WASHINGTON — A major Republican strategy played out Wednesday at the first public impeachment hearing of President Donald Trump: Keep blaming the whistleblower.
The Republican members did not do much to deal with the news from the hearing.
William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, said in his opening statement he only recently learned that a member of his staff was in a restaurant when he overhead Trump, in a cellphone call with U.S. European Union Ambassador Gordon Sondland, ask about “the investigations.”
When the staffer asked Sondland what Trump thought about Ukraine, Sondland “responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of [Joe] Biden, which [Trump lawyer Rudy] Giuliani was pressing for,” Taylor said.
Sondland will testify next Wednesday, and someone should press him on what seems a major security breach — chatting with Trump on a cellphone where the call was not secure.
The impeachment hearings were triggered by the whistleblower who reported that Trump was holding up military assistance to Ukraine as he pressured the new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to dig up dirt on potential rival Joe Biden in a July call. Trump also wanted Zelensky to announce an investigation into Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election — even though that claim has been debunked.
The GOP fixation with the whistleblower is a tactic to deflect from the abuse of power charges against Trump and the compelling testimony of Taylor and George Kent, deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs.
Yes, the Democrats are shielding the identity of the whistleblower. Republicans and Trump are spotlighting the anonymous whistleblower on the theory this will somehow sway public opinion.
All that should matter is if the whistleblower tips check out.
“Now, there is one witness. One witness that they won’t bring in front of us,” declared Rep. Jim Jordan, the Ohio Republican put on the Intelligence Committee in advance of the televised impeachment hearings because he is an ardent and aggressive Trump defender.
“They won’t bring in front of the American people. That’s the guy who started it all, the whistleblower,” Jordan said.
Rep. Peter Welch, a Vermont Democrat, came back at Jordan: “I’d be glad to have the person who started it all come in and testify. President Trump is welcome to take a seat right there.”
Republicans stressed that in the end, Zelensky got the military assistance and never had to do anything — though at one point Zelensky agreed and by luck got off the hook.
The Democrats have a lot of work to do to remind the public that attempting a crime is, well, a crime.
Texas Democrat Rep. Joaquin Castro made that point.
“So we have a president who the other side has claimed or has defended the president saying that the aid went through, that there was never any investigation but the president attempted to get those things done and it looks like there was an initial agreement by the president of the Ukraine to actually do those things. So ambassadors, is attempted murder a crime?
Added Castro, “... I think anybody in this room could answer that question.”
Another distraction Republicans used was to note that Kent and Taylor never met with Trump and they were relying what they know from their conversations with others.
Chicago Democrat Rep. Mike Quigley tackled hearsay evidence when he questioned Kent and Taylor. “I think the American public needs to be reminded that countless people have been convicted on hearsay because the courts have routinely allowed and created needed exceptions to hearsay. Hearsay can be much better evidence than direct, as we have learned in painful instances, and it’s certainly valid in this instance.”
Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, a suburban Chicago Democrat, zinged Trump, who brags his July call with Zelensky was “perfect.”
He asked, “You don’t believe the July 25th call was perfect. Did you? Do you?”
Kent said, “I think some of the language in the call gave cause for concern.”
Said Taylor, “I agree.”