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Schiff and Nunes spar at the hearings

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., left, talks with ranking member Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., Wednesday during a hearing of the House Intelligence Committee in Washington.

(Saul Loeb/Pool Photo via AP)

Lost in the partisan rancor of last week’s explosive impeachment hearings were some of the most salient facts driving the entire case for President Donald Trump’s removal from office. Fierce partisanship has caused members of Congress to lose sight of their role in government, which is to serve as a check and balance on the Executive Branch’s power. If one of the two parties confuses its role as being the president’s defense counsel, then hearings designed to get to the truth have no hope of reaching their goal.

This kind of unproductive sniping is nothing new. Democrats took a blindly defensive position in the 1990s when President Bill Clinton lied about his affair with a White House intern. Clinton was wrong, and this newspaper stated it clearly at the time. It was unfair, however, for a special prosecutor’s probe into a shady Arkansas real estate deal to morph into an investigation of a sexual encounter between two consenting adults in the Oval Office, sordid and inexcusable as it was.

Now the Republicans are shouting and pouting about how unfair the current proceedings are. Intelligence Committee ranking member Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., started each of his many soliloquies last week not by addressing the serious accusations against Trump but rather complaining that Democrats were out to get Trump from the day he was inaugurated. As if Republicans, led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, didn’t do exactly the same thing when Barack Obama was president.

What Nunes and his colleagues spent most of their time doing was trying hard to deflect the nation’s attention from the hearings and instead focus on Democrat trickery and treachery. How many times did we hear Nunes invoke the name Alexandra Chalupa? Much as Nunes denounced the inquiry as a “circus” and introduced unfounded allegations of Democratic Party wrongdoing in 2016, the Democrats aren’t the ones facing impeachment. Nunes’ obvious goal was to distract the country from the real wrongs committed by Trump — wrongs for which the Republicans have no defense because Trump has been caught red-handed asking a foreign government to help advance his personal political interests.

The one distraction tactic they tried over and over again was to distort the timeline of events. What we now know as fact is that Trump dispatched his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, to launch a pressure campaign on Ukraine, which involved bypassing the U.S. Embassy and conducting his own distorted form of “diplomacy” on Trump’s behalf. Before and after newly elected President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s inauguration in May, Giuliani began encouraging Ukraine to launch investigations under the guise of rooting out corruption but clearly intended to help Trump’s 2020 reelection bid, various witnesses testified.

In early July, Trump’s chosen envoys were dispatched to Ukraine with the specific mission of pressuring Zelenskiy to investigate Burisma, a gas company whose board of directors included former Vice President Joe Biden’s son, Hunter. Days later and on Trump’s orders, the administration suspended crucial military aid to Ukraine. Trump and Giuliani also wanted Ukraine to waste its time investigating a concocted theory that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that meddled in the 2016 election.

Of all the corruption that could be addressed in Ukraine, Burisma and the Bidens were the sole focus in Trump’s July 25 phone call with Zelenskiy in which Trump uttered the now infamous phrase “I would like you to do us a favor, though” as a precondition to releasing military aid and Zelenskiy’s request for a White House meeting. Trump’s envoys reiterated these same demands to Ukrainian officials in August despite strong warnings from professional diplomats and Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, that this would blow up in the president’s face.

It wasn’t until news reports in September exposed the fact that the military aid had been suspended, and a White House transcript of the July 25 phone call was released, that it became clear how much trouble Trump was in. It was only then that he removed the hold on military aid and agreed to meet with Zelenskiy.

Trump’s quid pro quo demand was in full force before it was publicly exposed. Authoritative witnesses stated and restated this fact during testimony last week, including Trump’s ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland.

Republicans, acting as defense lawyers for Trump, countered by altering the timeline. They angrily confronted each of the witnesses with rapid-fire questions that focused not on what transpired from April through August, but rather on the fact that an embarrassed Trump withdrew his quid pro quo demands in September. Trump, frantic to counter Sondland’s testimony on Wednesday, shouted out the September result to reporters, as if nothing that preceded it mattered.

The speechifying from the dais during last week’s hearings tended to be mind-numbingly repetitive. One departure, though, came in the closing remarks that Rep. Adam Schiff, the Intelligence Committee chairman, gave at the end of a long and dramatic day on Wednesday. “We are supposed to believe … that Donald Trump is a great anti-corruption fighter, that his only concern about Ukraine is that it would fight corruption. But let’s look at the president’s words and his deeds,” Schiff stated.

He recalled May 6, a day when then-U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, was honoring a Ukrainian anti-corruption activist who was recovering from having acid thrown in her face. That same day, Trump ordered Yovanovitch removed from her job, clearly for opposing Giuliani’s pressure campaign.

“That is not anti-corruption. That is corruption,” Schiff stated. He noted Trump’s statements of praise for corrupt former Ukrainian prosecutors and Trump’s protests at their supposedly unfair treatment. In other words, Trump defended Ukrainians known to be corrupt. Then Schiff noted the political conditions Trump placed on a White House meeting with Zelenskiy.

After listing each of these items, Schiff finished with the same phrase: “That’s not anti-corruption. That is corruption.”

Regarding the July 25 call, Schiff asked, did Trump ask about Zelenskiy’s anti-corruption efforts? “Of course not!” the normally composed Schiff shouted. “Are we really to believe that [anti-corruption] was his priority? No!” In a September call with Sondland, Trump never brought up anti-corruption efforts. “The only thing Trump brings up is the investigation” designed to deliver dirt on his likely rival in 2020.

Sadly, Schiff was right. But even sadder is that Schiff’s Republican colleagues are so busy playing defense lawyer for Trump, they have blinded themselves to their primary duty. It’s not to defend Trump. It’s to defend the Constitution.