Republicans look to expand impeachment strategy amid release of transcripts

House Republicans are looking to expand their strategy in the impeachment fight beyond criticizing the process by highlighting portions of recently released transcripts from closed-door depositions they feel help counteract attacks on President TrumpDonald John TrumpMnuchin knocks Greta Thunberg's activism: Study economics and then 'come back' to us The Hill's Morning Report - House prosecutes Trump as 'lawless,' 'corrupt' What to watch for on Day 3 of Senate impeachment trial MORE's interactions with Ukraine.

GOP lawmakers have repeatedly accused Democrats of conducting a probe that lacks transparency, “cherry-picking” the information released to skew the narrative and opting to focus on impeachment over legislating. Those lines of attack are expected to continue as the investigation moves into a more public phase.

But with the release of the transcripts of depositions from former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch and State Department official Michael McKinley on Monday — with more slated to be released throughout the week — Republicans are being provided with guidance on their latest line of defense, one that places more of an emphasis on substance.  

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"Conference has sent out messaging guidance," one senior GOP source told The Hill, "basically highlighting all the parts in the transcript where these people admitted no firsthand knowledge, acknowledged the president can put whoever he wants in these positions and that Trump was actually tougher on Russia with regards to Ukraine than Obama was." 

Following the release of the two depositions, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffThe Hill's Morning Report - House prosecutes Trump as 'lawless,' 'corrupt' What to watch for on Day 3 of Senate impeachment trial Democrats' impeachment case lands with a thud with GOP — but real audience is voters MORE (D-Calif.), acting House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairwoman Carolyn MaloneyCarolyn Bosher MaloneyOvernight Energy: Appeals court tosses kids' climate suit | California sues Trump over fracking | Oversight finds EPA appointees slow-walked ethics obligations Oversight finds EPA political appointees slow-walked ethics obligations Pelosi taps Virginia Democrat for key post on economic panel MORE (D-N.Y.), and Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelUS officials, world leaders arrive in Israel for World Holocaust Forum  House Democrats may call new impeachment witnesses if Senate doesn't Overnight Defense: Book says Trump called military leaders 'dopes and babies' | House reinvites Pompeo for Iran hearing | Dems urge Esper to reject border wall funding request MORE (D-N.Y.) released a statement saying the content of the transcripts “demonstrates the contamination of U.S. foreign policy by an irregular back channel that sought to advance the President’s personal and political interests, and the serious concerns that this activity elicited across our government.”

But GOP lawmakers are pushing back, citing a number of exchanges from the hearings that draw into question witnesses' firsthand knowledge of the concerns laid out in the whistleblower's report that sparked the inquiry. 

They plan to question McKinley’s role as a key witness, recounting his comments that he "was not aware at the time of the efforts of Ambassadors Volker and Sondland to work with the President's personal attorney, Rudy GiulianiRudy GiulianiThe Hill's Morning Report - House prosecutes Trump as 'lawless,' 'corrupt' What to watch for on Day 3 of Senate impeachment trial 'Emotion' from Trump's legal team wins presidential plaudits MORE" and "was not aware at the time of the President's phone call with President Zelensky." 

The arguments laid out for Republicans also look to emphasize McKinley’s comments that "every President has the right to remove an ambassador they don’t have confidence in. And this is standard, and it’s part of Department practice ever since I’ve come in. So, whatever the rationale, presidents have the right to remove ambassadors and select other envoys for the post in question."

They note that he didn’t speak with anyone at the State Department about Giuliani and that he said “Ukraine was not among the issues I followed with Secretary Pompeo.”

The key points on Yovanovitch highlight an exchange on the ambassador’s knowledge of Trump’s “deep-rooted skepticism about Ukraine’s business environment,” point to her remarks that the Trump Administration’s policy toward Ukraine “actually got stronger over the three last three years” and cite an instance where an Intelligence Committee staffer reached out to her on her personal email in August. 

The GOP guideline also points to Yovanovitch responding, “If that’s what took place” when asked by a GOP member if “Ambassador Volker mentioned the fact that to the extent there are corrupt Ukrainians and the United States is advocating for the Ukraine to investigate themselves, that certainly would be an appropriate initiative for U.S. officials to advocate for.”

At the same time, Trump’s top defenders have also leaned into their arguments on the impeachment process, hammering Democratic chairmen for gradually releasing the transcripts and continuing to hold depositions behind closed doors this week. 

“Democrats cherry pick which transcripts they release and when. Why not release Ambassador Volker’s testimony? He was the very first witness to testify!” Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanCheney's decision not to run for Senate sparks Speaker chatter The Hill's Morning Report - Trump trial begins with clash over rules This week: Raucous rules fight, opening arguments in impeachment trial MORE (R-Ohio) tweeted. 

Schiff told reporters Monday he expects the transcripts for Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland and former special envoy to Ukraine Kurt VolkerKurt VolkerGOP rejects effort to compel documents on delayed Ukraine aid GOP chairmen seek interview with Obama officials as part of Biden-Ukraine probe Push to investigate Bidens sets up potential for Senate turf war MORE to be released Tuesday.