House Democrats dedicated a lot of time during Wednesday’s impeachment debate delivering insincere remarks about how sad they were on such a somber day. House Republicans meanwhile spent much of their debate time on Wednesday describing impeachment as a partisan sham and a farce based on nothing more than a “routine phone call.” A couple went even farther to compare impeachment of Trump to the bombing of Pearl Harbor or the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
But if you’ve listened closely over the last several weeks, you’ve also heard several Republicans implicitly concede that what Trump is accused of is quite serious.
Republican senator John Kennedy of Louisiana said that withholding aid to Ukraine in exchange for an investigation of the Bidens would “probably” be an impeachable offense if Trump’s motive was political.
South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham now says he is “not trying to pretend to be a fair juror,” but when he was asked last month if withholding military aid to Ukraine in an attempt to get Ukraine to investigate the Bidens was impeachable, Graham said he wasn’t sure.
“Senator, if there was a quid pro quo, would that be an impeachable offense in your opinion?” a reporter asked Graham in November. “You know, I don’t know,” he replied. “We put conditions on aid all the time. But if you said, ‘I’m not going to give you money unless you investigate my political opponent to help me politically,’ that would be completely out of bounds.”
Republican congresswoman Elise Stefanik emerged as a top Trump defender during the House Intelligence Committee hearings, but she resorted to evasion when asked if it was wrong for the president to ask a foreign government to investigate his American political rival.
Wouldn’t Republicans have been outraged if President Barack Obama had asked Ukraine to investigate Mitt Romney’s son in 2011? “President Trump didn’t ask that question,” Stefanik told me in an interview in November. “If you read the transcript, President Trump didn’t ask that question. Read the transcript. That was not a question. I know that it’s been oversimplified. . . . You are putting words in the president’s mouth.”
While taking questions on camera from reporters at the White House on October 3, President Trump was asked: “What exactly did you hope Zelensky would do about the Bidens after your phone call?”
“Well, I would think that, if they were honest about it, they’d start a major investigation into the Bidens. It’s a very simple answer. They should investigate the Bidens,” Trump replied.
When asked a couple more times whether it was wrong to ask a foreign government to investigate a domestic political rival, Stefanik focused on the fact that the investigation never occurred without answering whether the request was wrong.
Even law professor Jonathan Turley, the only Republican witness called during the House Judiciary Committee’s public hearing, conceded that “the use of military aid for a quid pro quo to investigate one’s political opponent, if proven, can be an impeachable offense.”
And here’s how Republican senator Ron Johnson described President Trump’s reaction when he was privately asked if there was a quid pro quo:
I asked him about whether there was some kind of arrangement where Ukraine would take some action and the hold would be lifted. Without hesitation, President Trump immediately denied such an arrangement existed. As reported in the Wall Street Journal, I quoted the president as saying, “(Expletive deleted) — No way. I would never do that. Who told you that?” I have accurately characterized his reaction as adamant, vehement, and angry — there was more than one expletive that I deleted.
As a matter of politics, Republicans seem to have weathered the impeachment storm. Democratic presidential candidates don’t want to talk about the matter, and polls show voters evenly divided on impeachment (in other words, opposition to impeachment is a few points higher than Trump’s approval rating). But all you have to do is look to Republican officials’ own words to realize many don’t believe the talking point that the first article of impeachment is a joke.
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