Expectations were set for the first public impeachment hearing on Wednesday: Democrats would mine the two diplomat witnesses for the details of President Donald Trump’s pressure campaign against Ukraine, and Republicans would attempt to turn the same conspiracy theories Trump sought as political dirt into headline news.
But the majority of Republican inquisitors kept arms-length away from the conspiracy theories that have driven Trump’s push for investigations in Ukraine. Only three Republicans, including the panel’s staff lawyer, brought up the zany theories.
For months, Trump and others pushed Ukraine to announce politicized investigations based on wild conspiracies — asserting that a Democratic email server was somehow being hidden in Ukraine; that Ukraine, not Russia, meddled in the 2016 elections; and that Joe Biden had a Ukrainian prosecutor fired in order to protect his son, who sat on the board of the Ukrainian natural gas company Burisma.
Ahead of Wednesday’s hearing, lawmakers were expected to drag those conspiracies into the congressional record, as transcripts show they did during closed-door sessions. Even Republicans’ desired witness list — mostly rejected by Democrats — indicated the conspiracies would take center stage. On it, Mueller-era scapegoats like Nellie Ohr brushed elbows with a DNC contractor accused of soliciting foreign help, Alexandra Chalupa, and Hunter Biden.
But in the impeachment inquiry’s first public hearing Wednesday, Trump’s congressional allies’ mostly focused on process arguments, attempting to poke holes in the accounts of the two witness, both longtime diplomats focused on Ukraine.
Just three Republicans regurgitated the conspiracy theories that landed Trump in this mess. Two of them — the committee’s ranking member and the minority staff lawyer — tried their hardest to set the tone for the Republican side.
Ranking Member Devin Nunes (R-CA), kicking off the minority’s questions, signaled to Trump loyalists that he, at least, was still interested in the truth.
“The Democrats downplay, ignore, outright deny the many accusations that the Ukrainians did meddle in the election,” he said, adding: “If there actually were indications of Ukraine election meddling, and if foreign election meddling is a dire threat, then President Trump would have a perfectly good reason for wanting to find out what happened.”
Nunes went on to cite a single Politico story on purported Ukrainian election meddling that’s become a talisman for Trump’s boosters, though the story’s assertions have remained largely uncorroborated for nearly three years.
Nunes kept going, dropping a greatest hits catalogue of Fox News references: the Steele Dossier, President Barack Obama’s hot mic moment with Vladimir Putin, and, again, the “numerous indications” of Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election.
The two witnesses, Acting Ukraine Ambassador Bill Taylor and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent, stared blankly ahead.
Republican committee attorney Steve Castor took the baton from there, grilling the witnesses on Burisma, diving down Ukraine election meddling rabbit holes and pointing to the publication of a “black ledger” in Ukraine, published during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, that indicated then-Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort had taken millions in off-books payments. Manafort resigned as a result and has since maintained that the ledger is a fraud.
“You certainly can appreciate that President Trump was very concerned that some elements of the Ukrainian establishment were not in favor of him, did not support him and were out to get him,” Castor semi-asked. Taylor said he didn’t know.
“In the run-up to the 2016 election, there’s many facts that remain unresolved, agreed?” Castor asked.
Taylor looked stumped. “I’m sorry, what’s the question?” he responded.
Castor said he was talking about U.S. Attorney John Durham’s independent probe of the 2016 elections, a source of hope for Trump loyalists desperate to reveal a “Deep State” plot to spy on the Trump campaign.
“To the extent there are Ukrainians doing improper things, the Ukrainians ought to investigate that themselves, correct?” Castor asked. Taylor parried.
Aside from Nunes, the other elected Republicans on the panel largely steered clear of these kinds of conspiracies, instead trying to poke holes in witness testimony based on hearsay, speaking generally about the Obama administration’s Ukraine policy or asking the diplomats about the credibility of other witnesses.
That is, until Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY) turned on her microphone, bringing up the investigation into the owner of Burisma during the Obama administration, which the Justice Department assisted, before pivoting to Joe Biden’s son holding a board seat at the company.
“You also testified that you were indeed concerned about the appearance of conflict of interest?”
“That’s correct,” Kent said.
She asked him to affirm that “issues of corruption have been part of high-level dialogue between U.S. leaders and Ukrainian leaders,” which Kent did.
Considering her colleagues mostly avoided mentioning the Bidens, Stefanik looked curiously victorious.
“You know what? I will yield back after that,” she said.