WASHINGTON — Republicans mounted an array of defenses of President Trump at this week’s impeachment hearings — making arguments that at times seemed to conflict with one another logically, but that dovetailed in a key way: All served to undermine Democrats’ allegations that Mr. Trump abused his power.
In angry statements from the hearing dais, lines of questioning to witnesses and comments during breaks to reporters, Republicans sought to poke holes in the strength of evidence that Mr. Trump personally put a condition on the government committing official acts — namely, that Ukraine publicize investigations that could benefit him.
But at other times, Republicans suggested that Mr. Trump’s pursuit of those investigations was justified — reading into the record related facts and allegations about Ukrainian actions in 2016 and about the Ukrainian gas company Burisma and its decision to give Hunter Biden, the son of Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., a lucrative board seat.
Republicans’ tactics seemed geared to play to different audiences — independent voters, hard-core Trump supporters and the president himself. The approach underscored a political asymmetry about the proceedings: The Democrats are trying to paint a coherent picture, while Republicans need only muddy it — and they have lots of ways to do so.
Indeed, at still other times, Republicans dismissed the entire impeachment inquiry as a witch hunt and tried to associate it with the fact that the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, found insufficient evidence of any criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia’s 2016 election manipulation operation.
“You have to keep that history in mind as you consider the Democrats’ latest catalog of supposed Trump outrages,” the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, Representative Devin Nunes of California, said on Wednesday.
The Republicans sharpened their counterarguments and defenses as Gordon D. Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, delivered damaging testimony about what he witnessed as one of the Trump proxies orbiting Rudolph W. Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, as they pushed Ukraine to announce the investigations.
Mr. Sondland said there was a clear quid pro quo that attached a condition — a public announcement of the investigations — to a potential official action by Mr. Trump, inviting President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine to the White House. But Mr. Sondland said no one told him that Mr. Trump was also holding up a package of military aid to Ukraine for the same purpose, though he assumed that was the explanation.
In opening questioning to Mr. Sondland, Mr. Nunes seemed to make the case that Mr. Trump had good reason to seek investigations. He asked Mr. Sondland whether he was aware of a series of facts and various allegations about Hunter Biden and Burisma, and about Ukrainians who expressed support for Hillary Clinton or opposition to Mr. Trump.
“So knowing all these facts from high-ranking Ukrainian officials, ambassador, it probably makes a little more sense now as to why the president may think that there’s problems with Ukraine and that Ukraine was out to get him?” Mr. Nunes asked Mr. Sondland.
“I understand your — I understand your point, yes, Mr. Chairman,” Mr. Sondland replied.
But if the premise of Mr. Nunes’s line of questioning was that it was righteous to seek the investigations, a line of questioning that followed, by the Republicans’ top staff lawyer, Stephen R. Castor, pointed to a different conclusion: The important point was that there was no clear proof that Mr. Trump himself was behind the pressure.
Mr. Castor marched Mr. Sondland through a lengthy series of questions to emphasize the point that Mr. Trump never personally told him there was any quid pro quo — highlighting that Mr. Sondland had no clear proof that the president was personally orchestrating anything untoward.
“So the president never told you about any preconditions for aid to be released?” Mr. Castor asked.
“No,” Mr. Sondland replied.
“The president never told you about preconditions for a White House meeting?” Mr. Castor followed up.
“Personally, no,” Mr. Sondland said.
Mr. Sondland said his understanding that Mr. Trump was offering a White House meeting to Mr. Zelensky on the condition that he announce investigations was based on what Mr. Giuliani told him. Pressed on how he could know that, Mr. Sondland replied that Mr. Trump had directed him to talk to Mr. Giuliani about the matter.
Other Republican lawmakers including, Elise Stefanik of New York, repeated Mr. Castor’s line of questioning and its implication that no direct evidence of Mr. Trump’s motivations had emerged.
Left unsaid was that Mr. Trump was keeping other potential witnesses whom he spoke to about Ukraine from testifying — including Mr. Giuliani; his former national security adviser, John R. Bolton, who was opposed to blocking the aid and met one on one with Mr. Trump about it in August; and his acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, who relayed the order to block the aid to the bureaucracy.
Later in the hearing, Representative Adam B. Schiff, the California Democrat who leads the Intelligence Committee, pushed back against any suggestion that Mr. Trump’s proxies were carrying out a rogue Ukraine policy.
“I do not believe that the president would allow himself to be led by the nose by Rudy Giuliani or Ambassador Sondland or anybody else,” Mr. Schiff asserted. “I think the president was the one who decided whether a meeting would happen, whether aid would be lifted, not anyone who worked for him.”
Several Republicans pushed Mr. Sondland to reiterate his account of a conversation he had with Mr. Trump on Sept. 9. Mr. Sondland recounted that he directly asked Mr. Trump what he wanted from Ukraine, and the president, in a surly mood, responded that he wanted “nothing” from Mr. Zelensky, wanted no quid pro quo, and only wanted Mr. Zelensky to do “the right thing” that he had run for office on — apparently a reference to fighting corruption.
On Sept. 11, two days after that conversation, Mr. Trump finally released the aid to Ukraine. Because Mr. Zelensky had not announced any investigations, defenders of Mr. Trump have said that means there was no quid pro quo.
Critics have responded that Mr. Trump released the security assistance only after he learned that a whistle-blower was trying to tell Congress that the president was using his official powers to force Ukraine to do something for his own personal benefit, noting that someone who gets caught trying to commit a crime is still guilty even if the plot is discovered and thwarted.
But Representative Jim Jordan, Republican of Ohio and a fierce defender of Mr. Trump, tried that argument again on Wednesday. He thunderously demanded that Mr. Sondland tell him when Mr. Zelensky made an announcement of investigations as part of the quid pro quo, leading Mr. Sondland to reply that it never happened.
“They didn’t have to do anything,” Mr. Jordan said in disgust. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
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