On Monday, the House Judiciary Committee held what will likely be the last public hearing in the Donald Trump impeachment inquiry before the committee unveils formal articles of impeachment later this week. This time, the witnesses were not people with firsthand knowledge of the Ukraine scandal, but were instead the impeachment lawyers for the Democrats and Republicans—including Daniel Goldman and Steve Castor, who questioned fact witnesses the first time around. As a result, Monday's event felt a tad meta, and consisted mostly of recaps of earlier proceedings repackaged as closing arguments. After a month of round-the-clock media scrutiny, everyone involved seemed frazzled and exhausted and ready for the ordeal to be over. Castor, the GOP counsel, couldn't even bring himself to pack a briefcase for the grand finale.
As they've done throughout the inquiry, Republicans mostly ignored the substance of Trump's conduct—an abuse of American diplomacy to extort the Ukrainian government for political favors—and focused instead on what they contend is Democrats' biased process. Castor and Republican lawmakers repeatedly groused about the pace of the inquiry, and about Democrats' failure to obtain testimony from key members of Trump's inner circle. The record, as Castor put it, "is heavily reliant on hearsay, innuendo, and presumptions." The reality this position elides, of course, is that the president and those would-be witnesses have actively resisted lawmakers' attempts to compel their cooperation. His complaints about gaps in the record, in other words, only drew further attention to the reason such gaps exist in the first place.
Castor's remaining talking points were similarly unpersuasive. He characterized Trump's demands of Ukraine not as "a favor that would help his re-election," but instead as a request for "assistance in helping our country move forward from the divisiveness of the Russia collusion investigation." The reference here, presumably, is to Trump's belief in a thoroughly-debunked "CrowdStrike" conspiracy theory that Ukraine, not Russia, was responsible for foreign interference in the 2016 election—and that it interfered in order to damage Trump's campaign, not that of Hillary Clinton. It remains unclear whether Castor intended to embrace this delusional bit of MAGA fan-fiction, as several Republican senators have done of late, or merely to explain the president's subjective state of mind during his conversation with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky. Neither explanation, though, would be particularly encouraging.
Elsewhere in his statement, Castor attributed Trump's reluctance to release military aid to Ukraine not to the president's corrupt intent, but instead to a "deeply-rooted, genuine, and reasonable skepticism of Ukraine stemming from its history of corruption"—as if a real estate developer with a well-established fondness for corruption suddenly cared deeply about stamping out political graft in ex-Soviet oligarchies. Castor also tacitly suggested that the White House simply might not be capable of the misconduct of it stands accused. To the committee, he mocked Democrats' efforts to "convince you that the Trump administration—the same administration Democrats regularly accuse of being incompetent—organized an international conspiracy at the highest level." The price of proving his client's innocence, Castor evidently decided, might be conceding his client's incompetence.
Perhaps the hearing's strangest sequence occurred during Democratic counsel Barry Berke's allotted time for questioning, when Castor managed to avoid drawing obvious conclusions about Trump's conduct only by professing ignorance of some of the scandal's basic facts. Berke asked, for example, if Castor believed Biden was a contender for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination at the time of the Trump-Zelensky call, noting the relevance of considering "evidence bearing on the president's state of mind that may help explain the president's actions."
Castor, however, replied, "I wouldn't agree with that. It's too early." When Berke asked if Trump would agree that Biden was a potential challenger, Castor responded with another rhetorical shrug.
On July 25, Biden was leading the field of Democratic hopefuls with 29.3 percent of support among primary voters, according to RealClearPolitics' polling average—a figure that nearly doubled the support of Bernie Sanders, who came in second at 15 percent. The longtime senator, outspoken Trump critic, and two-term Vice President of the United States had formally launched his White House bid three months earlier, calling the 2020 election "a battle for the soul of this nation." Yet Castor, who has worked as a congressional staff attorney for some 15 years, claimed to be unaware of Biden's frontrunner status—a facially absurd statement from a Washington insider like Castor, but one that allowed him to avoid publicly conceding that the president had a motive to sabotage Biden's campaign.
A clearly-flabbergasted Berke asked Castor if he was aware, for example, that Trump tweeted about Biden more than 25 times between January and the July phone call, and that Trump frequently invoked Biden's name during public appearances throughout the year. Again, Castor carefully avoided having to opine on the subject of why Trump would ever do such a thing. "President Trump goes to a lot of rallies, and he does a lot of tweeting," he said. "I think it's pretty difficult to draw too many conclusions from his tweets or his statements at rallies." Castor added that he endeavors to stay off Twitter, especially of late, which is probably a prudent choice given how many tweets these days showcase him making faces like this one.
As Elie Mystal of Above the Law wrote last month, Castor's performance during these impeachment hearings has revealed less about his abilities as a lawyer than it does about the impossibility of his assignment. The facts of the Ukraine scandal are not especially complicated: Witnesses have repeatedly explained that the plot to extort Ukraine was no secret within the White House. The acting White House chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, admitted the scheme's existence in a press conference. As if to dispel any remaining doubts about what happened, Trump explicitly called on Ukraine (and China!) to investigate the Biden family—the exact thing his supporters say he didn't do—while standing on the White House lawn. There isn't a spin Steve Castor can put on these facts to make them less damning for his client. As today's hearings showed, all he can do is take a deep breath, read his lines, and wait for the clock to run out.
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Originally Appeared on GQ