Professor Daniel Drezner: “The GOP Dogs That Won’t Hunt”

I watched the first day of the House impeachment hearings Wednesday wondering about three things. First, would any new information come out? The witness depositions of William B. Taylor Jr. and George Kent had already been released, so it was understandable to expect little news to be made. Second, would there be any memorable optics from today? I take my colleague Margaret Sullivan’s point about focusing on substance but was curious what the splashiest elements of the day would prove to be. The last question concerned the GOP members of the Intelligence Committee. How would they defend President Trump on camera? Could they offer a substantive defense?

The answer to the first question turned out to be yes. Anytime Politico runs a story with the headline, “Democrats land damning new evidence in impeachment testimony,” that is not a good day for Trump. The actual news from reporters Kyle Cheney and Andrew Desiderio was equally ungood:

The most explosive revelation came from Taylor, who told lawmakers that one of his aides overheard Gordon Sondland — the U.S. ambassador to the European Union and a top Trump campaign donor — on the phone with the president, during which the aide could hear Trump ask about “the investigations.” Taylor said Sondland told the president that the Ukrainians were “ready to move forward.”
The aide told Taylor that Sondland subsequently relayed “that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden, which [Rudy] Giuliani was pressing for.” Taylor said he was “not aware of this information” when he testified at a private deposition on Oct. 22, and only learned of it last week.

Taylor’s testimony on this point is third-hand, but the House will be deposing the aide who heard it, so there are still some news cycles to play out.

On the second point, I was pleasantly surprised to see less disruption and more substance than expected. A few GOP members tried to derail Chairman Adam B. Schiff after the opening statements, but in the end it didn’t amount to much. There were a few jokes by some members that resonated. The GOP counsel did not rant and rave but did not exactly shine either.

As it turned out, for me the most significant exchange was also one of the most substantive. It came from a question that Democratic counsel Daniel Goldman asked of both witnesses:

Indeed, Taylor went further, telling Goldman that withholding military aid “for no good reason” made no sense. “It was counterproductive to all of what we had been trying to do,” Taylor said. As The Post’s Devlin Barrett reported, “Withholding aid sent a message not just to the Ukrainians, Taylor said, but to the Russians. Without public and material support from the United States, Ukraine was in a weaker negotiating position with the Russians, he said.”

George Kent gave the same response to Goldman’s question, which underscored a point he had made in his opening statement:

This sequence was revealing because it showed the difficulties Trump’s supporters in the House will face in trying to defend him in public. First, it eviscerated one of the more bizarre talking points from a few of Trump’s defenders — that Ukraine was no big deal because quid pro quos happen all the time in foreign policy. The second clause in the previous sentence is true; the first is not, precisely because the quid Trump demanded was for personal and political interest and not for the national interest.

This exchange also undercut a somewhat more substantive GOP talking point — that the extortion of Ukraine was not an impeachable offense so much as a substantive policy dispute between the elected president of the United States and the unelected permanent bureaucracy. Andrew McCarthy made this argument in his latest National Review column: that even if the president’s foreign policy worldview is blinkered, he is the one who got elected president. McCarthy claims, “the government’s policy community has gotten so political, it has forgotten that its mission is to implement the president’s policies, not undermine them.”

I have seen variations of this argument in recent weeks and found them wanting. However, the National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru responded directly to McCarthy, and his response reveals why the exchange highlighted above was such a revealing moment:

Andy doesn’t argue (and most other like-minded commentators don’t argue) that the president is therefore acting properly if, in consultation with outside advisers, he decides to set a policy of cajoling a foreign government to kneecap one of his political opponents. A government official who gets evidence that leads him to think that’s what the president is doing might reasonably think it worth calling attention to it. And one sign that something is afoot might be that the president is running one policy through his bureaucrats while seeming to run another through outside advisers….
That question involves a policy dispute, but is better understood as a dispute about the character of our system of government and the appropriate uses of presidential power—in other words, the sorts of questions Congress can legitimately consider when weighing an impeachment of the president.

In that one exchange, Goldman drove a stake through the heart of two GOP defenses of the president. This does not leave them with much. They can’t say that it was no big deal, because literally everyone who is testifying does not believe that. They can try to say that it didn’t matter because Ukraine got its aid without making any concessions, except we know that Ukraine’s government was preparing to acquiesce until everything went public.

After one day, a lot of GOP dogs have stopped hunting. Let’s see what day two brings.

This piece was republished from The Washington Post

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