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The Republican Strategy Behind The Impeachment Witness List


The public gets its first look tomorrow at how the Democrats plan to conduct the impeachment inquiry. Two diplomats will testify before the House Intelligence Committee and television cameras. Then later in the week, another diplomat will testify - Marie Yovanovitch, the former ambassador to Ukraine who was recalled. Now, they are just the first three. More witnesses will be called as well. Republicans have said they would like some witnesses called to. They've presented a list. It includes Hunter Biden, Joe Biden's son, and the whistleblower whose complaint started this whole process. So what does their would-be witness list tell us about the Republican strategy?

Jamil Jaffer is in studio with me. He was associate White House counsel during the Bush administration. He was also senior counsel for the House Intelligence Committee. These days, he's executive director of the National Security Institute at George Mason University. Thanks for coming in.

JAMIL JAFFER: Thanks for having me, Noel.

KING: So these witnesses that the Republicans would like to testify, are they likely to testify?

JAFFER: Well, you know, it's hard to know. The Democrats have already indicated - Adam Schiff's indicated he will not call the whistleblower. So we know at least the whistleblower is off the table for now unless there's some sort of other resolution. And these other witnesses, it's hard to know whether Adam Schiff will agree. We'll see what the process is going forward. We know that one of the efforts the House Republicans are going to make is to say the process is inappropriate, that the process has been affected by the Democrats' desire to impeach Donald Trump. And if they don't call the witnesses the Republicans have asked for, that'll be another count against the House Democrats on this claim that the process is problematic.

KING: OK. So Adam Schiff, ultimately, is the one who makes the decisions. And he said the whistleblower will not be testifying. What's the reason that he's given for that?

JAFFER: Well, Adam Schiff's point is that the whistleblower's name should be kept from public discussion, that this person has given a confidential - raised a confidential concern and that as a result calling the whistleblower is inappropriate and also unnecessary because you have the best evidence necessary, which was a transcript of the phone call. So the transcript shows what they need. You don't need the whistleblower if the transcript describes what happened on the call.

KING: Is that going to - and I hate to ask you to speculate, but is that going to convince the public?

JAFFER: Well, look, I think the public, you know, is used to the traditional American presumption. Under the Constitution, a accused has a right to confront their accuser.

KING: Yeah.

JAFFER: So the American public is used to that notion. So I think the American public will be concerned. But, look, the truth is the American public is already hardened on this issue. There are people who think the president should be impeached, and there are people who think the president shouldn't be impeached, and there's very few people in the middle. The vast majority of people have a strong held view on this question, and the same is largely true in the Senate. There are a handful of senators in both parties who might be convinced one way or the other. But the bulk have indicated that they know where they are on this issue.

KING: OK. The Republicans are also asking for Hunter Biden to testify, for a former DNC staffer to testify. When you look at the list of people that they would like to hear from and that they importantly want the public to hear from, can you parse out for us what their strategy is? What are they trying to say with that list of people?

JAFFER: Sure. I mean, there's a couple of things that I think the House Republicans are trying to make a point about. One, I think that they are pointing out the process doesn't work. Second, they're pointing out that this is really about corruption, that the president wasn't trying to investigate a political rival. He was investigating corruption in Ukraine, that Ukraine was already involved in the U.S. elections. That's why they're calling this DNC staffer who worked allegedly with the Ukrainian embassy, as a political report suggested. And so they're saying, look, the president was doing the right thing by the country. Yes, he may have engaged even in a, quote-unquote, "quid pro quo" and you notice Democrats are now staying away from that word. Now the talk is about bribery because the American public doesn't want to hear Latin words, right? They want to hear words they understand, that they can relate to, words like bribery, extortion. The president was trying to extort, allegedly, Ukraine to get an investigation on a political rival.

The Republicans' story and the president's story is, look, the president wasn't trying to investigate a political rival. He was investing corruption in a very corrupt country. By some measures, 70% roughly of Ukrainians have paid a bribe in the last six months to a year. And the president was engaged in the same thing that Joe Biden was, which was trying to deal with corruption in Ukraine. And he wanted Hunter Biden investigated because he was on the board of this company for no good reason and getting paid a lot of money - so was his business partner. And so they want the business partner called. They want Hunter Biden called. They want this DNC contractor called who worked with the Ukrainian embassy.

Their point is this is about corruption. This is about Ukrainian influence in the elections. The president's long disliked Ukraine. And so they're making the point that the president was acting in his official role as president, and he was fine to do what he did. In fact, the president's called publicly for an investigation of Hunter Biden by the Ukrainians and by the Chinese. So there's nothing secret here.

KING: So even if Hunter Biden doesn't testify, the idea is I, a member of the public who maybe haven't been following this blow by blow, I go in and I watch some of these hearings and Hunter Biden is on my mind and what he may have done wrong is on my mind because the Republicans want him to testify and the Democrats potentially say, no, he can't. That's what I'm thinking is the strategy.

JAFFER: I think that's exactly right. And the idea is to shift the conversation from Donald Trump and sort of trying to engage in a transaction with the president of Ukraine and turn it into about Hunter Biden and his inappropriate activities in Ukraine and the DNC's inappropriate activities in Ukraine and to shift the narrative. And so the Republicans have one story to tell; Democrats have another story to tell. And the problem is that it's become very partisan. And the problem with that issue is that when it rolls over into the Senate, if the Senate sees this investigation as having been partisan, they're unlikely to vote other than along party lines on impeachment, if that happens. The president will not be removed (ph) by any margin.

KING: Jamil Jaffer was an associate White House counsel during the Bush administration. He is currently executive director of the National Security Institute at George Mason University. Thanks so much for coming in. We appreciate it.

JAFFER: Thanks for having me, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.