As House Democrats ramp up their impeachment push, their adversaries on the Republican side are preparing to unleash a counter-push to disrupt impeachment proceedings, discredit the whistleblower, and interrogate every person the whistleblower spoke with.
In a show of unity, House Republicans unanimously voted on Thursday against a resolution recognizing the framework of the impeachment inquiry and outlining its next phase. Though that resolution passed, it was a chance for the GOP to lock arms on the proceedings and beat back lingering questions over just how committed Hill Republicans are to risk their political hides in defense of the president.
With the party now relatively focused, the Republicans leading the counter-impeachment campaign are taking this moment to lay out their next steps, which will continue to center on claims that the impeachment process is profoundly unfair to Trump and Republicans—and that the whole Ukraine matter was a sham to begin with.
According to GOP lawmakers and aides, the party’s game plan includes calling for witnesses who could bolster their narrative and hammering away at the anonymous whistleblower whose account launched the inquiry in the first place. They’re also holding out the possibility of more tactics to disrupt impeachment—like last week’s stunt to shut down the inquiry’s secure hearing room. Lawmakers are also likely to release a report when the probe is concluded to counter the report the Democratic majority will release to form the basis for impeachment.
That game plan—particularly its emphasis on outing the whistleblower—is already getting some pushback. On Sunday, Mark Zaid, the lawyer representing the whistleblower, wrote on Twitter that they had offered Republican lawmakers a “direct opportunity to ask written questions of the whistleblower” without compromising his or her identity. Zaid added that the GOP has “sought to expose our client’s identity which could jeopardize their safety, as well as that of their family.”
A GOP source connected to the impeachment told The Daily Beast Republicans in the House probably won’t take up the whistleblower's lawyers on their offer to field written questions. “I don’t think we will settle for scripted interrogatories,” the source said. “We need a full accounting of his actions and how this was orchestrated.”
The back and forth Sunday shows that during the proceedings, Republicans will need to pull off a tricky balancing act: keeping a focus on process—which many in GOP leadership believe is the best way to lower the public’s confidence in the impeachment inquiry—while keeping satisfied a mercurial president, who has proven eager to air his anger at Republicans he deems insufficiently loyal, or insufficiently interested in defending him on substance.
According to Jack Kingston, a former Georgia congressman and an ally of the president, House Republicans have been doing a “decent job given the tools they have,” but added it would be better if they had a few more of a certain kind of Republican—naming specifically Reps. Doug Collins (R-GA), Devin Nunes (R-CA), Mark Meadows (R-NC), and Jim Jordan (R-OH)—out there defending the president.
“Everyone was an activist during the Clinton thing on the Democratic side,” said Kingston, who served in the House during President Clinton’s impeachment. “Everybody needs to get off the bench and start talking about it.”
One subject that particularly riles up Republicans—and marries their fairness arguments with the Trump-friendly case that the Ukraine probe is some kind of deep-state machination—is the anonymous whistleblower. At first, Republicans dismissed the whistleblower’s complaint because it was not based on firsthand information.
But now, even as investigators hear from multiple witnesses who have corroborated—with firsthand knowledge—the whistleblower’s account of Trump’s efforts to pressure the Ukrainian government to investigate his political rivals, Republicans insist it remains essential for Congress to hear from the whistleblower. Many of them believe the individual is personally and politically hostile to Trump, and suspect—based on the fact the person contacted Congress for guidance on how to navigate their complaint—the person is somehow in cahoots with House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA).
Rep. Scott Perry (R-PA) said Republicans should push for the whistleblower’s identity to be made public—something that The Daily Beast has reported that Republicans have aimed to goad witnesses into revealing during the closed-door depositions, much to the horror of Democrats and intelligence community veterans. Schiff has blocked Republicans from asking questions about the whistleblower and their identity, and several witnesses have declared in their opening statements that they would refuse to talk about the whistleblower.
“I mean, we have to know, were laws broken, what was the motivation, who did they talk to? What was the method of transmission?” said Perry, who has been at nearly every impeachment deposition, as he exited a closed-door proceeding the day the House officialized the inquiry. “These are important factors. And we have to count on, at this point, Chairman Schiff to reveal that person. He's the one of all of us who knows.”
“Somehow it has to happen,” said Perry, who decried Schiff’s decision to head off questions about the whistleblower. “At some point, essentially, the whistleblower is the accuser of the President, and the President's going to be on trial.”
Several GOP lawmakers said they wanted to hear directly from the whistleblower, though some, such as Meadows, said they’d be happy to do so in a closed-door setting with a smaller group of officials. Schiff had initially said the committees may hear from the whistleblower, but that’s now considered unlikely due to the other first-hand testimony that has come in.
Republicans are also eyeing more witnesses who could bolster their arguments—if they get the chance to call them. While the impeachment resolution authorizes the minority party to call their own witnesses in open hearings, Democrats can ultimately veto them. In past impeachment processes, the minority party could call witnesses, though their ability to do so was limited.
If the GOP were able to call in witnesses—even for a day—“we would have a long list, a long line out there,” said Meadows. “I think a number of the people that the whistleblower spoke to before he fired up about his complaint should be perfect witnesses to come in.”
But for Republicans, deciding who to call beyond those directly involved in the whistleblower process could inflame tensions about how much they should focus on the person that Trump believes is really the corrupt actor on Ukraine: former Vice President Joe Biden.
Two names that several Republicans involved in the inquiry mentioned as possible key witnesses are Victoria Nuland, the top State Department official under Barack Obama for Eurasian affairs, and Geoffrey Pyatt, the U.S. ambassador to Kyiv under Obama. In the final years of the Obama administration, both of them called for the ouster of Viktor Shokin, the Ukrainian prosecutor who looms large in the conservative counter-narrative on Biden and Ukraine. Biden—along with many U.S. and international officials—pushed for Shokin’s ouster because of his lack of interest in combating corruption, but the president’s defenders claim that the veep wanted Shokin gone because he posed a threat to Hunter Biden’s business interests in the country.
Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.) told The Daily Beast those people would offer more background about the events surrounding a key Biden visit to Ukraine, what he described as the “threat” to fire Shokin, and “the deliberative process and conversations with the office of the Vice President.”
But some Trump defenders both on and off the Hill think that attempting to craft a Ukraine counter-narrative centered on Biden would be a waste of time. “If it can be proven, that [Biden] did really call off the dogs on Burisma, then I think that’s going to be relevant,” said Kingston. But he added that Democrats would likely give them little room to air that line of attack.
“For now,” said Kingston, “the House needs to keep pounding and pounding on the process.”
—with reporting from Betsy Woodruff