WASHINGTON —As public hearings in the presidential impeachment inquiry kicked off Wednesday morning, U.S. Rep. John Ratcliffe, of Heath, emerged as one of President Donald Trump's fiercest defenders.
Republicans in the House Intelligence committee largely stuck to a strategy of attacking the legitimacy of the impeachment hearing process and the credibility of the two witnesses, William B. Taylor, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and George Kent, deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs.
Prior to Wednesday's public hearing, several transcripts of the closed-door hearings were released by the House Intelligence Committee. In those hearings, Ratcliffe displayed the same forceful criticism of the impeachment investigation that he did in the hearing on Wednesday.
Many of his Republican colleagues on Wednesday, including fellow Texas Congressman Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Midland, yielded their time for questions to Ratcliffe, allowing him to take the lead in attempting to poke holes in the process.
"Where is the impeachable offense in that call?" Ratcliffe asked Taylor. "Are either of you here to today to assert there was an impeachable offense in that call? Shout it out. Anyone?"
The formal impeachment was launched last month after a whistleblower from within the CIA flagged an interaction the president took in a phone call with the Ukraine president. The subsequent hearings by the the House Intelligence, Judiciary and Oversight committees are investigating whether the president withheld military aid from Ukraine in exchange for the country investigating former Vice President Joe Biden’s business dealings in Ukraine.
Conaway, Ratcliffe and U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes, R-California, all interrupted House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, D-California, while he introduced the witnesses. Republicans widely questioned Schiff's contacts with the whistleblower.
Conaway asked that the whistleblower be subpoenaed by the committee, a motion that was later tabled by the committee. Schiff said a vote to subpoena the whistleblower would have to wait until after witness testimony.
Ratcliffe, who has sat on the Intelligence Committee for less than a year, was picked by Trump in July to be the director of national intelligence. But he withdrew from consideration after he was criticized for exaggerating parts of his biography, like his role as the leader of an immigration crackdown while he was federal prosecutor in the Eastern District of Texas. Ratcliffe defended his record at the time.
Ratcliffe has been a fierce defender of the president during congressional hearings, gaining notoriety for berating former special counsel Robert Mueller during his appearance before the Judiciary Committee in July.
Rep. Will Hurd, a former C.I.A officer from Helotes, was among the few Republicans who used his time to ask questions rather than attack the process.
Hurd asked about the amount of military aid appropriated to Ukraine in previous years and questioned whether any funds were dispersed this year. The U.S. provides military aid to Ukraine to help the country defend itself from Russian-backed rebels.
U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, the only Texas Democrat on the committee, said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was in a vulnerable position when the president asked him to investigate the Biden's son, Hunter Biden, who held a lucrative board seat with a Ukraine natural gas company.
"He had a desperate man on the phone and he asked a desperate man a favor," Castro said of Trump and Zelensky's conversation. “Is attempted murder a crime? Is attempted robbery a crime? Is attempted bribery and extortion a crime?”
Castro encouraged Republican senators, who have often said the majority would vote down impending Articles of Impeachment, to take action.
"If this Congress clears President Trump, does it mean he can go ask another foreign country to investigate another presidential candidate, a member of Congress, a governor, a senator or any private American citizen doing business overseas?" Castro asked.
Kent responded: “On principle, regardless of the country, whether it's Ukraine, the U.S. or any country, the facts of law...should drive investigations by law enforcement officials, and it is not the role of politicians to be involved in directing the judicial systems of their own country or other countries."
Before the hearing started, Republicans set up signs in the room, one of them quoting U.S. Rep. Al Green, D-Houston, who called for the impeachment of the president since before the formal inquiry started. The sign read: "I'm concerned if we don't impeach this president, he will get re-elected," which is a statement Republicans have said illustrates that Democrats want to nullify a legitimate election. Green's efforts in the Spring fell short, and he is not in the relevant committees giving him minimal involvement in the formal inquiry.
U.S. Reps Louie Gohmert, R-Tyler, Michael Cloud, R-Victoria, and Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, were also in attendance.
Jackson Lee, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, one of the other committees handling the impeachment inquiry, said she was content with the way Democrats handled Wednesday’s hearing. To her, the responses from the witnesses stacked more evidence against the Trump.
“In this instance I think it was clear from ambassador Taylor and Deputy Secretary Kent that the whole policy of Ukraine was self interest, not the American people,” she said. “That is not the new norm and it can be equated —as the facts unfold, because we’re not done yet — abuse of power.”
Abby Livingston contributed to this report.