In their exhausting task of trying to defend President Donald Trump’s fishy behavior in the Ukraine scandal, Republicans on Capitol Hill have been flailing this way and that, propping up questionable arguments, only to watch them fall like dominoes.
So far, violating — or maybe illustrating — the Washington maxim that if you’re arguing about process, you’re losing, Trump’s congressional defenders have turned to complaining about the process of an impeachment inquiry that they never wanted in the first place.
Why? Simple. They’d rather argue about the process than try to mount a defense that only gives more attention to the evidence and testimonies that have been mounting against Trump by the day. The sheer volume of new names and revelations has made it difficult for Trump’s Republican defenders to keep up.
So, instead of trying to fight on the substance, they complain about the process, even when they can’t seem to get their story straight — or keep it straight for more than a day or two at a time.
First they said Trump’s July 25 phone call — in which he instructed the president of Ukraine to dig up some dirt on Joe Biden — was, in the president’s words, “perfect.”
Republicans also began to call the impeachment inquiry a sham because the full House hadn’t voted on it and sharply attacked the participants for taking depositions behind closed doors.
That criticism began to fall apart even before the brash young Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz led about 30 other House Republicans to barge into a secure hearing room to disrupt the deposition of Laura Cooper, a deputy assistant secretary of defense.
The Republicans supposedly were protesting the absence of Republicans from the closed-door hearings. In fact, some of the protesters were members of the committees involved, which meant they already were welcome to attend. Cooper, an expert on Russia and Ukraine, testified a few hours later.
Trump, in a classic example of Trumpian overstatement, smeared the impeachment inquiry as a “lynching,” even though the hearing that Gaetz and company invaded was held in accordance with rules set up by the House in 2015 when it had a Republican majority.
Over in the Senate, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina prepared a resolution, co-sponsored by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and signed by dozens of other Republicans, to condemn the inquiry as “illegitimate.”
But, try as they might, the Grand Old Party crashers in the House could not erase the memory of such impressive witnesses as William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, who testified behind closed doors before the Gaetz intrusion.
Taylor’s 15-page opening statement described in vivid detail how Trump withheld military aid to pressure President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to launch investigations into a couple of debunked conspiracy theories. One was about the 2016 election. The other was about Joe Biden and his son, Hunter.
Taylor’s testimony, among others, helped support the argument Democrats have made in simple contrast to the shifting GOP argument: Trump should be impeached because he abused his power for his own political gain.
“It’s been more than a month and Republicans in Washington still won’t answer the simple question,” Nancy Pelosi tweeted Monday. “Is it appropriate for a President to pressure a foreign country to undermine our elections?”
That argument could have surprisingly persuasive power, judging by a new survey from Grinnell College, especially when no names or parties are attached to the issue. When participants were asked, without mentioning Trump, whether it’s OK “for political candidates in the U.S. to ask for assistance from a foreign government to help them win an election,” 81% said no. Even Republican voters overwhelmingly reject what Trump did.
But when Trump’s name is inserted, respondents returned to party lines. Overall, 42% said Trump should be impeached and removed from office. But while 83% of Democrats felt that way, 87% of Republicans did not.
Now that Democrats have announced they’ll hold a vote to authorize an impeachment probe and shut down a Republican complaint, watch for the argument to shift again. Republicans now want to build a “merit-based” case to defend Trump, Politico reports, which apparently means they will argue as President Bill Clinton did that, whatever he did, it “doesn’t rise to the level of impeachment.”
Using that excuse, which I already have heard some Republican lawmakers use, could enable GOP lawmakers to avoid offending Trump’s base voters without losing too many moderates, depending on whatever new revelations turn up. But a merit-based defense only works when the president in question still has enough merit.