GOP zeroes in on alleged Ukraine meddling during impeachment testimony

GOP zeroes in on alleged Ukraine meddling during impeachment testimony
© Greg Nash

Republicans on Wednesday opened their questioning during the first public House impeachment hearing to press two witnesses about unfounded claims that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election.

Rep. Devin NunesDevin Gerald NunesHillicon Valley: Apple, Facebook defend encryption during Senate grilling | Tech legal shield makes it into trade deal | Impeachment controversy over phone records heats up | TikTok chief cancels Capitol Hill meetings The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - Democrats to release articles of impeachment today Controversy on phone records intensifies amid impeachment MORE (R-Calif.), the top Republican on the panel, and GOP counsel Steve Castor used their allotted time to question top State Department officials William Taylor and George Kent about allegation of Kyiv's intervention.

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"The Democrats downplay, ignore, and outright deny the many indications that Ukrainians actually did meddle in the election. A shocking about-face for people who for three years argue that foreign election meddling was an intolerable crime that threatened the heart of our democracy," Nunes said during Republicans' 45-minute round of questioning.

The "denial," Nunes claimed, is a "necessary part of their argument."

"After all, if there actually were indications of Ukraine meddling ... then President TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - House panel expected to approve impeachment articles Thursday Democrats worried by Jeremy Corbyn's UK rise amid anti-Semitism Warren, Buttigieg duke it out in sprint to 2020 MORE would have a perfectly good reason to want to find out what happened," the California Republican said.

This line of questioning came after Kent, a senior official at the State Department, had testified Wednesday that despite Trump’s belief that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 elections, the real meddling came from Russia.

Kent said there was "no factual basis" to his knowledge that Ukraine interfered.

Other witnesses also have claimed that they believed Trump was trying to shift the blame to Ukraine in an effort to shift the scrutiny on Russia's interference during the 2016 presidential election.

Castor's line of questioning also yielded responses that might not play favorably for the president.

At one point, the GOP counsel suggested to Taylor that it's "certainly not outlandish" for U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon SondlandGordon SondlandTop Zelensky aide refutes Sondland testimony Mulvaney: 'Politics can and should influence foreign policy' Controversy on phone records intensifies amid impeachment MORE to play such an active role in the administration's Ukraine policy, to which Taylor replied, "it's a little unusual."

“Okay. It might be irregular, but it's certainly not outlandish,” Castor responded.

The counsel then appeared to lend credence to claims by multiple witnesses that Rudy GiulianiRudy GiulianiThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - House panel expected to approve impeachment articles Thursday Horowitz offers troubling picture of FBI's Trump campaign probe Horowitz: 'Very concerned' about FBI leaks to Giuliani MORE, Sondland and other officials formed a shadowy foreign policy channel by characterizing this channel as "irregular" during subsequent questioning.

Castor also pushed the witnesses on the qualifications of former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - House panel expected to approve impeachment articles Thursday Democrats seek leverage for trial Democrats spend big to put Senate in play MORE’s son, as he sought to determine what qualifications Hunter Biden had in order for him to gain a board seat at Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company.

Outside the committee hearing, some Republicans appeared wary of Castor’s approach to the hearing.

Ari Fleischer, former President George W. Bush’s press secretary, tweeted “Whatever the GOP counsel is doing, it's not working.  I don't [understand] where he's going.”