WASHINGTON — The four Texas members of the House Intelligence Committee made their mark on the first day of the public impeachment hearings of President Donald Trump with Democrat Joaquin Castro striking a blow against a central GOP argument that a crime wasn't committed and Republican Mike Conaway forcing a vote to make a key figure, the whistleblower who triggered the inquiry, appear before the panel.
It was a partisan slug fest with a fiery exchange between Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Heath and the main witness, U.S. diplomat William Taylor, that ended with the intervention of panel Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif.
The vote to subpoena the whistleblower for a closed-door deposition failed 13–9 along party lines.
But Conaway, of Midland, succeeded in keeping the whistleblower issue front and center.
Some Republican supporters of Trump have advocated naming the whistleblower publicly and Schiff pointedly warned members not to attempt to do that during the televised hearings.
Castro, of San Antonio, took on a Republican argument that has gained traction recently that no crime was committed because military aid to Ukraine that had been withheld was later released and Ukrainian officials did not conduct an investigation of former Vice President Biden — a Democratic presidential frontrunner — and his son to please Trump.
“So, we have a president who the other side has claimed or has defended the president saying that the aid went through and that there was never any investigation, but the president attempted to get those things done and it looks like there was an initial agreement by the president of Ukraine to actually do those things. So, ambassador, is attempted murder a crime? Is attempted murder a crime?” asked Castro.
Taylor replied, “attempted murder is a crime.”
Castro listed other attempted crimes, stopping at “extortion and bribery.” While Taylor demurred from saying such an attempt was a crime, saying he did not know, Castro appeared to make his point that a U.S. president should not try to force a foreign leader to help on a personal matter in return for congressionally-approved assistance.
“I thought his questions were masterful,” said Glenn Smith, an Austin-based Democratic consultant, of Castro. “Trump supporters are in kind of a bind. How can they say that an American president can seek foreign intervention in an election on his behalf?”
Ratcliffe, a former prosecutor, said that Ukrainian officials did not know that U.S. military aid was being held up so that Trump's request for a “favor” as he said on a telephone call with the president of Ukraine, did not amount to a “quid pro quo.”
“So, in this impeachment hearing today, where we impeach presidents for treason or bribery or other high crimes, where is the impeachable offense in that call?” asked Ratcliffe. “Are either of you here today to assert there was an impeachable offense in that call? Shout it out! Anyone?!”
Taylor had said in his opening statement that he was not taking a position on impeachment. When Ratcliffe would not give Taylor time to respond, Schiff stepped in and said he could answer.
“Mr. Ratcliffe, I would just like to say that I'm not here to do anything having to do with the [decision] about impeachment,” Taylor said, “That is not what either of us are here to do. This is your job.”
U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes, a former CIA operative who is retiring from Congress, focused on fact-based questions asking about the U.S. support for Ukraine and the problem of corruption.
Austin Republican consultant Matt Mackowiak gave the Texas members good marks for their questioning. “Conaway is well respected and Hurd and Ratcliffe were both sharp,” he said. “They're obviously not happy (with the impeachment process) but they all did well in their own way.”