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Analysis: Trump, White House aides show some restraint at impeachment hearings

John T. Bennett, CQ-Roll Call on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- For once, the often-brash and always-combative Trump White House played it safe.

On day one of House Democrats' public impeachment hearings, President Donald Trump and his top aides opted against firing back to sometimes-damning testimony by two administration witnesses and allegations of corrupt intent from House Intelligence Committee Democrats.

In short, the president -- a frequent golfer -- and his team went with the three wood over the driver. Rather than blasting harsh rhetoric and allegations as far as they could down the political fairway, they opted to take a safer shot by mostly relying on the arguments and attack lines they have employed for weeks -- leaving it to committee Republicans to try to undermine the senior diplomats answering questions and the Democratic members asking them.

"You talking about the witch hunt?" Trump asked a reporter who had asked him if House Democrats had made a convincing case during the lengthy hearing.

"It's a joke," a clearly annoyed commander in chief said during a joint news conference with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. "I haven't watched."

"This is a sham, and it shouldn't be allowed. It was a situation that was caused by people that shouldn't have allowed it to happen," he said, repeating lines he has used before.

He then repeated himself again, saying he wants to publicly unmask the intelligence community whistleblower whose formal complaint about his July 25 call with Ukraine's new president to a top government inspector general set off Democrats' inquiry. He also again said he wants to "find out" why that inspector general, Michael Atkinson, did not "check the call itself" before investigating the matter and then informing Congress he deemed the issue one of national security import.

Trump did offer perhaps his clearest assertion yet that acting U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor and Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs George Kent -- as well as other witnesses who have given private depositions and some of whom will testify over the next eight days -- offered nothing but "all thirdhand information, nothing direct at all."

That means neither career diplomat offered in their private or public testimony any anecdotes they personally heard Trump say he would not lift a freeze on a nearly $400 million military aid package or grant Volodymyr Zelenskiy a White House meeting unless the new Ukrainian leader took steps toward investigating the Bidens and the Democratic National Committee.

That was a message Intelligence Committee Republicans sounded all day while questioning both Taylor and Kent.

Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, temporarily added to the panel by Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy just for the public hearings, went after Taylor on just that matter. Jordan noted that Taylor never discussed quid pro quo arrangements in two meetings with Zelenskiy during the time under scrutiny, which begins around a May 23 White House meeting during which Trump informed aides that his personal attorney, Rudolph Giuliani, was in charge of all things Ukraine.

"Now, with all due respect, ambassador, your clear understanding was obviously wrong," Jordan said.

Jordan also rejected Taylor's attempts to explain his "clear understanding."

"As I testified, Mr. Jordan, this came from (EU) Ambassador (Gordon) Sondland," Taylor told a feisty Jordan. He also told the conservative firebrand that Sondland told him he said to Zelenskiy "that while this was not a quid pro quo, if Mr. Zelenskiy did not clear things up in public, we would be at a stalemate."

The president, repeating another weeks-old line, claimed he did tell the EU ambassador that "no quid pro quo" should occur in his administration's dealings with Ukraine's new government.

And he contended Sondland has stuck by initial testimony to that end even though the hotel mogul revised his testimony to say he came to understand the military aid package was contingent on Zelenskiy taking certain steps related to investigations of U.S. Democrats. Trump often utters and tweets claims that contradict those of senior White House aides and other administration officials.

There was one new line from the West Wing on Wednesday, however. Some senior aides seemed unimpressed by what quickly became a hearing thick on diplomatic protocol and the inner workings of Washington policymaking.


White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham called the impeachment inquiry's entry into public "boring."

Asked to clarify, she responded in an email that her intent was to express her view "that this is a waste of taxpayer time and money."

"There is nothing new here," she added.

Only there was. And most of it came from Taylor.

He told the committee that diplomats concluded Trump told aides he was much more focused on Zelenskiy launching the probes of Democrats he wanted than their efforts to work with what they determined was a new Eastern European leader sincere about weeding out corruption. Trump has claimed in recent weeks that those broader corruption issues were his main concern in holding up a nearly $400 million military aid package Zelenskiy wanted for his country's conflict with Russia.

The acting ambassador also described a "regular" policy process within the Trump administration to set and implement Ukraine policies, as well as an "irregular" one run by Giuliani. The latter, Taylor said, hindered what he described as career diplomats' efforts to conduct foreign policy as it had been conducted under previous presidents, Republican and Democratic.

What's more, Taylor explained in clear terms why some U.S. officials and House Democrats view Trump's alleged request that Zelenskiy comply as a major problem.

"It's one thing to leverage a meeting in the White House," Taylor told lawmakers. "It's another thing to leverage the military aid," noting it was meant for an American ally "at war" with Russia. Holding up the aid package in the alleged pursuit of Trump's personal political benefit was "much more alarming," Taylor said.

But Kent offered several anecdotes and assessments of the Ukraine policy process.

The senior State Department official warned about some in Trump's orbit trying to "gin up politically motivated investigations," saying they were "infecting" the normal process.

Nothing about Wednesday felt normal, however, including the White House's relative silence.

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