Republican lawmakers made a few interesting points while defending President Donald Trump during the House’s first day of public impeachment hearings. They noted that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has publicly asserted that he didn’t feel pressured by Trump to deliver on his end of a quid pro quo during the infamous July 25 call or any time afterwards, despite the available evidence. It’s hard to blame Zelenskiy for this strategy: Ukraine depends on bipartisan U.S. support in the ongoing conflict with Russia, and his reluctance to upset those ties is understandable.
Another complaint by Republicans was that the alleged scheme wasn’t actually carried out. It’s true that Trump released the aid on September 11 even though Zelenskiy hadn’t announced an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter. But that decision came two days after the intelligence community’s inspector general notified the House Intelligence Committee about the whistleblower complaint, and one day after the committee requested a copy of it. In other words, the scheme only fell apart when the House closed in on it. After the aid was released, Zelenskiy canceled his scheduled September 13 CNN appearance where he was allegedly going to announce the Biden investigation. No quid, no quo.
But perhaps the most consistent critique from GOP lawmakers during Wednesday’s impeachment hearings was that the two men under oath didn’t have any first-hand knowledge of the scheme. Bill Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine at the moment, and George Kent, a top State Department official for Eurasian matters, told lawmakers how they slowly pieced together a shadow foreign policy led by Rudy Giuliani and his allies. They described how others told them that Trump wanted a quid pro quo exchange from Zelenskiy: Ukraine would get the military aid when he publicly announced an investigation into Biden, smearing the then-frontrunner in the race for the 2020 Democratic nomination.
That wasn’t good enough for some GOP lawmakers. “Bill Taylor testifies about information that he heard from others,” Arizona Representative Andy Biggs wrote on Twitter. “That is hearsay. That type of testimony is excluded in a law court because it is considered inherently unreliable.” Others painted the testimony more artfully. “Ambassador Taylor is telling Congress that Tim Morrison told him that Ambassador Sondland told Morrison that the President told Sondland…,” quipped New York Representative Lee Zeldin, one of the president’s most aggressive defenders in the House.
This line of criticism—that testimony from Taylor and Kent can be ignored because it’s hearsay—is flawed for three reasons. First, there will actually be witnesses testifying next week who will be able to give first-hand accounts of what happened. White House aide Tim Morrison is scheduled to appear before the committee on Tuesday. Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union and a key player in the Ukraine saga, is also scheduled to appear on Wednesday. Sondland already revised his closed-door testimony once before to describe what amounts to a quid pro quo scheme. Republican lawmakers are essentially gambling that what he says in public next week won’t be even worse.
Second, there’s an element of disingenuousness to this argument. The White House is blocking multiple people from testifying who could actually provide first-hand accounts of what happened, including White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, multiple cabinet officials, and other key executive-branch personnel. Rudy Giuliani, perhaps the central figure in this affair, is also refusing to testify before the House. GOP lawmakers haven’t backed the subpoenas for these witnesses, but they’ve requested that Hunter Biden and the whistleblower both testify. Those choices indicate that finding out whether Trump committed an impeachable offense isn’t their priority.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, the fact that neither Taylor nor Kent could offer first-hand accounts is part of the problem. They were kept out of the loop on purpose. Republicans have tried to cast Trump and Giuliani’s actions as part of a legitimate, good-faith attempt to crack down on corruption writ large in Ukraine. That assertion is refuted by the available evidence, as I’ve noted multiple times before. But it’s also undercut by the way in which Trump and his allies went about the Ukraine scheme—a series of events that Taylor and Kent actually witnessed themselves.
If the president and his allies had genuine concerns about corruption in Ukraine, they could have raised them through normal diplomatic channels—i.e., though Kent, through Taylor, and through Marie Yovanovich, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine at the time. Kent and Taylor both testified on Wednesday that corruption was a legitimate problem in Ukraine, and that they supported legitimate steps to crack down on it. Yovanovich will likely echo their sentiments when she appears before the House on Friday.
The rub, of course, is that Trump doesn’t actually have genuine concerns about corruption in Ukraine. In May, Trump met in the Oval Office with Kurt Volker, the U.S. special envoy in Ukraine; Rick Perry, the secretary of energy; and Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union. The three men had just returned from Zelenskiy’s inauguration. They told Trump that they had a positive impression of Ukraine’s new president and his commitment to anti-corruption reforms. They even recommended that he should be invited to an Oval Office meeting with Trump—a valuable sign of high-level U.S. support for the country’s untested new leader.
Trump disagreed, according to testimony given by Sondland and Volker last month. He said that Ukrainians were “terrible” and that they “tried to take me down”—an apparent reference to spurious conspiracy theories that Ukraine, and not Russia, was behind the election interference in 2016. Trump then directed them to speak with Rudy Giuliani, who publicly championed those conspiracy theories. Giuliani then told Sondland, the ambassador later testified, that Ukraine had to publicly announce investigations into Burisma and the 2016 election. Things only got worse from there.
Kent and Taylor didn’t know this, at least not at first. Both men testified that the White House didn’t provide them with read-outs of Trump’s July 25 phone call with Zelenskiy, even though it was relevant to their duties. They instead had to piece it together bit by bit from conversations with Sondland and other officials while fielding worried queries from Ukrainian officials about the aid freeze. Once they understood what was happening, they urged the participants not to go through with it. “The nightmare is they give the interview and don’t get the security assistance,” Taylor texted Volker in early September. “The Russians love it. (And I quit.)”
Trumpworld responded to Wednesday’s testimony by attacking the witnesses themselves. “The entire world can read the transcript of President Trump’s conversation with President Zelenskiy, so people don’t need to rely on third-party opinion when they see the facts for themselves,” Brad Parscale, Trump’s campaign manager, said in a statement on Wednesday after Kent and Taylor finished testifying. “We hate to break it to these unelected, career government bureaucrats who think they know best: the President of the United States sets foreign policy, not them. And disagreement on policy is not an impeachable offense.”
Trump’s disdain for civil servants and the mythical “deep state” is well established after three years in office. But it’s profoundly misplaced in this situation. Kent and Taylor weren’t trying to undermine Trump by raising concerns about his scheme to extort Ukraine. They were trying to save the president from himself. Trump is free to blame them and the other non-sycophants around him for his impeachment woes. But they’re not the ones who really led him astray.