For several weeks the Republican strategy to counter the impeachment hearings was to demand that representatives of their party be allowed to hear and participate in the testimonies of initial witnesses such as Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, Ambassador William Taylor and Ambassador Marie Yovanovich. At first glance, these Republican arguments were persuasive. After all, it offends everybody’s sense of fairness that key witnesses would present in closed door hearings open only to Democrats. These arguments withered under further scrutiny as it became known that Republican members of the relevant communities, just like Democratic members of those committees, equaling roughly a quarter of Republican members of the House of Representatives, were indeed welcome at those hearings.

Since then the Republicans have pivoted to a new strategy in their efforts to defend their beleaguered leader. Here they differ slightly from the administration. While the administration has clung to the increasingly absurd position that the President did not seek to link assistance to Ukraine to that country helping Trump on domestic political matters, congressional Republicans have abandoned that tactic. Instead, they argue that while the President may have done some things wrong on that call, they do not rise to the level of an impeachable offense.

There is a certain logic to the new Republican position. They argue, essentially, that this is a judgment call and that, in their judgment, the President did nothing all that wrong. Last week, when not a single Republican member of the House voted to open the impeachment inquiry, congressional Republicans solidified their official position on the matter as “move along, nothing to see hear.” They have sought to strengthen this argument by blurring the facts and seeking to destroy the reputation of several witnesses, notably Lt. Col. Vindman.

The challenge the Democrats face in countering this Republican strategy is that the GOP argument makes some sense if Trump’s call with Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky is taken as a stand-alone incident. If that were the case, Republicans could argue that Trump is new to foreign policy, is a blunt speaker, is a dealmaker, made an honest mistake or was legitimately concerned about corruption in Ukraine. Thus, it would be possible to recognize that Trump was wrong to do what he did, but it shouldn’t cost him the presidency. These arguments are, if not always true, reasonably persuasive, but the Democrats cannot allow themselves to be drawn into debating these Republican arguments.

… the Republicans have pivoted to a new strategy in their efforts to defend their beleaguered leader. Here they differ slightly from the administration… they argue that while the President may have done some things wrong on that call, they do not rise to the level of an impeachable offense

When Trump’s actions are seen in a broader context, one that includes Russia’s role in the US elections of 2016, the ongoing war between Ukraine and Russia, the Trump campaign’s efforts to remove support for Ukraine from the Republican platform in 2016, Paul Manafort’s close relationship with pro-Russia political forces in Ukraine and the findings of the Mueller Report, the Republican defense of Trump is no longer plausible and is revealed to be little more than efforts to conceal the traitorous behavior of a criminal president.

This is why the House Democrats position to keep the impeachment inquiry narrowly focused on the Ukraine call may backfire. The Mueller Report, Attorney General William Barr’s disingenuous letter notwithstanding, made it clear that Trump, and his campaign, had coordinated with the Kremlin in 2016, and that only Trump’s position as President prevented him from getting indicted. Mueller himself made this point in an otherwise unfocused congressional hearing.

In that context, the Trump-Zelensky phone call looks very different, because Trump’s position on that call, and in subsequent statements, dovetailed so much with those of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The effort to portray post-Yanukovych Ukraine as rife with corruption rather than as making strides to fight corruption, placing blame on election meddling in 2016 on Kyiv rather than Moscow, weakening the candidacy of Russia hawk Joseph Biden and delaying or preventing military support for Ukraine are all what Putin wants to see from the US-Ukraine relationship.

To nail down the argument for impeachment, Democrats in congress will have to overcome both these false perceptions and once again tell the real story of Donald Trump’s deep involvement with Russia

The best way to support the idea that Trump’s phone call to Zelensky constitutes an impeachable offense is to frame it by noting Trump’s relationship with Russia going back to the campaign and by making it clear that by attempting to undermine the Ukraine policy that has been supported by both parties in Congress, as well as by the previous administration, Trump is carrying water for Vladimir Putin.

The biggest obstacles to doing this are that the Republican Party has screamed that the Mueller investigation is a witch hunt so loudly and for so long and that many Americans, even those who do not like Trump, believe, largely due to Barr’s letter, that Trump was genuinely exonerated by Mueller and that many Americans are just tired of hearing about Trump and Russia. To nail down the argument for impeachment, Democrats in congress will have to overcome both these false perceptions and once again tell the real story of Donald Trump’s deep involvement with Russia.

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