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Republican defense claims Trump’s Ukraine pressure was apolitical

President Donald Trump leaves the White House on Dec. 2, 2019, on his way to a NATO meeting in London. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford
Jabin Botsford/Washington Post
President Trump left the White House Monday and was on his way to a NATO meeting in London.

WASHINGTON — House Republicans plan to argue that President Trump was acting on “genuine and reasonable” skepticism of Ukraine and “valid” concerns about possible corruption involving Americans, not political self-interest, when he pressed the country for investigations of his Democratic rivals, according to a draft of a report laying out their impeachment defense.

In a 123-page document that echoes the defiant messaging that Trump has employed in his own defense, the Republicans do not concede a single point of wrongdoing or hint of misbehavior by the president, according to a copy reviewed by The New York Times before its planned release on Tuesday.

The report amounts to a preemptive attack by some of Trump’s most ardent supporters against Democrats’ arguments for impeachment. The Democrats have finalized a written report of their own and are scheduled to vote on Tuesday to transmit it to the House Judiciary Committee, kick-starting the next phase of the impeachment inquiry in the House as it barrels toward a likely vote on articles of impeachment.

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In the Republicans’ dissenting views, they argue that after two months of investigation, the evidence “does not support” that Trump withheld a coveted White House meeting for Ukraine’s president or nearly $400 million in security assistance for the country as leverage for securing the investigations.

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The conclusion is at odds with sworn testimony from senior US diplomats, White House officials, and other administration officials who recounted how Trump sought to use US influence over Ukraine to suit his domestic political purposes, repeatedly insisting that President Volodymyr Zelenskiy of Ukraine announce investigations into former vice president Joe Biden and an unproven claim that Ukraine conspired with Democrats to interfere in the 2016 election.

Rather than take those assertions at face value, the Republicans charge that they came from civil servants who dislike Trump’s agenda and style and are therefore allowing themselves to be part of a push by Democrats to undo the results of the 2016 election and thwart Trump’s reelection chances in 2020.

“The Democrats’ impeachment inquiry is not the organic outgrowth of serious misconduct; it is an orchestrated campaign to upend our political system,” the Republicans wrote. “The Democrats are trying to impeach a duly elected president based on the accusations and assumptions of unelected bureaucrats who disagreed with President Trump’s policy initiatives and processes.”

The argument mirrored one made at the White House on Monday by Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s counselor, who sought to portray Democrats’ case as flimsy.

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“One out of 12 people had ever talked to the president of the United States and met him or discussed Ukraine with him — that is just mind-boggling to me,” Conway said, referring to the number of current and former government officials who testified publicly in the inquiry. “And we are supposed to impeach the president for high crimes and misdemeanors for that reason?”

Conway also dared the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee who has been leading the inquiry, Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, to testify publicly during the Judiciary Committee’s proceedings about his handling of the case. If he did, she promised to “show up on behalf of the White House,” which on Sunday declined to participate in a hearing scheduled for Wednesday.

Hours later, the Judiciary Committee unveiled the panel of constitutional scholars its members would question in that hearing to help inform its debate over whether Trump’s conduct was impeachable. The witnesses are Noah Feldman of Harvard Law School, Pamela S. Karlan of Stanford Law School, Michael J. Gerhardt of the University of North Carolina Law School, and Jonathan Turley of the George Washington University Law School. Turley was invited by Republicans on the panel.

Democrats are expected to argue the virtual opposite of the Republican report. They will conclude, based on witness testimony and documentary evidence, that working with allies inside and outside his administration, Trump used the power of his office to pressure Ukraine to do his bidding in order to gain an advantage in the 2020 race.

Democrats’ case centers on a July phone call in which Trump pressed Zelenskiy to investigate Biden and the claim that Ukraine worked with Democrats to subvert the 2016 election. It is also likely to charge that Trump conditioned the White House meeting and military assistance money on a public commitment to the investigations.

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The minority report was compiled by committee staff for the top three Republicans on the House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs, and Oversight and Reform committees.

It essentially formalizes a range of defenses Republicans road-tested during two weeks of public impeachment hearings in the Intelligence Committee last month. For members of the Judiciary Committee and the larger Republican conference in the House, it provides several alternative tacks for defending Trump or at least arguing against impeachment.

If the Democrats’ case hinges on linking actions by Trump and his agents to a unified pressure campaign, the Republican defense is staked on pulling those pieces apart and offering an alternate explanation for each.

Many of the actions in question, Republicans argue, stem from Trump’s “long-standing, deep-seated skepticism of Ukraine due to its history of pervasive corruption.”

“Understood in this proper context, the president’s initial hesitation to meet with President Zelenskiy or to provide U.S. taxpayer-funded security assistance to Ukraine without thoughtful review is entirely prudent,” the Republicans wrote.

Likewise, they argued, there was “nothing wrong with asking serious questions” about Biden and his younger son, Hunter Biden, who served on the board of a Ukrainian energy firm when his father was vice president, or about “Ukraine’s attempts to influence the 2016 presidential election.”

Though some officials who testified before the inquiry said that Hunter Biden’s role had prompted concerns about the appearance of a conflict of interest, no evidence had emerged to support any accusations of wrongdoing. And Trump’s own former national security advisers testified that the concerns he raised to Zelenskiy about 2016 were conspiracies promulgated by Russia to absolve its own interference campaign in 2016 and harm American democracy. They said the president had repeatedly been told as much.

Republicans also argued there was “nothing inherently improper” with Trump empowering Rudy Giuliani, his private lawyer who led the push for investigations, to help steer Ukraine matters, despite testimony that there was widespread alarm at Giuliani’s involvement.

Fiona Hill, the former top Europe and Russia adviser at the White House, testified that her boss, John R. Bolton, had called Giuliani a “hand grenade.” Federal prosecutors in Manhattan are also investigating whether Giuliani’s Ukraine work broke the law.

The report spends relatively little time on the smear campaign by Giuliani and other Trump allies targeting Marie L. Yovanovitch, the former US ambassador to Kyiv, or Trump’s directive to remove her from her post months before schedule. Yovanovitch’s removal is a key plank of Democrats’ case that Trump shunted aside the proper foreign policy apparatus to secure what he wanted from Ukraine, politically beneficial investigations.

Republicans do not suggest Yovanovitch was treated fairly, but they play down her removal, arguing it had no meaningful effect on her and writing that it was “not per se evidence of wrongdoing for the president’s political benefit.”

The report also repeats familiar Republican grievances about the denial of “fundamental fairness” in the investigative process put forward by Democrats. Trump’s decision to discourage participation in the inquiry, they wrote, was “a legitimate response to an unfair, abusive, and partisan process, and does not constitute obstruction of a legitimate impeachment inquiry.”

Democrats do not see it that way, and have prepared a catalog of all of the ways that Trump has obstructed their inquiry that could form the basis for its own article of impeachment in the Judiciary Committee.