'Diabolical and inept': Trump's allies are struggling to defend him on impeachment

Andrew Feinberg
Republican counsel Steve Castor whispers to Devin Nunes during evidence by George Kent and William Taylor at the impeachment hearings into Donald Trump: REUTERS

As the House's impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump enters its second week of hearings, the evidence Democrats have to work with is piled even higher than it stood after former Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch left the House Ways and Means Committee hearing room to an unprecedented standing ovation on Friday.

Over the weekend, impeachment investigators released transcripts of depositions by two of the four witnesses set to testify on Tuesday – former National Security Council Senior Director for European and Russian affairs Tim Morrison, and Jennifer Williams, a national security aide to Vice President Mike Pence – both of whom largely confirmed the allegations at the center of House Democrats' investigation into whether Trump ordered military aid to Ukraine withheld to force Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into announcing investigations into a company which once employed former Vice President Joe Biden's son, and a conspiracy theory meant to exonerate Russia from having interfered in the 2016 election.

During her closed-door deposition, Williams told impeachment investigators that the order to withhold military aid to Ukraine over unanimous objections of the NSC's Policy Coordinating Committee came directly from White House Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney.

Her public testimony, which will be delivered on Tuesday morning alongside Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, should nullify Republican objections over the fact that so far, Democrats haven't presented any witnesses who listened to Trump's infamous 25 July phone call with Zelensky, during which the president asked his counterpart for "a favour", meaning the investigations into Biden and 2016.

But despite Republican objections to what has heretofore been a lack of first-hand testimony about the 25 July call, the reviews of impeachment investigators' performance in the legal community has been positive so far.

"I think the case is incredibly strong," said Burris, Schoenberg & Walden partner Donald Burris. "You have a number of people testifying on somewhat narrow issue, so just by sheer numbers you have a larger amount of evidence."

Burris, who was Special Counsel to the United States Senate Watergate Committee from 1973 to 1974, said Trump's allies so far have been "more diabolical and more inept" than the Nixon administration figures he investigated during Watergate.

He added that Republicans in Congress today have been far less willing to rebuke presidential attacks on the legislative branch than he and his colleagues would have been.

"If Nixon had started saying the Watergate committee was a travesty, was a joke, whatever, we would've slapped him with obstruction of justice immediately," he said.

Steven Kupferberg, a veteran trial lawyer who has handled high-profile criminal cases in both state and federal courts in the Washington area, said the performance of Intelligence Committee Democratic counsel Daniel Goldman has been "superb" so far.

"He was well prepared, asked cogent questions, and got to the point," Kupferberg said. "He knew where he wanted to go and got there quickly."

Kupferberg wasn't as generous, however, when it came to his assessment of Republican Steve Castor, the chief investigative counsel for Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Devin Nunes.

Castor "appeared to be uncertain in his questioning," he said. "He was trying to get someplace with sarcasm but was unable to do so."


Republican counsel Steve Castor whispers to Devin Nunes during evidence by George Kent and William Taylor at the impeachment hearings into Donald Trump (REUTERS)

One of the foremost constitutional law experts in America, Harvard's Laurence Tribe, said the case Democrats have made so far clearly points to impeachable conduct.

"Whether one describes the central impeachable offence as bribery, extortion, or abuse of power, it is clear that it is simply a matter of packaging," he said.

"What has been amply demonstrated by first-hand evidence and by circumstantial evidence is that the president leaned on President Zelensky by withholding congressionally appropriated money that was not his to withhold ... in a way that was an abuse of power both vis-a-vis Congress and his oath of office – for a purely private personal political purpose and not as part of any coherent anti-corruption strategy."

Tribe said Republicans' attempt to cast the matter of the withheld military aid as a policy dispute won't fly, constitutionally speaking.

"I don't know what defence they will eventually settle on, but that one, I think, goes nowhere," he said.

He explained that the responsibility for determining whether the aid would be sent was not Trump's because it had been appropriated by Congress.

"There are federal laws limiting the circumstances in which a president ... can ... refuse to spend money. He hasn't invoked any of those authorities, and so the power of the president to represent the nation in foreign policy is neither here nor there," he said.

"It does not give the president the power to withhold duly-appropriated funds from an ally -- Congress set the policy, made it clear why the aid was supposed to go to Ukraine, made it clear that the Javelins were supposed to be sold, set the schedule, and gave the Pentagon the role of giving green light after testing to see if there was an impermissible amount of corruption," he continued.

"There is no policy question left, there is no dispute about what America's official policy toward Ukraine is, and the president doesn't maintain that it is any different."

One of the Judiciary Committee members who will eventually consider the evidence submitted by the House Intelligence Committee, Rep Jamie Raskin, said the public hearings had been "remarkably productive so far" and "remarkably effective...from an evidentiary standpoint".

"They have generated a startlingly clear picture of the whole Ukraine shakedown. We know what the president was looking for, we know exactly what he was willing to do to extract this information from President Zelensky, we saw some of the collateral damage from Ambassador Yovanovitch because she was in the way of Trump's team executing their financial and political schemes," said Raskin, a Maryland Democrat and a member of Speaker Nancy Pelosi's leadership team.

Five of the biggest congressional hearings in US history

Raskin cautioned, however, that not all Americans are getting a chance to see the evidence because of the influence of conservative media organisations like Fox News. It is the job of him and his colleagues to pop the GOP media bubble, he said.

"The hearings exposed the fact that we are operating in a completely different communications and media context than the Watergate investigators were in the 1970s – everybody then was watching the same news sources and had a common sense of the facts, but today a significant chunk of America is relying on Fox News and more extreme right-wing media for their understanding of events, and they are not getting the basic facts of the case," Raskin said.

"The facts are coming out in a very clear way, but our GOP colleagues are scrambling to bury them in propaganda at every turn, so our job is not just to get the facts out but to counter the propaganda designed to mislead the public."

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