Republican Witnesses Blow Massive Hole in GOP’s Defense of Trump

Sam Brodey, Erin Banco, Spencer Ackerman
Chip Somodevilla/Getty

After weeks of decrying the impeachment process as a sham, Republicans finally got two of the witnesses they requested for testimony. But when one of them took the stand—the U.S. special envoy to Ukraine, Kurt Volker—he instead blew a massive hole in a central part of the GOP’s defense of President Trump.

Just moments after the top Republican on the panel, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), used his platform to parrot the very same claims President Trump has used to justify his pressure campaign in Ukraine—that the Biden family’s business involvement in a Ukrainian gas company is worth probing and that Ukraine meddled significantly in the 2016 election—Volker dismissed those items as “conspiracy theories circulated by the Ukrainians.”

“They’re not things we should be pursuing as part of our national security policy with Ukraine,” said Volker. He also said in his opening remarks that he told fellow officials at the time he did not find it “credible” that Biden “would have been influenced in any way by financial or personal motives in carrying out his duties as Vice President.”

Three hours into the hearing, Nunes had already distanced himself from the officials his side had requested, saying instead they were Democrats’ witnesses and declaring that the GOP had called relevant witnesses like Hunter Biden. 

Volker’s dose of cold water on the GOP’s Ukraine fever swamp was just one part of the larger effort from the career diplomat on Tuesday afternoon to distance himself from the more problematic elements of the apparent Trumpworld push to get Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to open investigations by dangling $400 million in U.S. security aid.

Still, Volker’s performance did little in the way of exciting committee lawmakers on either side of the aisle. Following the morning appearances, members in the audience had thinned out and the atmosphere in the hearing room turned sleepy. Lawmakers sat back in their brown swivel chairs and seemed desperate to try and stay awake during counsel questioning. Some leaned forward on their desks, hands on cheek, staring blankly at the witnesses. Others simply closed their eyes. 

A short break in the hearing offered a moment, even if brief, of reprieve for the lawmakers. Volker and Morrison came back into the room with small coffees. Schiff and the House Democratic counsel Dan Goldman soon after the recess engaged in what appeared to be a spirited sidebar conversation following a series of statements, or a monologue, by Nunes. It wasn’t until Rep. Jim Jordan spoke, or yelled, into the microphone about debunked conspiracy theories regarding the 2016 presidential election that lawmakers seemed to come to. 

Through their bleary-eyes, Democrats on the committee were able to home in on Volker’s attempt to parse words on his role in the Ukraine portfolio within the State Department.

Volker—dubbed one of the so-called “Three Amigos” who were running the parallel policy channel on Ukraine—distanced himself in particular from one of the amigos who has grown most problematic: Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union.

While Volker told House investigators during his Oct. 3 deposition that he did not recall any mention of investigations during a now-infamous July 10 meeting at the White House between top U.S. officials and a visiting Ukrainian delegation, his memory was refreshed for his public statement on Tuesday. Volker said that it was, in fact, Sondland who connected the Trump-friendly investigations with military aid from the U.S.—adding that everyone in the meeting believed it was “inappropriate” and tried to move on. Volker added that even the mere mention of the nickname “3 Amigos” now makes him cringe, and dismissed the idea they were a kind of Trump-blessed official operation.

Volker also admitted that in retrospect, he should have been far more aware that—among some people he does not name—investigating Burisma, the gas company linked to Hunter Biden, was synonymous with investigating the Bidens. “I saw them as very different – the former being appropriate and unremarkable, the latter being unacceptable. In retrospect, I should have seen that connection differently, and had I done so, I would have raised my own objections.”

The testimony from Volker complicated what was supposed to be an opportunity to amplify the GOP’s impeachment counter-narrative. Republicans had been eager to get Volker on the stand, believing his account could undermine parts of the Democrats’ case, particularly around Trump’s personal involvement in the matter and also the role of the stalled U.S. security aid.

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As the hearing went on, Republicans did end up getting fresh material on that front. Volker had provided testimony supporting what could be the GOP’s top-line talking point—that the Ukrainians ultimately got the security aid anyway and were largely unaware of the hold-up as it happened. During his deposition, Volker said that the delay in security aid to Ukraine was “unusual” but not “significant,” and that the Ukrainians only learned of it through U.S. press reports. 

