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Trump’s Ukraine Defenders Are Caught in an Existential Crisis

With no coherent strategy beyond bare survival, the president's allies wildly pivot between defenses as the day slips away.

Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty

In the White House’s telling of events, the two staffers who testified on Tuesday morning weren’t credible and also cleared the president of any wrongdoing. “We have learned nothing new in today’s illegitimate ‘impeachment’ proceedings,” the White House said in a statement. “However, buried among the witnesses’ personal opinions and conjecture about a call the White House long ago released to the public, both witnesses testified the July 25 transcript was ‘accurate’ and nothing President Trump has done or said amounts to ‘bribery’ or any other crime.” In short, the White House tried to have it both ways.

Trump’s allies have struggled for two months to put forward a coherent, credible narrative that defends him against allegations of wrongdoing. As the second week of hearings began, they adopted a choose-your-own-adventure approach: making as many points as they could, no matter their coherence, in the hopes that one of them stuck. It hasn’t been persuasive, to say the least. It hardly helps that they do not seem to have persuaded themselves.

Tuesday’s morning session centered around Jennifer Williams, a foreign policy staffer in the vice president’s office, and Alexander Vindman, the National Security Council’s Ukraine expert and an Army lieutenant colonel. Both of them listened in on Trump’s infamous July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Devin Nunes, the ranking Republican member of the House Intelligence Committee, spent his allotted time on Tuesday morning asking the witnesses if they were “aware” of various conspiracy theories surrounding Hunter Biden, Joe Biden, Burisma, CrowdStrike, and the 2016 election. His questions likely made little sense to anyone who’s not well-versed in the Fox News Cinematic Universe.

Vindman testified that he thought the call was improper and that he had reported its contents to NSC lawyers. Steve Castor, the committee’s Republican counsel, tried to discredit him in a grotesque manner. One of his lines of questioning implied that Vindman, a Ukrainian-born American who left the Soviet Union as a baby, might have divided loyalties between Ukraine and the United States. Castor homed in on a putative offer made to Vindman to become Ukraine’s defense minister. The offer came from Oleksandr Danylyuk, a top Ukrainian defense official at the time, who told the Daily Beast’s Erin Banco on Tuesday that he was kidding when he made the offer. (Danylyuk noted that he lacked the authority to make such a proposition.)

In that sense, the offer calls to mind the 2014 World Cup meme that anointed U.S. men’s soccer goalkeeper Tim Howard as U.S. secretary of defense—a joke shared online by the actual Department of Defense at the time. Castor quizzed Vindman at length about it nonetheless. Did you consider taking the job? “I am an American,” the Army colonel testified. “I came here when I was a toddler, and I immediately dismissed these offers.” Did you report it to your superiors? Yes, Vindman said, following standard counterintelligence protocol despite the obvious joke. Did Danylyuk make the “offer” in Ukrainian or in English? In English, Vindman said.

Questioning the loyalty of a naturalized U.S. citizen, let alone an active-duty Army colonel who fled the Soviet Union as a small child, smacked of xenophobia and bigotry. Trumpworld, naturally, relished it. Dan Scavino, the White House social media director, posted a clip on Twitter of the exchange with the caption, “#ICMYI: Lt. Col. Vindman was offered the position of Defense Minister for the Ukrainian Government THREE times! #ImpeachmentSHAM.” His clip included the questions asked by Castor but cut the part where Vindman said he had rejected the offer, reported it to superiors, and did not take it seriously. The result is astoundingly deceptive, even by the Trump White House’s standards.

House Republican lawmakers didn’t fare much better. At times, they insisted that Trump was simply following the long-standing U.S. anti-corruption policy in Ukraine in good faith. At others, they said he had the right to change it and set a new one. They insisted that Trump had every right to block U.S. funds until he ensured Zelenskiy was committed to fighting corruption. Then they claimed he wasn’t serious when asking Zelenskiy for a “favor” when it came to investigating Biden and the 2016 election. During last week’s hearings, House Republicans complained that none of the witnesses had firsthand accounts of what happened. This week, they dismissed those who did.

