Trump lays off Republican Ukraine critics

By Melanie Zanona and John Bresnahan

President Donald Trump prefers to pummel his GOP critics into submission. But as the impeachment inquiry picks up speed in the House, he’s taken a lighter touch.

The atypical approach by the president comes after some of his top Hill allies have been privately pleading with Trump not to attack Republicans as the impeachment probe enters its most high-profile phase yet, according to multiple GOP lawmakers and aides.

These senior Republicans have argued that the strategy is more effective at keeping GOP members in line — especially when it comes to House Intelligence Committee Republicans, who are serving as Trump’s first line of defense on the Ukraine scandal.

And it appears to be working. During Wednesday’s first public impeachment hearing, even the moderate and retiring Republicans on the Intelligence Committee showed no signs of breaking with Trump, raising serious doubts about whether Democrats will be able to peel off a single GOP vote for impeachment.

Retiring Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas), a former CIA agent who sits on the panel, has openly expressed alarm over Trump seeking an investigation into Joe Biden in a phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

But none of those concerns were on display at the hearing, with Hurd instead using his line of questioning to extract information from the witnesses about how the Trump administration has provided critical aid to Ukraine in previous years. Earlier in the week, Hurd even called for Hunter Biden to testify — an idea that has become popular with Trump and his most hardcore supporters.

“I still think the call wasn’t perfect. I wouldn’t have handled it that way,” Hurd said in an interview. “But I also think all of this is premature.”

“The president’s not my boss, the speaker’s not my boss, the Republican leader’s not my boss,” he added. “So I’m going to agree when I agree and disagree when I disagree.”

Rep. Mike Turner of Ohio, another Intelligence Committee Republican who has publicly discussed his discomfort with Trump’s call, sounded even more firmly in the president’s corner. At the hearing, Turner harangued the impeachment probe witnesses for their secondhand accounts, chalking up their testimony as “hearsay.”

And then there’s retiring Rep. Francis Rooney, a Florida Republican who sat in on all the closed-door depositions with impeachment witnesses. Rooney was one of the few Republicans keeping the door open to impeachment. But now, Rooney sounds like it’s just about closed.

“I have a little trouble impeaching [Trump] over what I’ve heard I so far,” Rooney said in an interview.

This trio of GOP lawmakers was among a handful of several Republicans who were initially uncomfortable with Trump’s efforts to pressure Ukraine for politically motivated investigations.

But there are still no signs of cracks in the president’s wall of support — despite thousands of pages of damning testimony from high-level State Department officials and a public hearing that delivered a potentially explosive new piece of evidence tying Trump closer to what Democrats say is a clear extortion scheme.

The president’s allies, meanwhile, were pleased with the show of unity from Turner and Hurd during Wednesday’s hearing. They argue that letting the independent-minded lawmakers come to their own conclusion on impeachment without looking like they’re being strong-armed by the White House will carry more weight with the GOP Conference — and the country.

“The general thought is that two serious members who are willing to look at the merits of the case, and not being afraid of what the merits of the case might show, ultimately would persuade more people in the center than three or four Freedom Caucus guys who are perhaps a little bit more zealous in their defense of the president,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a conservative hard-liner who speaks with Trump frequently.

Senior Republicans have delivered a similar message to the president.

“It’s a time to unite — everybody understands that. And letting the facts come forward unites us,” said one GOP lawmaker. “That’s what we tell Trump.”

Trump has taken the advice to heart. He has refrained from attacking any of the House Republicans who have criticized his communications with Ukraine, instead praising those who have fiercely defended him. On Sunday, though, the president couldn’t help but deliver a general warning to the GOP after retiring Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) dubbed his Ukraine call “inappropriate.”

“Republicans, don't be led into the fools trap of saying it was not perfect, but is not impeachable,” he tweeted.

GOP leaders have been working to stamp out even the faintest sign of a GOP rebellion in the House, which would not only embarrass the president but could put pressure on their Senate counterparts to follow suit. The House has already seen one party-line vote in the impeachment process, with all Republicans (and two Democrats) voting against a resolution to set formal guidelines on the impeachment inquiry.

Senior Republicans are growing increasingly confident that the House is barreling toward a party-line vote on articles of impeachment.

“Here’s Turner and Will Hurd, who I think everyone in this Congress thinks are the most open-minded individuals around. They have no qualms disagreeing with the party,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) told POLITICO. “But here they are, just basing [things] on facts, understanding what impeachment means and actually asking the tough questions.”

Democrats were dealt another setback in their bid to build a bipartisan case for impeachment when Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) announced his retirement earlier this week while simultaneously vowing not to support removing Trump from office. Some Democrats had hoped retiring Republicans would be more willing to break with Trump, since they would be free from the political pressures of a reelection bid.

Other relatively centrist Republicans have given no signs they’re willing to break with Trump, either.

Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), a member of the moderate Tuesday Group who sits on the Intelligence Committee, mounted a vigorous defense of the president and echoed key GOP talking points during Wednesday’s impeachment hearing. Afterward, she led an impromptu news conference in which she sounded at times like a mini-Trump as she tore into House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.)

“These hearings have been conducted in a basement bunker, part of his regime of secrecy, and this was an abject failure for the Democrats and for Adam Schiff,” Stefanik said.

So far, the only Republican lawmaker to join them — Rep. Justin Amash — has left the party.