WASHINGTON - Updated 10:05pm
Republican supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump are planning a vigorous defense of him as public congressional impeachment hearings start Wednesday that target his presidency.
Trump administration officials are bracing for hours of testimony from two U.S. State Department officials — William Taylor, the current top American diplomat in Ukraine, and George Kent, who oversees Ukraine affairs. Both officials have said that Trump pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to open investigations of one of Trump's chief 2020 Democratic challengers, former Vice President Joe Biden, before he would release $391 million in military aid Kyiv wanted to help fight pro-Russian separatists in the eastern part of the country.
But Republicans, according to memos circulating to party members Monday night and Tuesday, plan to sharply question the two officials' understanding of Trump's intent in dealing with Ukraine and insist that Trump had a "deep-seated, genuine and reasonable skepticism" about corruption in Ukraine and that his withholding aid was "entirely reasonable."
In a late July call with Zelenskiy, Trump asked the Ukrainian leader for "a favor," the investigation of Biden, his son Hunter Biden's work at a Ukrainian natural gas company and a debunked theory that Ukraine had meddled in the 2016 election that Trump won, not Russia, as the U.S. intelligence community concluded.
However, a Republican strategy memo circulating at the Capitol building 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 continued to rail against the impeachment hearings against him, only the fourth such occurrence in the 243-year history of the U.S.
"A total Impeachment Scam by the Do Nothing Democrats!" Trump said on Twitter.
A total Impeachment Scam by the Do Nothing Democrats! https://t.co/aFTQe293JF— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 12, 2019
"Why is such a focus put on 2nd and 3rd hand witnesses, many of whom are Never Trumpers, or whose lawyers are Never Trumpers, when all you have to do is read the phone call (transcript) with the Ukrainian President and see first hand?" Trump said in another tweet.
Why is such a focus put on 2nd and 3rd hand witnesses, many of whom are Never Trumpers, or whose lawyers are Never Trumpers, when all you have to do is read the phone call (transcript) with the Ukrainian President and see first hand? He and others also stated that there was.....— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 12, 2019
The leader of the impeachment push against Trump, Congressman Adam Schiff, told the 435 members of the House of Representatives that the nationally televised hearings "are intended to bring the facts to light for the American people."
Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee overseeing the impeachment hearing, said that Taylor, Kent and a third witness set to testify Friday, Marie Yovanovitch, a former U.S. ambassador to Kyiv, "bring decades of dedicated and exemplary service to our nation, and I believe it is vitally important that the American people and all members of Congress hear in their own words what they experienced and witnessed."
The committee will also hold three days of hearing next week. Among the witnesses scheduled to appear then are Ambassador Kurt Volker, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, Ambassador Gordon Sondland and former National Security Council senior director Fiona Hill.
Republicans claimed in their memo defending Trump, "Democrats want to impeach President Trump because unelected and anonymous bureaucrats disagreed with the president's decisions and were discomforted by his telephone call with President Zelenskiy. The president works for the American people. And President Trump is doing what Americans elected him to do."
Taylor, Kent and Yovanovitch are among current and former diplomatic and national security officials who testified behind closed doors in recent weeks.
Transcripts of their depositions detailed how Trump and his aides pressed Ukraine to launch investigations of the Bidens and any Ukraine involvement in the 2016 U.S. election.
Trump on Monday criticized the investigation as a "totally one sided Witch Hunt" and teased the release of a transcript of his first phone call with Zelenskiy, which took place in April shortly after Zelenskiy was elected.
The impeachment inquiry was touched off by a complaint from an anonymous government whistleblower who said he was troubled by Trump's request to Zelenskiy for the Biden investigations, since it seemed the president was seeking the help of a foreign government in next year's election. It is illegal under U.S. campaign finance law to solicit help from a foreign government to help a candidate in a U.S. election.
Trump says the call was "perfect," and that he did nothing wrong.
Schiff invited Republicans to submit a list of witnesses they want to question, but has rejected the two most prominent figures on the Republican wish list: Hunter Biden and the unnamed whistleblower.
Schiff said Trump "has engaged in unprecedented obstruction" with his administration "defying subpoenas for thousands of documents" that House committees have requested.
"He's blocking more than a dozen witnesses from testifying," Schiff said. "The American people see through this."
In the previous three impeachment efforts targeting U.S. leaders, two presidents (Andrew Johnson in the mid-19th century and Bill Clinton two decades ago) were impeached but acquitted in Senate trials, while a third president, Richard Nixon, resigned ahead of all-but-certain impeachment in the 1970s.