The overall message was nihilistic. If you’re a Democrat who criticizes the president, you’re trying to overturn the 2016 election. If you’re a Republican who criticizes the president, you’re a Never Trumper who can’t be trusted. If you’re a nonpartisan civil servant, you’re either an arrogant unelected bureaucrat or a foreign-born subversive with questionable loyalty to your adopted country. There are no legitimate critics of this president’s actions in the House Republicans’ eyes. As I noted on Monday, Trumpworld increasingly believes there can be no justifiable challenge of how he exercises the immense constitutional powers with which he has been entrusted. Power justifies itself.

The afternoon session did not go well for Republicans, either. Lawmakers questioned Tim Morrison, who was the top National Security Council adviser on Russia and Europe until last month, and Kurt Volker, the former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine. Whereas Democrats had summoned the morning witnesses to testify, GOP lawmakers had called Morrison and Volker to provide their versions of events. If Republicans had hoped they would help exonerate the president or strengthen his defenses, they were sorely mistaken.

Volker largely rejected Republicans’ version of events. He described spurious allegations about Ukraine and the 2016 election as a “conspiracy theory” and defended the integrity of Trump’s foremost target. “I have known Vice President Biden for 24 years,” Volker told lawmakers. “He is an honorable man, and I hold him in the highest regard.” What’s more, he said that Giuliani agreed with his assessment that Ukraine’s disgraced prosecutor-general wasn’t credible. House Republicans have argued that Trump and Giuliani had a good-faith interest in corruption in Ukraine; Giuliani’s remarks to Volker undercut that claim.

Most importantly, he revised his closed-door testimony in ways that bolstered the Democrats’ core allegations. “In hindsight, I now understand that others saw the idea of investigating possible corruption involving the Ukrainian company ‘Burisma’ as equivalent to investigating former Vice President Biden,” Volker said in his opening statement. “I saw them as very different—the former being appropriate and unremarkable, the latter being unacceptable. In retrospect, I should have seen that connection differently, and had I done so, I would have raised my own objections.” Again, this is a witness called by Republican lawmakers, not Democrats.

Volker wasn’t an ideal witness for either side. His version of events suggests that he was aware Giuliani wanted Ukraine to investigate the Bidens in Ukraine, and that he was aware that the White House wanted Ukraine to investigate Burisma. But Volker says that he didn’t connect the dots between Joe Biden, Hunter Biden, and the Ukrainian company on whose board Hunter served until after the fact. This stretches credulity, to say the least. Giuliani made no secret about his reasons for being in Ukraine. And some of Volker’s contemporaries, such as acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor, put the pieces together far sooner. But Volker somehow remained blissfully ignorant.

Morrison, for his part, was expected to be a strong witness by Republicans. Indeed, he affirmed his prior testimony that he had concerns about Vindman’s judgment while supervising him on the NSC. The White House had already posted an excerpt of that deposition on Twitter to slam Vindman, who still works on the NSC. But many of Morrison’s answers seemed dubious. He told lawmakers that he had no concerns with anything said during Trump’s infamous July 25 call with Zelenskiy. Despite that, he said he asked other White House staffers to restrict access to it, suggesting that at minimum he realized how explosive it could be.

Tuesday’s hearings were essentially the undercard match. The main event this week is the Wednesday morning hearing, where Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, will testify in public for the first time. Other witnesses have challenged key portions of his closed-door deposition, and he’s already revised his testimony once before. Some Republicans reportedly told CNN that they are worried Sondland will “flip” on the president. If he does, Trump’s most fervent defenders in the House will take it in stride. After all, they’re not trying to make intellectually coherent arguments or defenses. They’re just trying to get through the day, one Fox News hit at a time.