Republicans seethe while suggesting impeachment-inquiry witnesses

Impeach Trump? Republican lawmakers have some thoughts…
Impeach Trump? Republican lawmakers have some thoughts…
Image: Stencil: Absurdly Well. Photo: Ephrat Livni.
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Today, Republican representative Devin Nunes, ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, sent Democrat Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, a very angry letter in response to his Nov. 6 correspondence (pdf) on the presidential impeachment-inquiry process.

Schiff had invited Nunes and fellow Republicans to submit a witness list ahead of public proceedings in the impeachment inquiry into Donald Trump’s Ukraine dealings, which begin next week. The first open hearing will be held on Nov. 13, and House Resolution 660, which passed in late October, requires Schiff to ask his colleagues in the House minority to suggest witnesses with a justification for each request “which should be guided by the inquiry’s parameters.”

The requests won’t necessarily all be honored, but the Democrat did promise to consult on the proposed witnesses and evaluate their relevance. The offer was, after all, intended to address Republicans’ complaints that Democrats are running secret proceedings without their involvement, and Schiff wants to seem reasonable and fair.

Republican resistance

Still, the complaints continue unabated. Nunes in his letter to Schiff today accused Democrats of fabricating sinister evidence against the president “out of thin air” and ignoring Trump’s due process rights while leaking cherry-picked information from a private investigation designed to mislead the public and damage the executive.

He referred to the “impeachment inquiry” in quotes to emphasize Republicans’ view that the investigation is illegitimate and wrote, “Americans see through this sham impeachment process, despite Democrats’ retroactive attempt to legitimize it last week.” The Republican argued that traditional hearings allow the minority to call whatever witnesses they choose, without being subject to the majority’s approval. He decried the fact that there is no such automatic allowance in the upcoming proceedings.

Nonetheless, Nunes wrote, “to provide transparency to your otherwise opaque and unfair process…Americans deserve to hear from the following witnesses in an open setting.”

He provided a list of 10 witnesses, most notably including Hunter Biden, the son of former vice president and current Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, Trump’s political rival. Hunter was a board member of the Ukrainian gas company Burisma. Trump, in his own words, wanted Ukrainian authorities to investigate unproven allegations that Biden senior, in his capacity as an Obama administration official fighting corruption in Ukraine, attempted to redirect a corruption inquiry into the company because of his son’s involvement.

The impeachment inquiry is premised on a whistleblower report and subsequently uncovered evidence indicating that Trump conditioned foreign aid to Ukraine on an investigation into his political rival for personal gain. Since the inquiry’s initiation in September, Trump has also publicly called on Chinese authorities to investigate Biden and his son’s activities in China.

However, Nunes was careful in his request to avoid any of the inflammatory rhetoric that came ahead of it. Instead, he suggested merely that young Biden had insight on corruption in Ukraine that would be of use to Americans. Nunes noted his role as a Burisma board member and the fact that he was paid $50,000 a month while he served in that capacity.

The Republican also pointed out that it was publicly reported that the younger Biden was hired to improve Burisma’s image at the same time Biden senior was charged with fighting Ukrainian corruption. “Biden’s firsthand experiences with Burisma can assist the American public in understanding the nature and extent of Ukraine’s pervasive corruption, information that bears directly on President Trump’s longstanding and deeply-held skepticism of the country,” Nunes explained.

However, it seems highly unlikely that Schiff and his Democratic colleagues will agree that the younger Biden is key to the impeachment inquiry, especially not when he’s being presented as a witness who can justify the president’s skepticism of Ukraine. Democrats want to keep the focus on Trump and his actions, rather than on the Bidens.

Naming the whistleblower

Controversially, Nunes also asked that the whistleblower—whose report about a Trump phone call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky set off the chain of events leading to the current proceedings—be called to testify. That is another suggestion that seems likely to be rejected.

Naming the report writer undermines the whole idea behind laws protecting those who speak up about possible wrongdoing. The president and other Republicans have continually called for release of this person’s name, saying that only the Inspector General can be prosecuted for outing them based on federal whistleblower law. But that is an extremely narrow reading of the law, and it’s been challenged by experts.

Whatever happens, Republicans have already signaled that they won’t take any witness denials lying down. Nunes told Schiff in conclusion that his party will characterize denial of testimony by his proposed witnesses as “evidence…of denial of fundamental fairness and due process.”