House impeachment managers on Thursday zeroed in on President Trump‘s mention of a debunked theory on his call with Ukraine, alleging during the second day of their opening arguments that the president stood to benefit in his reelection campaign from the idea that Kyiv interfered in the 2016 election.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) spent several minutes Thursday afternoon focusing on the theory that Ukraine was involved in the 2016 hack of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), one that Trump has continued to mention despite his own advisers repeatedly pushing back on it as debunked.
Mentioning statements from Trump’s former aides, including impeachment witness and former White House Russia expert Fiona Hill, Schiff described the theory as “brought to you by the Kremlin” and alleged Trump was motivated by his own political ambitions in raising it with Ukraine.
“What the president is talking about here is a very specific conspiracy theory going to the server itself, meaning that it was Ukraine that hacked the Democratic server, not the Russians. This theory was brought to you by the Kremlin,” Schiff said in remarks from the Senate floor during the second day of House Democrats’ arguments.
“On the basis of this Russian propaganda, he withheld $400 million in military aid to a nation Russia was fighting – our ally,” Schiff said, reiterating the allegation Trump used military assistance as a cudgel to push for investigations from Ukraine.
Schiff went on to argue that, while pushing the theory would have benefited Russia, it also would have benefited Trump’s reelection by providing him with “talking points” as he campaigns for another four years in the Oval Office.
“He was doing it because it helped him,” Schiff said, echoing prior remarks from Rep. Sylvia Garcia (D-Texas), another impeachment manager. “Because it could get these talking points for him in his reelection campaign, and for that he would sacrifice our ally and our own security.”
The House voted along party lines to impeach Trump for abusing his power by pressing Ukraine for investigations that could benefit him politically. Trump has denied wrongdoing and the White House has described the president as the victim as a partisan charade by House Democrats.
Trump has consistently railed against the investigation into his campaign’s contacts with Russia — completed by former special counsel Robert Mueller in March — calling it a “witch hunt” and at times casting doubt on the conclusion that Russia intervened in order to damage his opponent, Hillary Clinton, and boost his own campaign. Mueller did not find that any Trump campaign associates conspired with Russia to interfere in the election.
Trump asked Ukraine to look into the theory about Kyiv’s involvement in the 2016 DNC hack during his July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in addition to raising former Vice President Joe Biden and Hunter Biden.
“The server, they say Ukraine has it,” Trump said on the call, according to a rough transcript released by the White House.
“As you say yesterday, that whole nonsense ended with a very poor performance by a man named Robert Mueller, an incompetent performance, but they say a lot of it started with Ukraine. Whatever you can do, it’s very important that you do it if that’s possible,” Trump continued on the call, referring to Mueller’s public congressional testimony that took place a day prior.
In their lengthy brief filed Monday, Trump’s attorneys argued that Trump had legitimate reason to raise the issue on the phone call in rejecting the impeachment articles approved in December.
“Uncovering potential foreign interference in U.S. elections is always a legitimate goal, whatever the source of the interference and whether or not it fits with Democrats’ preferred narrative about 2016,” they wrote.
A number of current and former officials have pushed back on the theory, however. In testimony before the House in November, Hill described it as a “fictional narrative” pushed by the Russian government.
“Based on questions and statements I have heard, some of you on this committee appear to believe that Russia and its security services did not conduct a campaign against our country — and that perhaps, somehow, for some reason, Ukraine did,” Hill said in her opening remarks.
“This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves,” she said.
Tom Bossert, Trump’s former homeland security adviser, told ABC’s “This Week” in September said the conspiracy theory had been “completely debunked” and singled out Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani for pushing it.
FBI Director Christopher Wray has also said the bureau has no evidence indicating Ukraine interfered in the 2016 presidential election; Mueller as well as the congressional intelligence committees have also backed the intelligence assessment that Russia meddled in the vote.
Garcia played clips of Bossert, Hill and Wray during her own remarks on the Senate floor to convey the point that Trump’s aides had pushed back on the theory.
“He knew it would be politically helpful to his 2020 election,” Garcia said of Trump, claiming that Ukraine amplifying the theory would have cast doubt on the intelligence community’s conclusions and “eliminate” a threat to the “legitimacy” of the president’s election.
Trump promoted the theory as recently as November, when he raised it during an interview with “Fox & Friends.”
Trump’s lawyers will deliver their own arguments against impeachment to the GOP-controlled Senate beginning Saturday.
Olivia Beavers and Mike Lillis contributed.