talk to Rudy" on issues relating to Ukraine.

Giuliani had worked to remove the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, and to push for Ukraine to investigate the Bidens.

In mid-July, the Democratic lawyers said, Trump froze $391 million in aid for Ukraine that had been appropriated by Congress and approved by him. Less than two weeks later, just before a phone call between the two leaders, Sondland told Ukrainian officials after he had spoken with Trump that the money was dependent upon the opening of the investigations, Goldman said.

During the phone call, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy thanked Trump for U.S. support and Trump asked for a "favor," which he detailed as looking into the Bidens and "Crowdstrike."

Castor disputed the interpretation that Trump had sought an investigation on the phone call.

“I don’t think the president was requesting an investigation into Joe Biden," he said.

The next day, July 26, Sondland spoke to Trump by phone from Ukraine and the president asked whether Zelenskiy would execute on the investigations. Sondland confirmed that Zelenskiy would, adding that the Ukrainian president "loves your ass" and will "do anything you want," according to previous testimony before the Intelligence Committee.

Republicans repeatedly pointed out Monday that the money was released Sept. 11, that Trump told Sondland in a phone call that there was "no quid pro quo" he wanted in exchange for the funding just a few days before that and that Zelenskiy never made the announcement.

Barry Berke, majority counsel for the Judiciary Committee, addressed the GOP's defenses during testimony early in the day.

Trump, he said, released the money only "after he got caught."

Trump didn't let the funds go until after the White House was apprised of an intelligence community whistleblower report making its way through an inspector general's office and the Department of Justice, the House Appropriations Committee began pressing the White House for answers about why the money had been held back and three House chairmen had announced an investigation into the matter.

Republicans argued that it was reasonable for Trump to be worried about corruption in Ukraine, a country that has struggled with it in the past, particularly Trump's skepticism about foreign aid.

Furthermore, they said, it was perfectly justified to seek an investigation into Biden, who boasted publicly about forcing Ukraine to fire a prosecutor under threat of withholding aid when his son sat on the board of the Ukrainian gas company — though that position was also held at the time by many U.S. allies, and several GOP senators.

Berke countered that Trump ignored the larger corruption issues aides had asked him to raise in phone calls with Zelenskiy and instead focused only on "these two things" — the Crowdstrike and Biden matters.

Trump has insisted publicly that there was never a "quid pro quo," and both Sondland and Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., have said that he told them the same privately when they asked whether the funding was conditioned on anything.

Berke noted that Trump also told Sondland, according to Sondland's testimony, "what he wanted" by saying that Zelenskiy should do the right thing in order to get the funding.

Moreover, Goldman said that witness testimony about the actions of various players made clear that, regardless of protestations to the contrary by Trump and by Zelenskiy in the interim, there was pressure applied by the United States to Ukraine to announce the investigations in exchange for freeing up the money.

“You need to look at the actions to understand what those words mean,” Goldman said. "All of the evidence points to the fact that there was a quid pro quo." He added that Ukraine remains under pressure, knowing that Trump is willing to freeze aid in the future, not to upset him by deviating from his narrative.

There was one moment late in the hearing where the Republican wall wavered.

Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colo., asked Goldman and Castor whether the Ukrainian government had interfered in the 2016 election.

"The president had a good-faith belief there were some significant Ukrainian officials..." Castor began.

Neguse cut him off.

"There are no intelligence agencies in the United States that publicly stated that Ukraine attacked our elections, right? You're not testifying that that's the case?" Neguse asked.

"I'm not, right," Castor conceded. "Correct."

So, after nine hours of bitter partisanship, roll call votes on whether to take breaks, and descriptions of the president that swung from the leader of a continuing criminal enterprise to an international champion of the anti-corruption movement, the Republican staff lawyer's testimony was that Trump acted on a "good faith" belief in what U.S. intelligence officials say is a Russian disinformation campaign — and that, if true, this mistaken belief was somehow exculpatory.

Democrats say reality is even less charitable than that.