Impeachment Briefing: How Republicans Are Using Hearings

The New York Times Politics 2 weeks ago

What happened today

  • Russia has been mounting a disinformation campaign for years to frame Ukraine for its 2016 election meddling, American intelligence officials told senators. Those unfounded claims about Ukrainian interference have seeped into Republican impeachment talking points.

  • In a 53-minute phone interview with “Fox & Friends” this morning, Mr. Trump attacked the impeachment inquiry and accused David Holmes, who testified yesterday, of fabricating a phone call between Mr. Trump and Gordon Sondland, the American ambassador to the European Union. (There is no evidence of this; Mr. Sondland confirmed Mr. Holmes’s account of the call.)

  • Tonight’s installment of “The Latest,” The Times’s new impeachment podcast, explores what the Fox interview tells us about Mr. Trump’s impeachment defense.

How Republicans used impeachment hearings

What happened in this week’s impeachment hearings? Your answer might depend on which lawmakers you were watching.

That’s because there are, as BuzzFeed put it, “two separate impeachment hearings happening right now.” One is run by Democrats, who are trying to build the case that the president’s behavior is impeachable, and one is run by Republicans, who are devising an entirely different narrative: that the evidence is thin, the witnesses aren’t trustworthy, and the investigation is focused on the wrong people.

I asked my colleague Jeremy Peters, who covers conservative politicians and news media, to help me understand how Republicans have refined that strategy in the past few weeks.

1. Rapid, prosecution-style questioning that can be amplified out of context

Some members of the House Intelligence Committee have used their five-minute question blocks to make rapid-fire assertions to befuddled witnesses, creating short video clips that are then replayed on Twitter and by conservative news outlets.

And yesterday, Representative Devin Nunes, the top Republican on the committee, rattled off a group of obscure names he believed were tied to a Ukrainian election meddling scheme, asking Fiona Hill and Mr. Holmes about them.

Jeremy: “What they’ve been trying to do is muddy the waters as much as possible. The facts are really dense: the corporations, the people, the names. They know that it’s a case with a lot of figures whose names we don’t really recognize, whose jobs we don’t fully understand, who saw things that we’re not entirely sure add up to impeachable activity.”

2. What the Bidens and Obama did was worse

Republicans have given the impression of conducting a parallel inquiry about what they view as shady dealings related to Hunter Biden, Joe Biden’s son. “If the Democrats and the media are suddenly so deeply concerned about bribery,” Mr. Nunes said in his opening statement on Tuesday morning, “you would think they would take some interest in Burisma paying Hunter Biden $83,000 a month.”

And as a way of responding to claims that Mr. Trump help up military aid, Republicans have pointed to Mr. Trump approving the sale of antitank missiles to Ukrainians, which former President Barack Obama did not.

“The Trump administration changed course from its predecessor and provided lethal defensive assistance to the Ukraine,” Steve Castor, the Republican staff lawyer on the Intelligence Committee, said yesterday. Hours later, Mr. Trump posted a video of the conservative radio personality Mark Levin making the same point.

Jeremy: “The Bidens, their argument goes, were doing corrupt things themselves. It’s a classic Trump argument: ‘What about them? They did it. Why am I getting in trouble for something they did? I know you are, but what am I?’ The best example of this is what he did with the Clintons, after the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape. ‘So what if I said this horrible thing on tape and I got caught? So what if I engaged in this locker room talk? What Bill Clinton did is way worse.’”

3. Talking points that rebut the witnesses in real time

On Wednesday, Mr. Sondland testified that he saw the Ukraine campaign as a clear “quid pro quo.” He also recalled that the president once told him: “I want nothing. I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo.” Mr. Trump soon read out those lines from handwritten notes on the White House lawn. Representatives Mark Meadows and Jim Jordan, two of Mr. Trump’s favorite allies, tweeted out the lines around the same time in the hearing room. Hours later, Republicans had a poster board behind the dais in the hearing room that read, “I WANT NOTHING.”

Jeremy: “Lines are taken out, isolated, stripped of context and meant to look as if they’ve completely cleared the president. If you turned on Sean Hannity’s show the night of Mr. Sondland’s testimony, what you heard was not Mr. Sondland admitting a quid pro quo, but the idea that ‘this is over for the Democrats.’ He spun it as Democrats having their worst day yet and having been humiliated, when in fact we learned new and really damaging info about the president.”

4. Using testimony to attack the witnesses’ character

When Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman testified on Tuesday, multiple Republicans on the committee, including Mr. Nunes, asked questions that implied he had been working in conjunction with the anonymous whistle-blower whose complaint prompted the investigation. As BuzzFeed reported, an article on Gateway Pundit, a pro-Trump website, tying Colonel Vindman to the whistle-blower had been widely shared on Facebook.

This morning, Senator Marsha Blackburn leveled the same kind of accusation on Twitter:

Jeremy: “One strategy Republicans and conservative media have used is ridiculing witnesses, to make them look diminished. When George Kent, a Ukraine expert at the State Department, testified, they were making fun of him for wearing a bow tie, calling him a nerd. Yesterday on Fox News, Laura Ingraham was making fun of Fiona Hill’s British accent. Ridicule is a huge component. If you’re trying to win an argument in the court of public opinion, you have to impeach their character.”

What else we’re reading

  • Speaking of smears, a former Fox News host wrote a column in our Opinion pages today outlining how and why the cable network spreads conspiracy theories, including their repeated assertion that the decorated combat veteran had dual loyalties to Ukraine.

  • So much happened this week in the impeachment investigation. We put together a comprehensive guide — something you should bookmark — about relevant procedures, the cast of characters, and the latest news.

  • And finally, find some time this weekend to look through Damon Winter’s gorgeous black-and-white photos from inside the hearing room.

The Impeachment Briefing is also available as a newsletter. Sign up here to get it in your inbox every weeknight.

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