Republican House members opened the first public impeachment hearing with a boisterous, partisan defense of President Trump that analysts and strategists said would help mobilize support in the 2020 election but reflected a split in strategy from the Senate.
Before a TV audience of tens of millions, William Taylor, the highest ranking American official in Ukraine, offered new evidence of Trump’s efforts to persuade Kyiv to investigate his political rivals.
It brought a withering series of questions from Jim Jordan, the Freedom Caucus member drafted on to the House Intelligence Committee to act as a Trump attack dog. He ridiculed Taylor’s responses, including that he had not been on the contentious phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that sparked the investigation, had never met the president, and had not discussed the issue with White House acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney.
“This is what I can’t believe. And you’re their star witness. You’re their first witness. You’re the guy, you’re the guy. Based on this, based on this. I’ve seen church prayer chains that are easier to understand than this,” he said.
Devin Nunes, the ranking Republican member, poured scorn on the process.
“Although Chairman Schiff seems hellbent on overturning the 2016 election, Republicans in both the House and the Senate are fighting furiously for fairness and openness in what has been a one-sided process,” he said. “The American people will see through this charade.”
Talking points fired out by the Trump 2020 campaign echoed Republican efforts to shift the focus to Hunter Biden and his lucrative post with a Ukrainian energy company, as well as question the credibility of the whistleblower who kick-started the proceedings but who will not be called to testify.
Rich Galen, a veteran Republican strategist, said it makes sense to keep coming back to the whistleblower.
“What you’ve got to try to do is try to disrupt and destroy the process,” he said. “The State Department guys giving evidence today are smart, impressive guys, so it would have backfired to go after them.”
The partisan attacks stood in contrast to Senate Republicans, he added, of whom 19 face reelection in 2020. They are engaged in a high-wire balancing act of understanding where voter sentiment lies while avoiding falling out with an insult-ready president.
“You don’t want any part of this, because it’s not district by district, it’s state by state. Nobody knows what’s going to happen,” he said.
So while House Republicans were adding Jordan to bolster their firepower on the Intelligence Committee, senators were quietly making plans to be elsewhere.
“I think it is a political sideshow, and I have more important things to do,” John Cornyn of Texas told CNN. “The House has its job to do. When it comes to us, that’s when our job kicks in.”
Several were in the Oval Office on Wednesday for a meeting between Trump and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey while the rest of Washington had its eyes on an ornate hearing room on Capitol Hill.
A senior Senate aide said it was also a question of different roles between the House and Senate during the impeachment process.
“They have their job to do and we have ours,” he said. “That’s part of why you are seeing what you are seeing.”
The partisan Republican attacks in the House were part of a larger global strategy to dig in on party lines and ensure that senators felt duty bound not to switch sides, according to Jeanne Zaino, professor of political science at Iona College in New York.
“If you maintain the status quo, you maintain the idea it is a partisan vote, then you can keep things on predictable party lines, and you are not going to get 20 Senate Republicans to back impeachment,” she said.
Muddying the waters, such as by raising questions about the junior Biden’s job, were delaying tactics, she added. The longer the process goes on and the closer it gets to next year’s election, the more disruptive it will be to senators and representatives running in the Democratic primaries and the more helpful it will be to a president who rose to power as an anti-establishment outsider.
“Any time that this process looks like at all it is corrupt or unfair, it benefits Republicans and it benefits the president,” she said. “The Democrats have done an OK job on process but Republicans will continue to hammer it.”
Trump sees impeachment in similar terms: as a way to mobilize his supporters in 2020.
“It’s energized my base like I’ve never seen before,” he told the Washington Examiner in a recent interview.
Although he said he was too busy on Wednesday to watch the proceedings on live TV, the president’s Twitter account buzzed with retweets of allies’ comments. “New hoax. Same swamp,” read a White House tweet that popped on to the presidential timeline.
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