The first day of public impeachment hearings reinforced what the previous month of closed-door depositions all but confirmed: that President Trump attempted to extort Ukraine into interfering in the 2020 election. Witnesses George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state, and Bill Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, laid out the case in exacting detail, while also revealing additional damning information, including that Trump was more concerned with Ukraine investigating Biden than the 2016 election.
Nevertheless, Republicans have claimed victory.
Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas) called the hearing “boring.” Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) said people in the audience were “yawning.” Eric Trump described it on Twitter as a “snoozefest.” His father, the president, tweeted a quote from Robert Ray on Fox Business that the hearing was too dense for “regular people” to understand.
The attention-span insults were tame compared to the response from Fox News’s primetime lineup. Sean Hannity said “the Republicans had a great day all the way around” and that Democrats looked “dumb, bad, stupid, and shallow.” One of his guests, Trump favorite Mark Levin, said Kent and Taylor looked like “two homeless guys.” On Tucker Carlson Tonight, contributor Christian Whiton said they “looked like people who sat by themselves at recess.” On the Ingraham Angle, guest Raymond Arroyo was flabbergasted by George Kent’s “water silo.”
They are literally attacking one of the impeachment witnesses for…….drinking water pic.twitter.com/vVSrCcVNcS
— Andrew Lawrence (@ndrew_lawrence) November 14, 2019
The bully tactics aren’t surprising. For Republicans to engage with the substance of the hearing in good faith would be to acknowledge how troubling Trump’s actions were. But this doesn’t mean that, in addition to hurling petty insults at Kent and Taylor, Trump’s defenders weren’t ready and willing to engage with their testimony in bad faith.
Below are some of the principal arguments the conservative spin machine has churned out over the past 24 hours, which are growing increasingly absurd as more evidence of Trump’s wrongdoing emerges.
There couldn’t have been a quid pro quo because military aid was released without investigations
The heart of the impeachment inquiry is that U.S. military aid to Ukraine and an invitation for President Volodymyr Zelensky to visit the White House were contingent upon Ukraine launching investigations into Biden and the 2016 election. Republicans have argued that because the aid was released despite no investigations being launched, nobody was extorted. During the hearing, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) seemed dumbfounded that Taylor could contend he had a “clear understanding” that a quid pro quo was in place if “the aid got released an [Zelensky] didn’t commit to an investigation.”
Jim Jordan presses Bill Taylor about aid being released to Ukraine without any investigations having been announced pic.twitter.com/SLlso6llW2
— Axios (@axios) November 13, 2019
“What you heard did not happen,” Jordan barked. “It did not happen.”
Several GOP representatives tweeted the talking point, which was in turn parroted on Fox News and on Trump’s Twitter feed.
4 inconvenient facts for the Democrat impeachment fantasy:
– Call transcript shows zero link between aid and political investigations
– Aid was released WITHOUT any new investigations
– Ukraine didn’t know aid was withheld during the call
– Trump/Zelensky both say: zero pressure
— Mark Meadows (@RepMarkMeadows) November 13, 2019
The problem here is that the Trump administration only decided to release the military aid after they became aware of the whistleblower’s complaint, and thus the imminence of a shitstorm of scrutiny over their interactions with Ukraine.
The fact that the aid was eventually released in no way precludes the administration having used it in an attempt to extort the vulnerable nation. As was the case with Trump’s potential obstruction of justice brought to light in the Mueller report, just because the attempt to extort Ukraine wasn’t successful doesn’t mean it wasn’t a crime. “Is attempted murder a crime?” Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) asked Kent and Taylor on Wednesday. “Is attempted robbery a crime? Is attempted bribery and extortion a crime?”
Zelensky said he did not feel pressured by Trump, which must mean he didn’t feel pressured by Trump
Republicans have leaned on the fact that Zelensky said publicly that he did not feel pressured by Trump and took no issue with their July 25th phone call. Rep. Ratcliffe in particular belabored the point on Wednesday, arguing Democrats were calling the new Ukrainian president’s credibility into question by claiming a quid pro quo was in place. “If House Democrats impeach President Trump for a quid pro quo involving military aid, they have to call President Zelensky a liar,” he said.
Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.) carried the torch onto Fox News. “We’re hearing from the best first-hand source when President Zelensky speaks out,” he said in response to a very legitimate question about why the White House is blocking primary sources from testifying. “He has on multiple occasions said he felt no pressure, there was no quid pro quo, there was nothing inappropriate.”
The best first hand account has been from President Zelensky directly. He said he felt no pressure, no demand, no quid pro, nothing improper, etc. pic.twitter.com/xEOQFWvCdH
— Lee Zeldin (@RepLeeZeldin) November 14, 2019
The key to the Trump administration’s efforts to extort Ukraine is how reliant Ukraine is on U.S. assistance to combat Russian aggression. If Zelensky were to publicly throw Trump under the bus, it would jeopardize that support, so of course he’s not going to do that.
The impeachment inquiry will be illegitimate until the whistleblower testifies
Calls for the whistleblower to testify dominated the Republican side of the hearing. Rep Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) complained the whistleblower had not been called to testify. Rep. Jordan backed her up, both during the hearing and Thursday morning on Fox News. So did Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). “I will not allow a trial in the Senate to go forward with my vote unless the whistleblower comes forward,” he told reporters on Thursday. “I want to know if there is a connection between the whistleblower, the CIA, Biden, or any other Democrat that may cast suspicions over their motives. I want to get to the bottom of this.”
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham says he will not allow an impeachment trial in the Senate to go forward “with my vote unless the whistleblower comes forward” pic.twitter.com/NcQ1MjVvAA
— CNN Politics (@CNNPolitics) November 14, 2019
The whistleblower’s identity, as well as his or her motives, is irrelevant. Nearly all of the claims in the complaint have been corroborated.
Nevertheless, also on Thursday morning…
Where’s the Fake Whistleblower?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 14, 2019
Kent and Taylor were not first-hand witnesses
This may be Republicans’ most ubiquitous talking point. They hammered it during the hearing and on Twitter and Fox News after it ended. The president even retweeted a clip from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off to illustrated how Taylor had only heard of the extortion plot through other administration officials, and had never spoken with Trump himself.
A live look into Ambassador Taylor’s testimony in the Schiff impeachment proceedings → pic.twitter.com/oiiUgkc8UG
— Rep. Doug Collins (@RepDougCollins) November 13, 2019
Jesse Waters was all over it on Fox News. “This was a hearsay hearing,” he said. “These guys have never met Donald Trump. They weren’t on the call and they have nothing to do with the aid package.”
— Jesse Watters (@JesseBWatters) November 13, 2019
Though Kent and Taylor may not have spoken with the president, their testimony has been independently corroborated by other officials. Another hole in this argument is that European Union Ambassador Gordon Sondland, who was in direct touch with Trump, is scheduled to testify next week.
Sondland has already admitted that he informed Ukraine that the military aid was contingent upon the launch of the investigations.