GOP attorney Steve Castor hammered that point during his questioning of Volker, quizzing him on his meetings with Ukrainians and what their awareness was of the aid hold-up at various points in time. Volker testified he personally did not believe at the time that investigations were part of the aid hold-up. “There was nothing specific ever communicated to me about the reasons why it was held,” he said. 

Volker said he considered the hold on Ukraine aid unrelated to the insistence on investigations and instead a result of Trump’s lingering “poor view” of Ukraine—something that contradicted all previous witnesses before the inquiry. 

In exchanges with Rep. Mike Turner (R-OH), Volker and Morrison gave answers that will likely fuel the GOP’s impeachment defenses. Asked if they personally witnessed or participated in any behavior that constituted bribery—the Democrats’ preferred, poll-tested phrase to discuss the quid-pro-quo—both said no. They also said they did not believe Trump demanded that Zelensky undertake any investigations. 

Turner also returned frequently to the argument that Democrats’ impeachment case rests on impressions, opinions, and feelings—something Volker buttressed when he said that whatever Giuliani said on Ukraine and investigations he took to be “his opinion.”

The Ukraine envoy was also slippery on certain topics where Democrats may have craved a clear answer. Ahead of the July 25 call, Volker texted an adviser to Zelensky that “assuming [Zelensky] convinces trump he will investigate/ ‘get to the bottom of what happened’ in 2016” then they could secure a White House visit that Zelensky coveted. But on Tuesday, Volker declined to say that such investigations were conditions of continued close U.S. support, particularly a public commitment from Zelensky to investigate Trump’s domestic adversaries.

“I wouldn’t call it a condition. It was a nuance, I guess,” Volker said. 

Republicans are likely to be happier, however, with the other witness they requested who testified alongside Volker: Tim Morrison, the former director for Russia on the National Security Council. He listened directly to the July 25 Trump-Zelensky call and had already testified during his closed-door deposition on Oct. 31 that though he believed the call could have gone better, he didn’t think he heard anything illegal or untoward. 

Asked by Castor on Tuesday if he found anything in the call concerning, Morrison offered a brief response: “No.” That view was a sharp contrast to the view presented by Tuesday morning’s key witness—Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, his former subordinate on the NSC—who was clear that he believed Trump’s ask was not just unusual but wrong

Morrison also contradicted Vindman on a different point. Earlier, Vindman had told investigators that the transcript of the July 25 phone call was placed onto a classified server to limit access to it. Vindman had said the person who made that call, NSC senior attorney John Eisenberg, did so deliberately. Morrison, however, said that Eisenberg informed him that an “administrative error” was to blame for the unusual move. 

While Volker and Morrison put forward vastly different narratives about the Trump administration’s stance on Ukraine policy, they did agree on one point: Sondland sat at the center of the quid pro quo storyline and had direct communication with Trump. Morrison told House investigators that he remembers the E.U. ambassador telling him he briefed President Trump before the July 25 call with President Zelensky and that he could call the president anytime he wanted. 

Sondland is set to appear before House investigators Wednesday morning. The E.U. ambassador will likely draw intense scrutiny from Democrats who are set to ask Sondland about his conversations with Trump, including a phone call to him from Kyiv on July 26. In that call, Sondland told Trump that Zelensky “loves your ass,” according to David Holmes, a Kyiv embassy staffer who overheard the conversation. 

According to Holmes, Trump asked Sondland:  “So he's going to do the investigation?” 

Sondland replied: “He’s going to do it.”

Morrison told House investigators during his testimony that Fiona Hill and he spoke several times throughout the summer about Sondland. Morrison said Hill warned him of what she called the “Gordon Problem.”

Morrison, too, pointed to Sondland as having direct involvement on the quid pro quo issue, telling House investigators that he remembers the EU ambassador telling him he briefed President Trump before the July 25 call with President Zelensky and that he could call the president anytime he wanted.

Gordon Sondland Suddenly Recalls the Ukraine Quid Pro Quo He Denied

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