The GOP’s Witnesses Aren’t Helping Trump

If Republicans thought Kurt Volker and Timothy Morrison would bust the Democrats’ case for impeachment, they were likely disappointed by what they heard today.

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At the start of the second session of today’s doubleheader impeachment hearings, Chairman Adam Schiff noted an important distinction about the two witnesses appearing before the House Intelligence Committee: Both Kurt Volker, the former special envoy to Ukraine, and Timothy Morrison, a senior director on the National Security Council, were “requested by the minority.”

In other words, the Republicans on the committee wanted them there. And, presumably, they wanted Volker and Morrison because they thought their testimony would help President Donald Trump and hurt the case for his impeachment.

That’s not exactly what happened.

In his opening statement, Volker made a point of defending the potential political opponent Trump wanted Ukraine to investigate, former Vice President Joe Biden, calling him “an honorable man” whom he holds in “the highest regard.” Volker referred to allegations about Biden’s involvement with Ukraine during the waning months of the Obama administration as “conspiracy theories” and said the suggestion that Biden had acted corruptly was “not credible.” Volker insisted that he did not make a connection at the time between Biden and Trump’s desire for Ukraine to investigate both possible interference in the 2016 election and the energy company Burisma, on whose board Biden’s son once sat. But Volker testified that he now understood that the president’s demands of Ukraine went beyond a generalized crackdown on corruption—that he wanted a probe of the Bidens, something Volker said this afternoon was “unacceptable.”

“In retrospect, I should have seen that connection differently, and had I done so, I would have raised my own objections,” Volker said.

As for Morrison, Republicans had interpreted his private deposition to lawmakers on October 31 as favorable. In this morning’s hearing, GOP lawmakers used Morrison’s words to try to undermine Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman’s credibility, pointing out that Morrison had raised concerns about his judgment. Morrison stood by that critique in the afternoon, but he would not elaborate, and his portrait of his NSC colleague fell far short of the “deep state,” anti-Trump partisan the president’s loyalists had painted.

Moreover, on the questions central to impeachment, Morrison did little to help the president’s case. He acknowledged that both he and Vindman were disappointed with the message that Trump delivered to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in their July 25 call—the one in which Trump asked Zelensky for the “favor” of an investigation into Biden. Both men, Morrison said, had hoped Trump would deliver a stronger message of support for Ukraine. And when asked by Democrats whether it was inappropriate for the president to ask a foreign government to investigate a domestic political opponent, Morrison replied: “It’s not what we recommended the president discuss.”

In the first two hours of testimony, the best Republicans could get from Volker and Morrison was a firm “no” when they were asked whether anyone at the White House had ever asked them to extort or bribe anyone. Indeed, the clearest defense of Trump’s actions today did not come from testimony on Capitol Hill at all, but from an unsolicited statement issued by Vice President Mike Pence’s national-security adviser, Lieutenant General Keith Kellogg. He is the direct supervisor of Jennifer Williams, a Pence adviser who testified alongside Vindman in the morning. Kellogg said he was also on the July 25 call, but unlike Williams, he did not find anything amiss. “I heard nothing wrong or improper on the call. I had and have no concerns,” Kellogg said in his statement.

Perhaps that’s what Republicans were hoping to hear from Volker and Morrison, their chosen witnesses. What the two witnesses presented to lawmakers, however, was consistent with the testimony that’s been delivered in the House for the past week—that Trump’s demand for an investigation of Biden was at best unusual and inappropriate, and perhaps much worse. In fairness to GOP lawmakers, the witnesses they most want to haul before the House, Biden’s son Hunter and the original whistle-blower, have been rejected out of hand by Democrats. So they had to settle for Volker, Morrison, and David Hale, an undersecretary of state who will testify tomorrow.

When it was his turn to question Volker and Morrison, Republican Representative Devin Nunes of California began with a wry lament. “I have some bad news for you,” he said. “The TV ratings are way down.” It was another way of saying the day’s testimony was a dud, but it was really an admission cloaked as a joke—and the joke was on Republicans: If Volker and Morrison had actually helped the president’s case, Nunes and his colleagues would have wanted millions more people to have heard what they had to say.