The More We Learn, the Worse Things Look for Trump

Republicans insisted that the full account would vindicate the president, but that’s not how it’s worked out.

Representatives Jim Jordan and Lee Zeldin
US Representative Jim Jordan (R-OH) speaks to the media as Representative Lee Zeldin (R-NY) looks on outside of the Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF) at the US Capitol (Olivier Douliery / AFP)

Just wait for the whole story, Republicans pleaded for weeks, as closed-door depositions piled up with witnesses in the House impeachment inquiry.

“The public is absolutely being misled about every single deposition that takes place,” complained Representative Lee Zeldin.

Democrats were engaged in “secret hearings and selective leaks to the pro-impeachment press,” according to The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board. “This hide-the-witness strategy fits the way Democrats are handling impeachment more broadly.” (Never mind that Kim Strassel, now the most stalwart Trump defender within the Journal’s editorial pages, had celebrated the private hearings in the Benghazi process as a model of rectitude.)

Republicans complained that they had been instructed by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff not to discuss the hearings, only to see information getting to reporters anyway. “I’m confined to a large degree in what I can say,” said Representative Chris Stewart. “It’s extraordinarily frustrating.”

The Democratic majority “is now abusing its power to discredit democracy, by using secret interviews and selective leaks to portray the president’s legitimate actions as an impeachable offense,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy charged on October 31, closely echoing the Journal’s talking point.

Representative Liz Cheney had a solution in mind: “The selective leaking in which the House Intelligence Committee has been engaged must end immediately and the full and complete record must be provided for the American people to see,” she wrote in a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Friday.

Like previous Republican demands for public hearings, this request was politically canny: Democrats had already signaled they would hold public hearings and release transcripts, meaning Cheney was guaranteed a win when they did so.

But it proved a Pyrrhic victory. The Intelligence Committee has so far released four transcripts—interviews with Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, former State Department Senior Adviser Michael McKinley, Ambassador Gordon Sondland, and Ambassador Kurt Volker. And so far, the transcripts haven’t delivered the exculpatory or exonerating evidence that Republicans hoped and implied they would.

Instead, they’ve both closely tracked the leaks that have already emerged and deepened the president’s jeopardy. Sondland’s testimony, including an addendum he submitted after being contradicted by later witnesses, confirms that he told Ukrainian officials that the U.S. would not provide military aid until Kiev published a public statement citing Burisma and the 2016 U.S. election. That, along with other documents released yesterday, confirms that the president not only demanded a quid pro quo, but demanded a corrupt one.

Yovanovitch’s account of how she was recalled with no explanation shows the pusillanimity and disorder of administration officials, and undercuts the idea that she was somehow undermining Trump’s policies. (You can’t undermine a policy that hasn’t been communicated to you.) McKinley, speaking under oath, contradicted Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s claim to the press that no one had asked him to make a statement in support of Yovanovitch.

With the exception of Sondland’s updated testimony, which was submitted only Monday, there haven’t been huge revelations from the transcripts. That’s not all that surprising: Democrats leaked anything that aided their cause. Republicans would have leaked anything that helped theirs, too—the problem is that there doesn’t appear to be any such material in the transcripts so far.

At the same time, the transcripts show Republican members using their time in depositions erratically, trying to throw up various process-related roadblocks and working the refs. Representative Scott Perry asked Yovanovitch about the intelligence practice of “unmasking” and whether her staff was involved, puzzling the ambassador. In one peculiar exchange, Mark Meadows asked Yovanovitch where her nickname, Masha—a common Russian nickname for Maria—comes from.

Finally, the release of the testimony vindicates the Democratic claim that witnesses ought to be heard in private to avoid coordinating testimony. (This was, in point of fact, Intelligence Committee Republicans’ claim, under former Chairman Trey Gowdy, before it was Democrats’.) Sondland told investigators he’d conferred with Energy Secretary Rick Perry to “refresh [his] memory,” yet Sondland submitted his addendum, including the explosive quid pro quo claim, only after other witnesses contradicted his claims.

The Trumposphere often operates on an esoteric argument that if only all the facts were revealed, the totality of the evidence would clearly show that the president was innocent and that his detractors are the guilty ones. A version of this faith animated the Republican demand for full transcripts. Now that the transcripts are being released and aren’t yielding exoneration, it should—but won’t—prompt a reevaluation of this esotericism.

Instead, GOP leaders have simply swapped out their talking points.

“I don’t know that you need all the transcripts,” Representative Jim Jordan said Monday. “Like I’ve said, the facts have always been there, the facts have been clear from the get-go.”

The problem for Trump is that Jordan is probably right.