Following the release of the written record of a July phone call between President Trump and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky — in which Trump asked Zelensky to “look into” the prosecution of Joe Biden’s son in the context of a call dealing with Ukraine’s military needs — House Democrats pushed forward with impeachment.
In the Senate, where any impeachment trial would be heard, lawmakers mostly dug in along partisan lines, with only a few Republican senators expressing serious concern about the matter.
The transcript is “troubling in the extreme,” said Utah freshman Mitt Romney. “There are real troubling things here,” Nebraska Republican Ben Sasse said after reading the whistleblower complaint on Wednesday night. “Republicans ought not just circle the wagons, and Democrats ought not be using words like ‘impeach’ before they knew anything about the actual substance.”
The phone call “raises a number of significant questions,” Maine senator Susan Collins said. “I would remind everyone if articles of impeachment are passed by the House, that my role would be to act as a juror, so I’m not going to be prejudging the evidence and I’m not going to be commenting on the House’s proceedings.”
A few more Republicans expressed mild concern. “While the conversation reported in the memorandum relating to alleged Ukrainian corruption and Vice President Biden’s son was inappropriate, it does not rise to the level of an impeachable offense,” Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania said in a statement. James Lankford of Oklahoma called the discussion of Biden’s son “not wise.”
But many Senate Republicans dismissed the notion that there was anything wrong with an American president asking a foreign government to look into investigating the family of his American political rival.
“I don’t see an issue with it at all,” South Carolina senator Tim Scott said of Trump’s discussing the Biden investigation with the Ukrainain president. “There’s nothing there,” said Florida senator Rick Scott.
“I don’t see anything there,” Iowa Republican Joni Ernst told reporters on Wednesday. After the release on Thursday of the whistleblower report related to President Trump’s dealings with Ukraine, not much had changed for Ernst. Like several GOP senators, Ernst said she hadn’t had a chance to read the nine-page report: “If you do want to talk about ethanol, I am happy to talk about ethanol because that’s where all my efforts are right now.”
“When you read the transcript of the call, it’s turning into a real nothingburger,” Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson said. “We certainly saw no quid pro quo.”
“My Lutheran catechism tells me, ‘Put the best construction on things.’ What’s happening here in the House, in the press, is the worst possible construction,” Johnson added.
When Johnson was asked if he thought Trump would have asked for the Ukrainian president to look into prosecuting Hunter Biden if he weren’t the Democratic presidential candidate’s son, he dismissed the question as “hypothetical speculation.”
South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham came out swinging in defense of the president. “From my point of view, to impeach any president over a phone call like this would be insane,” Graham told reporters. “What would’ve been wrong is if the president had suggested to the Ukrainian government that if you don’t do what I want you to do regarding the Bidens, we’re not going to give you the aid. That was the accusation; that did not remotely happen.”
The threat wasn’t even implicit? “To me, that’s not even remotely in the realm of one thing for another.” Graham also told reporters he does not want Congress to investigate Hunter Biden but would like to hear from the whistleblower: “I want to hear why you think what you think. I am not afraid of anyone coming forward and telling this story.”
Democrats were largely supportive of their colleagues in the House impeaching the president. Virginia Democratic senator Tim Kaine told reporters that Trump had left the House “no choice” but impeachment, calling the discussion of military aid and investigating Biden’s son as “clear a quid pro quo as you would ever find.”
When the Ukrainian president asked to buy Javelin missiles, Kaine said, “This president should say, ‘Great, that would be American jobs,’” rather than asking for a “favor” and later “switching the topic to the investigation” of Biden’s son.
Is there any way the president could have asked for the investigation if he thought there were a legitimate reason for one, not just to gain personal advantage over Biden in the 2020 election?
“There can be legal processes,” Kaine acknowledged. But “it’s an abuse of power to drag the [U.S. attorney general] into his personal campaigning. It’s also an abuse of power to try to get his personal attorney an audience with the president of Ukraine. Giuliani doesn’t have anything to do with U.S. policy. This is purely personal for him. Using the office [of the president] to get material that will help him personally is an abuse of power.”
“You certainly don’t send your own personal lawyer and someone who is your political operative to a foreign country to invite them to begin the investigation [of a political rival]. That is clearly wrong,” Delaware Democratic senator Chris Coons said when asked if there was a legitimate way to seek such an investigation. “So I don’t have a good answer, but I can tell you that what he did was clearly wrong.”
West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin, who represents a state Trump won by a wide margin, told reporters that he was withholding judgment. To make any conclusion before seeing all the facts is “so wrong,” Manchin said. Asked if impeachment could hurt Democrats in 2020, Manchin said: “I’m not going to make any predictions on that whatsoever.”
If all 47 Senate Democrats would vote to convict the president, 20 Republican senators would need to join them to provide the two-thirds vote necessary to remove the president from office. In the event that the House does impeach the president, there would not be close to enough votes to convict the president in the Senate based solely on the information revealed in the transcript of the Trump-Zelensky call.