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Smart Republicans are changing their minds about Trump's impeachment — and they're saying it in public

Max Burns
Republicans dredged up conspiracy theories and tall tales during first public impeachment hearings: Getty Images

For weeks, Washington Republicans have decried Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff’s closed-door depositions as a “secret impeachment.” But Wednesday’s blockbuster public testimony by Ambassador William Taylor and Deputy Secretary of State George Kent likely has those same Republicans wishing Schiff’s hearings had remained a classified affair.

Over the course of five hours, Taylor and Kent offered a detailed account of Trump’s attempt to extort Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into providing political dirt on Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. A stark portrait emerged of a president willing to undermine American foreign policy and our international allies in a desperate bid to save his sinking re-election prospects.

What’s worse: it was clear to Taylor, Kent and a growing number of foreign policy officials — including ousted National Security Advisor John Bolton — that Trump was willing to threaten Ukrainian national security to get the dirt he wanted, even if that meant withholding security funding already approved by Congress.

In testimony studded with exact dates, verbatim quotations and meticulous notes, Taylor and Kent described how American policy towards Ukraine gradually moved from official channels – the State Department and Congress – to “irregular” channels led by Trump’s personal lawyer and friend Rudy Giuliani.

Republicans did their best to paint Taylor and Kent as rabid “never-Trumpers” – in other words, as opponents of the Trumpian personality cult that holds most of the Republican Party in thrall. But that’s a doomed strategy: both Taylor and Kent are career civil servants respected by Democrats and Republicans for their apolitical approach to diplomacy. In international circles, Taylor is regarded as a “model diplomat” with an unflinching commitment to the truth.

Taylor and Kent’s testimony is a disaster for the Trump administration at a time when its credibility already sits near record lows with voters and allies. Even Fox News anchor Chris Wallace admitted Taylor’s visit to Capitol Hill was “very damaging to President Trump.” Conservative news magazine The Bulwark similarly declared that Wednesday’s hearing “went badly for Trump,” calling Taylor’s testimony “impressive, succinct, unflappable, and damaging to the president”.

The results don’t get much better when Republicans turn off their televisions and consult with party elders. Just last week, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice broke her silence in an interview where she called Trump’s Ukraine gambit “deeply troubling” and “really murky.”

Rice, who remains well-regarded among Republicans and is often spoken of as a future presidential contender, sharply criticized Trump for using American foreign policy to attack domestic political rivals. “I don't like for the President of the United States to mention an American citizen for investigation to a foreign leader. I think that is out of bounds," Rice told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria.

But what about in the Republican Senate, where Trump will stand trial after an impeachment vote nearly guaranteed to pass the Democratic House? Conservatives including Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) and Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) both expressed concerns about Trump’s conduct. More surprisingly, Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) suggested he would oppose efforts to dismiss Trump’s impeachment charges without a full trial. Indiana’s Mike Braun agreed with Cornyn, effectively killing a plan by their colleague Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) to abandon impeachment entirely.

On Friday, House Democrats receive testimony from Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch. What she says has the potential to be as explosive as Taylor and Kent’s – ousted from her position for refusing to play ball with Trump henchman Giuliani, Yovanovitch represents one more striking example of a respected public servant who would not empower Trump’s corrupt dealings.

Since Yovanovitch was fired before Trump’s plan gained traction, her testimony is likely to focus on the gradual capture of the American foreign policy process by unaccountable, shadowy forces like Giuliani. Yovanovitch is a striking example of how civil servants who stick to the rule of law often find themselves at cross purposes with a president who feels no such ethical pressure.

A core of far-right Republicans have made clear they intend to stand by Donald Trump regardless of what the evidence reveals. That comes with huge risks for more moderate Republicans seeking re-election in battleground states, where growing numbers of voters now believe Trump engaged in impeachable offenses. Republican candidates who won by razor-thin margins in 2018 now must ask themselves if defending Donald Trump is worth losing their job.

William Taylor and George Kent are just the first voices in a chorus of high-profile administration figures set to publicly testify before Congress. A growing number of Republicans are finally ready to listen.