Representative Elise Stefanik of New York earned high marks for her questioning of U.S. diplomats on Wednesday, the first day of public impeachment hearings.
Bloomberg View columnist Eli Lake called Stefanik’s questioning “very impressive.” Fox News anchor Bret Baier agreed, as did former Obama administration official Michael McFaul and CNBC’s John Harwood. “None of them has much to work with, but Elise Stefanik is most effective GOP questioner by a wide margin,” Harwood tweeted.
Stefanik opened her remarks by making two simple points: “Number one, Ukraine received the aid,” and “number two, there was in fact no investigation into Biden.” It was a concise, coherent “no harm, no foul” defense stronger than other arguments Trump’s allies have made, even if Democrats responded by pointing out that attempted murder and attempted robbery are still crimes. Then Stefanik emerged as the committee’s most effective anti-impeachment messenger in questioning U.S. diplomat George Kent about corruption at Burisma, the gas company that paid Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, $50,000 a month to sit on its board.
Stefanik noted that Kent, now the deputy assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs at the State Department, first learned about corruption at Burisma in 2015 when he was the “senior anti-corruption coordinator” for the United States in Europe.
“You testified that the issue of corruption in Burisma was in the U.S. interest because, and this is from your deposition, ‘that we had made a commitment to Ukrainian government in 2014 to try to recover an estimated tens of billions of dollars of stolen assets out of the country,’” Stefanik said.
“That is, the stolen assets that were in the name of the owner of Burisma,” Kent replied. “He was the one who we had believed stolen money.”
“This was the first case that the U.S., U.K., and Ukraine investigators worked on was against the owner of Burisma?” Stefanik asked.
“That’s correct,” Kent responded.
Stefanik further noted that in 2016, Kent was “so concerned about corruption questions related to Burisma,” he asked USAID not to cosponsor an essay contest with the gas company, and that he was also concerned about the “appearance of conflict of interest” created by Hunter Biden’s serving on the board of Burisma. Both points were, again, correct.
Stefanik wisely used her time to make the case that general concern about corruption at Burisma could be a legitimate issue that was in the national interest. But her line of questioning was not by any means an airtight defense against the charge that President Trump was acting in his personal political interest when he asked Ukraine’s president to “look into” Hunter Biden and Burisma and when he ordered military aid withheld in an alleged effort to pressure Ukraine to publicly announce such an investigation. Trump did not broadly focus on fighting corruption in Ukraine: He singled out only the company connected to Joe Biden’s son, and he involved his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani to pressure Ukraine to investigate it.
Kent himself testified Wednesday that Giuliani was not promoting U.S. interests in Ukraine. “I believe he was looking to dig up political dirt against a potential rival in an upcoming election cycle,” Kent said, pointing out that anti-corruption efforts could have been pursued through proper diplomatic channels, and that Giuliani was not working for the government. Kent also debunked the notion that Joe Biden might have helped Burisma when he was involved in pushing for the firing of Ukraine’s prosecutor general as vice president. Biden had requested the removal of “a corrupt prosecutor general . . . who had undermined a system of criminal investigation that we built with American money to build corruption cases,” Kent said. “I did not witness any efforts by any U.S. official to shield Burisma from scrutiny. In fact, I and other U.S. officials consistently advocated reinstituting a scuttled investigation of [Mykola] Zlochevsky, Burisma’s founder, as well as holding the corrupt prosecutors who closed the case to account.”
But Stefanik’s questioning still proved more fruitful than the performance of other Republicans on the committee, who stuck with the implausible no-quid-pro-quo defense or even claimed that President Trump had never wanted Ukraine to investigate the Bidens.
According to the rough transcript of the July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, Trump asked Zelensky to “look into” the prosecution of Burisma. “Biden went around bragging about that he stopped the prosecution” of Burisma, “so if you can look into it . . . it sounds horrible to me,” Trump told Zelensky. And during on-camera remarks at the White House on October 3, he said: “I would say that President Zelensky, if it were me, I would recommend that they start an investigation into the Bidens.” Yet in Wednesday’s hearings, Devin Nunes, the ranking Republican on the Intelligence Committee, claimed: “I think one of the mothers of all conspiracy theories is that somehow the president of the United States would want a country that he doesn’t even like — he doesn’t want to give foreign aid to — to have the Ukrainians start an investigation into Bidens.”
Stefanik’s points, by contrast, had the advantage of being correct, and they could matter in the court of public opinion when Republicans argue that Trump should not be removed from office because there were legitimate reasons to request an investigation into Burisma.