U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson called it a “very sad farce.” The impeachment proceedings that began this week in the House of Representatives were, according to various Republicans, a “witch hunt” (Donald Trump), based on “hearsay” (Rep. Michael Turner-R,Ohio) about something that “did not happen” ( Rep. Jim Jordan R-Ohio) and a convoluted case that the American public could not possibly follow (also Jordan).
But the case laid out so far in front of the House Intelligence Committee is not hard to follow at all.
The testimony of William Taylor, the top American diplomat in Ukraine, and George Kent, a top State Department official, confirmed much of what we knew from the public record — that President Trump pressured President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine to do him a “favor” by investigating his political rival Joe Biden, while holding up military aid Zelensky was desperate to get from the United States.
Taylor and Kent maintained their sober, professional demeanor in the face of aggressive badgering by Trump’s allies in Congress.
Jordan, the most aggressive of the lot, made a big deal of the fact that Taylor had not had direct contact with Trump, sneeringly declaring “you’re their star witness?!”
Never mind the people who had the most direct interaction with the president over Ukraine, including Mick Mulvaney and John Bolton, refused to appear, and the State Department specifically told employees not to testify.
Despite Jordan’s efforts to make it sound ridiculously convoluted, Taylor’s testimony was crystal clear. He dropped a bomb when he told the committee that he only recently learned that his aide overheard a phone conversation in which Trump fretted about whether Ukraine would go through with the Biden investigation. Immediately after hanging up from the call, Trump’s ambassador to Europe Gordon Sondland told the aide that Trump cared more about investigating Biden than he did about Ukraine, Taylor said.
Taylor and Kent both gave expert testimony about the “highly irregular” channel of diplomacy — led by Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani — to conduct what amounted to a shakedown scheme to serve Trump’s personal political interests.
At one point Democrats on the committee displayed a quote from Mulvaney, saying “I have news for everybody: Get over it. There’s going to be political influence in foreign policy.”
But Taylor clarified the difference between informal diplomacy and the kind of lobbying Trump was engaged in, that runs counter to U.S. interests.
“Our holding up security assistance to fight Russian aggression for no good policy or national security reason is wrong,” Taylor testified.
Another Republican talking point, advanced by both Jordan and Elise Stefanik (R-NY), was the idea that, since Ukraine eventually received its aid, no crime was committed.
But that only happened after the plot was made public.
As Greg Sargent of the Washington Post observed on Twitter, the Republicans appeared to be “putting all their chips on the idea that the fact that the extortion plot didn’t come to fruition somehow is exonerating.”
Congressman John Ratcliffe (R-Texas) also made much of Zelensky’s protestations, in a press conference during which he appeared with Trump, that he was never under pressure. In that press conference, commonly referred to as the “hostage video,” a nervous Zelensky beats around the bush, then says everything is “normal” between his country and the United States. Then Trump, man-spreading in the chair next to him leans forward to say loudly “In other words, NO PRESSURE!” It speaks for itself.
No honest observer can look at the impeachment evidence and say that there is nothing to be concerned about here. In fact, Republicans’ ability to dismiss the impeachment proceedings rely principally on ignoring the facts and retreating to their own, alternate reality.
They are counting on the American public being as stupid as Jim Jordan seems to think we are. Instead of taking a step back and considering the national interest, as the two career diplomats who defied the State Department edict and answered their subpoenas to testify this week did, they are doubling down. The Republicans are banking on the idea that criticism of Trump will help rile up his base.
In a recent fundraising letter, the Republican National Committee sent out a “presidential pledge of support” — asking Trump supporters to sign a loyalty oath — not to the United States, but to Donald Trump.
The pledge reads, in part, “Please know that I am 100% behind you in these critical times when it is extremely vital that we stand united against the Democrats, the mainstream media, and other powerful foes who are determined to derail your Presidency and destroy you personally.
“As a dedicated American who shares your positive vision for the country … I am proud to pledge my personal support to you and our Republican Party.”
The Republicans have it exactly backwards.
It is the President of the United States who swears an oath to faithfully execute his office and preserve and defend the Constitution.
And it is Congress’s job to prosecute a rogue president who abuses his office and endangers our democracy.