Republicans contended Wednesday that U.S. President Donald Trump did not improperly pressure Ukraine to investigate political rivals for political advantage, with Representative Devin Nunes declaring the accusations were based on "zero evidence" and that Democrats "made it up."
At the urging of Trump, Republican lawmakers mounted a vigorous defense of the president's actions in dealing with Ukraine over several months, and they asserted that the Democrats' case for impeachment against Trump was nonexistent. Trump's political supporters on the House Intelligence Committee focused on the fact that the president released military aid that Ukraine wanted, without opening investigations of former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, which Trump had urged Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to undertake.
The Democratic-led impeachment inquiry against Trump entered a new phase Wednesday as witnesses began testifying publicly after weeks of closed-door testimony.
Acting U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor and George Kent, deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, were the first to testify at the open hearing. Taylor said a member of his staff overheard Trump on a July phone call with U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland inquire about "the investigations."
The call was said to have taken place on July 26 at a restaurant, a day after Trump asked Zelenskiy in a call to investigate a political rival, Biden, a potential rival in the 2020 presidential election, and his son Hunter, at a time when the Trump administration was withholding critical military aid to Ukraine.
"Following the call with President Trump, the member of my staff asked Ambassador Sondland what President Trump thought about Ukraine," Taylor testified. "Ambassador Sondland responded that President Trump cares more about the investigation of Biden," for which Trump's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuiliani, was pressing.
Taylor acknowledged under questioning from Representative Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican and steadfast Trump supporter, that he met with Zelenskiy three times last summer, but that linkage of U.S. military aid to Ukraine was never mentioned.
The impeachment probe was triggered by a whistleblower complaint related to concerns about the July 25 phone call.
Before Republicans questioned the witnesses, the party took to social media to criticize the hearing.
A tweet from House Oversight Committee Republicans said:
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California contended, "Both of the Democrats' star witnesses just admitted that they were NOT on the July 25th call between Presidents Trump and Zelenskiy. Everything they are saying today is 2nd or 3rd or 4th-hand knowledge. Democrats are trying to impeach the president based on a game of telephone."
In the lead-up to Wednesday's testimony, a Republican strategy memo circulating at the Capitol outlined four defenses for Trump: that the July 25 call "shows no conditionality or evidence of pressure"; that both Zelenskiy and Trump have subsequently said there was no pressure during the call; that Kyiv was not aware at the time, only later, that U.S. military aid was being withheld; and that Trump eventually released the military aid on September 11 without the investigations of the Bidens being opened.
"These four key points undercut the Democrat impeachment narrative that President Trump leveraged U.S. security assistance and a presidential meeting [with Zelenskiy at the White House] to force Ukraine to investigate the president's political rivals," the memo said.
Trump has described his telephone call with Zelenskiy as "perfect," and he is accusing Democrats of conducting a witch hunt, calling the entire impeachment inquiry a hoax.
Some of Trump's Republican supporters have said they don't agree with asking a foreign government to investigate a political rival but they don't believe it is an impeachable offense that could lead to his removal from office.