Senate Republicans say the first week of House impeachment hearings hasn’t moved the needle in their conference and question whether the proceedings consuming Washington have much traction outside the Beltway.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who is up for reelection next year in what is increasingly becoming a battleground state, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), a moderate swing vote in the upper chamber, for example, say their constituents aren’t even closely following the impeachment proceedings.
Although it is becoming increasingly clear that President Trump attempted to use military aid to pressure Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, the bottom line for Republicans is that it doesn’t reach the threshold to remove President Trump from office.
“I just don’t think that a lot of my constituents are paying that much attention to it because they’ve got lives to lead and other important things to do,” Cornyn said.
“I think Washington being a hotbed of politics everybody here is obsessed with it but I don’t think the rest of the country is obsessed with it,” he added.
While the witnesses — all career government officials — have offered credible, detailed testimony, the hearings have made for less than gripping television, especially as the chairman and ranking Republican worked their way down the committee dais to give all of their colleagues a chance to ask questions in a process that took hours.
The testimony has provided some new revelations, such as acting U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor’s recounting a phone call between President Trump and Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland in which Trump was overheard asking about investigations.
But many of the main points of the rest of the testimony have already been reported in the press and digested by GOP lawmakers.
“Alaskans are not paying much attention to the House impeachment drama,” Murkowski said.
“They’re seeing the headlines in their paper and know that it’s underway but I’ve been checking in with my staff that are working the phone lines, not just here in D.C. but around the state. I check the mail traffic coming in and it is not something that is occupying the waking hours of Alaskans right now,” Murkowski said.
Murkowski said she has staff tracking the public impeachment investigation and giving her updates.
“I got a download from yesterday and I will continue to get the highlights,” she said after Taylor and George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, testified Wednesday.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, argued on Sunday that the whistleblower whose complaint spurred the impeachment inquiry acted unnecessarily.
He said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” the whistleblower “exposed things that didn’t need to be exposed” and warned it could set a precedent that will weaken presidential power.
“You know it’s going to be very difficult for future presidents to have a candid conversation with a world leader because now we’ve set the precedent of leaking transcripts, the weakening of executive privilege is not good,” Johnson said.
If the House passes articles of impeachment, it would then be up to the Senate, where Republicans control 53 seats, to hold a trial and decide whether to remove the president. It would take 67 votes to convict on any charge.
On Friday, Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who was ousted from her role by Trump, testified that she felt threatened by the president and was “shocked, appalled and devastated” when she discovered that he called her “bad news” in a July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Yovanovitch also described how Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani worked with Ukrainian prosecutor Yuriy Lutsenko to spread misinformation about her and force her to step down from her post.
But the opportunity to cross examine Yovanovitch also gave Republicans a chance to score points.
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), whom GOP leaders added to the committee for the high-profile hearings, questioned the former ambassador sharply about why she did not confront Ukrainian officials about alleged efforts by Ukrainian operatives to influence the 2016 American presidential election in favor of Hillary Clinton.
And Yovanovitch at another point told Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas) that Hunter Biden’s acceptance of a highly-paid board membership at Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian energy company that had been under investigation, “could raise the appearance of a conflict of interest.”
The public hearings have also provided Republicans a venue to argue that none of the witnesses have direct firsthand evidence that Trump broke any laws.
Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah) on Friday predicted the public hearings had given Republicans a chance to reverse the political momentum on impeachment.
“Public support for impeachment is actually going to be less when these hearings are over than it is when the hearings began because finally the American people are going to be able to see the evidence and they’re going to be able to make their own determination regarding that,” he said.
Rep. Devin Nunes (Calif.), the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, predicted that few Americans had watched Friday’s proceedings.
“I hate to break it to my colleagues, if there’s anyone else out there watching television ratings but they must be plummeting right now,” he said.
A senior aide to a moderate Republican senator on Friday predicted that Yovanovitch’s testimony would not sway any opinions in the Senate Republican conference.
“She didn’t really offer anything new. Everyone knew Rudy Giuliani was out there doing goofy things,” the aide said, requesting anonymity to frankly assess the testimony.
The aide then questioned whether Yovanovitch’s testimony would break through with the American public.
“I don’t know how much the American people are really paying attention to it,” the source added.
But the Senate Republican aide acknowledged that Trump hurt his own defense by tweeting an attack on Yovanovitch as she was testifying about how she felt threatened by the president.
“It was really stupid of Trump to tweet in the middle of the testimony,” the aide said, predicting it could further erode support for the president among swing voters in suburban areas, a key demographic. “It was a mistake by him to tweet. I wouldn’t be surprised if several senators close to the president called him and told him to knock it off.”
As of Friday afternoon, there were not any signs that any Republican lawmakers in either chamber is any closer to supporting articles of impeachment against the president.
“I think that not one vote has moved as a result of the hearings. I think everybody is dug in and these hearings are more for the purpose of both parties trying to make their case to the American people than moving any votes,” said Brian Darling, a GOP strategist and former Senate aide.
The tone was set by the party line vote Oct. 31 on the resolution formalizing the procedures for the impeachment inquiry. Not a single House Republican backed it while two Democrats voted against it.
Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) said the hearings “moved the needle the other way” — in a direction favorable to Republicans.
“We at least had some counterpoints and I think that was a day that is probably going to set the folks somewhat for the whole impeachment inquiry,” he said.
Braun echoed the statements of other Republicans that people aren’t paying much attention to the impeachment hearings up to this point.
He said “public opinion” in favor of impeachment proceedings “hit a ceiling two to three weeks ago” and predicted Democrats are “going to be in a predicament of trying to focus group their way into raising public opinion.”
“I think it’s going to make it politically a very tough calculation as to whether you follow through to take an article of impeachment vote,” he added.