As former ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor made his opening statement earlier this week, over 30 Republican lawmakers sought to change the subject by barging their way into the Sensitive Compartmentalised Information Facility (SCIF). They brought their mobile phones – forbidden in such a secure facility – and refused to leave so investigators could begin interviewing Laura Cooper, the deputy assistant secretary of defence. They chanted “Let us in,” sat down and ordered some pizza.
After they left, the group stood in front of a bank of cameras so their putative spokesman, 37-year-old second-term representative Matt Gaetz, could shout about how unfair it is that the Democratic-controlled House is following rules laid out in 2015 (when Republicans controlled the chamber) by keeping members who aren’t part of the three investigating committees out of the depositions.
Of course, many of the members who stood behind Gaetz were members of those committees. But that wasn’t the point of the stunt. The point was to perform for their audience of one, with whom Gaetz and a number of them had met the day before.
And the audience responded, showing his gratitude in a tweet praising the group’s blatant security breach the next day. “Thank you to House Republicans for being tough, smart, and understanding in detail the greatest Witch Hunt in American History,” the president tweeted.
On Thursday, it was Senator Lindsey Graham’s turn to demonstrate his fealty by introducing a non-binding Senate resolution – co-sponsored by all but eight Senate Republicans – which he unveiled at an afternoon press conference.
“The purpose of the resolution is to let the house know that the process [they] are engaging in regarding the attempted impeachment of President Trump is out of bounds, is inconsistent with due process as we know it, it is a Star Chamber type inquiry, it is a substantial deviation from what the House has done in the past regarding impeachment of other presidents,” Graham said.
Like the other Trump defender, Graham’s concern was mainly with the closed-door depositions – despite the fact that he, as one of the House “managers” during the inquiry into then-president Bill Clinton, had conducted plenty of closed-door interviews of witnesses. Indeed, not only did Graham conduct similar proceedings during the Clinton impeachment, but Republicans on the House Benghazi select committee conducted more than 100 closed-door interviews when investigating former secretary of state Hillary Clinton.
When I asked Graham, a former air force prosecutor, if he would ever allow witnesses in one of his cases to see other witnesses testify and gain the ability to synchronise their stories, Graham gave a long, rambling answer which ended up invoking the investigation the Justice Department is currently conducting to examine the Trump-Russia probe.
I pointed out that the impeachment investigation is not about anything that happened in 2016. Graham replied: “Well, it is to me.”
One Democrat who I spoke to about the week’s events – Illinois senator Richard Durbin – suggested that his GOP colleagues’ actions were evidence of the weakness of Trump’s case after Taylor’s testimony blew away the “no quid pro quo” defence.
“After the testimony of ambassador Taylor, they were looking for some sort of theatrical presentation and I suppose that was the best they could find,” Durbin said, adding later that he understood where the Republicans were coming from. “Let me tell you, I’ve been in desperate political situations before and you just strike out at the pain,” he said. “When it was a president of my party, we talked about process all the time. But ultimately we had to face the substance, and ultimately, they will too.”
But some Republicans I spoke with were far less sympathetic. Paul Rosenzweig, who was one of Ken Starr’s deputies during the Clinton impeachment probe, had harsh words for the arguments put forth by Graham, Gaetz, and their GOP compatriots.
“Almost nothing that the Republicans have complained about in terms of process has any constitutional merit,” said Rosenzweig, now a senior fellow at the R Street Institute. “The Republicans on the Benghazi committee conducted dozens of closed-door depositions before they had open hearings, and I didn’t hear the Republicans complaining then. They are clearly trying to make a political point, but their political point really emphasises the fact that they have neither the law nor the facts on their side, so they have to invade a SCIF instead.”
Rosenzweig’s impressions of the evidence that has been publicly reported so far was equally blunt. “Ambassador Taylor’s testimony was particularly trenchant and, uh, adverse to the president’s interests, both in suggesting that most of what he’s been saying so far is untrue, and in directly suggesting that he understood that [Trump] had conditioned the delivery of foreign aid on securing personal benefits,” he said. “That makes the diplomatic exchange one that is corrupted by the president’s intent, and thus both impeachable and quite possibly criminal.”
Another Republican I spoke with, former Florida congressman Carlos Curbelo, said that some of his ex-colleagues’ concerns with how Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff has handled things might be legitimate. But he was not so generous in his assessment of Gaetz and the other SCIF stormers’ motivations: “At the end of the day, Republicans don’t want to face the facts and don’t want to talk about what happened because they can’t defend it, and they shouldn’t try to. So the best available strategy right now is to make these process arguments and to jump in front of the camera.”
While some Republicans are willing to commit egregious security breaches in defence of the president, Curbelo explained that Trump might still have reason to be worried about the rest of the GOP caucus: ”It’s not all Republicans – it’s not even most of the Republicans,” he said. This is being led by a small group who are paladins for the president”. A significant number of others, Curbelo said, are “quietly watching this and processing and digesting the facts as they become known”.
While he cautioned that many of his former colleagues are “waiting for the American people to lead by voicing their opinions,” he told me there is definitely an “erosion of support” for Trump in the GOP caucus: ”People are embarrassed about all of this. Mick Mulvaney’s performance the other day shocked a lot of my former colleagues, so right now this is not going the right way for the president. This marriage with Trump is starting to be very costly.”
“With each passing day, a small number of Republican senators and House members lose a little more confidence in the president and his administration… nothing that the president is doing right now is stopping it.”
For his part, Trump seemed to think everything was fine when I saw him on Friday morning.
“I did nothing wrong; this has been going on since I got elected,” he said just before he helicoptered away from the White House.
He invoked the names of some of betes noires he’d conjured during the Mueller investigation – Peter Stzrok, Lisa Page, Barack Obama, the “Never Trumpers” – comparing them to House Democrats now investigating much more than his “perfect call,” along with the more than 50 per cent of Americans who now support their work. He railed against those he’d recently called “human scum”.
While some of his allies – most notably former chief strategist Steve Bannon – have fretted about the White House’s seeming lack of a strategy or direction in the face of the Democrats’ inquiry’s quickening pace, Trump denied that he needed anyone else in his corner.
“Everybody’s talking about teams,” he said. “Here’s the thing: I don’t have teams. I’m the team.”
When NBC’s Peter Alexander asked him if he had a defence, he ignored the question. But with more and more current and former employees and associates choosing to ignore the White House counsel’s demand for no cooperation – and with House Democrats planning to convene public impeachment hearings in the Judiciary Committee next month – it’s a question he won’t be able to ignore for much longer.
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