The fate of President Donald Trump rests with Republicans. So the hearing in the House of Representatives on Thursday about a whistleblower’s allegation of impropriety involving Trump’s interaction with the president of Ukraine provided a good chance to see what GOP lawmakers are thinking.
The answer is: They’re all over the place. And that’s bad news for the White House.
There are plenty of good questions about how Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee grilled the star witness, acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire, about how the whistleblower’s complaint was handled.
They needed to strike a balance between getting the appropriate information out of Maguire versus using the national attention to explain what the president did wrong and why they think it supports the impeachment inquiry launched by Speaker Nancy Pelosi. I thought Chairman Adam Schiff and his colleagues did no better (or worse) than OK on that score.
But the ground appears to have shifted on the Republican side. Just nine days ago, House Republicans were unanimously on board with Trump’s talking points when the Judiciary Committee brought in one of Trump’s 2016 campaign managers, Corey Lewandowski, to testify about administration obstruction of an investigation into Russian election interference. Back then, Republicans were undivided in accusing Democrats of engaging in a witch hunt and running a sham investigation, and insisted in unison that the only ones who had done anything wrong were deep state intelligence operatives out to get Trump.
A couple of Intelligence Committee Republicans persisted in taking a similar line on Thursday, notably ranking member Devin Nunes of California and John Ratcliffe of Texas.
But others were all over the place. One, Ohio’s Michael Turner, went so far as to say that the president’s actions during his July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy were “not OK.”
Several of the committee Republicans emphasized that the whistleblower’s complaint -- that Trump appeared to abuse his authority by using US military aid to pressure his Ukrainian counterpart into investigating discredited allegations against a leading Democratic presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden, and then sought to cover it up -- was based on secondhand knowledge. That’s true, as the intelligence community’s inspector general made clear in an August letter to the House and Senate intelligence committee chairmen.
But it’s not much of a defense. It doesn’t appear likely to be persuasive right now, given that the whistleblower’s description of the key phone call closely matches the call summary the White House released on Wednesday.
More to the point: It’s very different from asserting that the actions described in both documents are perfectly fine, or even that they might be bad but aren’t impeachable, or that what really matters is getting to the bottom of whatever Biden might have done.
Other committee Republicans used their time to defend Maguire’s honor. That might have made decent television, but it didn’t do much for Trump, or for his private lawyer Rudy Giuliani and Attorney General Robert Barr, who appear as characters in the drama as the whistleblower described it.
In other words, while Nunes pretty much dismissed the whole thing, several committee Republicans were not willing to do that. That’s a significant contrast with what Judiciary Republicans did last week -- or what Intelligence Committee Republicans, with the exception of Texas Rep. Will Hurd, did when Justice Department Special Counsel Robert Mueller testified July 24 about Russian campaign hacking and obstruction of justice.
No congressional Republicans have declared themselves in favor of impeachment, although it is worth noting that the Republican governor of Vermont, Phil Scott, now supports an impeachment inquiry. Plenty of them remain eager to echo whatever Trump says. But there are also quite a few who have treated either the call summary or the whistleblower complaint (or both) as serious matters.
That’s not good news for the president. Not only does it suggest at least some openness to eventually condemning his actions -- or even perhaps supporting his removal -- but it has real implications for public opinion, with the possibility that most of what people hear other than from the White House will be mainly negative. And if that’s the case, it’s possible that Trump could become more unpopular, which in turn might shake loose more congressional Republicans from staying loyal to him.
Many Americans remain certain that Republicans will never turn on Trump, no matter what, and that the collapse of Republican support for President Richard Nixon in 1974 is not relevant in these more partisan times. According to that view, the addition of Fox News to the Republican coalition, among other factors, ensures that Republicans who now say they are concerned about Trump’s actions will inevitably fall into line. That all might turn out to be correct.
But we know that in 1974, Republicans eventually tired of being lied to, and being asked to lie to their constituents, after months of believing that Democrats were overreaching. There’s still no way to predict how things will play out now, but I can’t see ruling anything out. If I were in the White House, I wouldn’t be encouraged by how Republicans sound this week.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. -- Ed.