Trump Impeachment

Top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine William Taylor, left, and career Foreign Service officer George Kent arrive to testify during an impeachment hearing of the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill, Wednesday Nov. 13, 2019 in Washington.

WASHINGTON — The first public hearing in an historic impeachment inquiry doesn't appear to have budged the views of Louisiana Republicans, who have steadfastly defended President Donald Trump against allegations that he leveraged foreign aid to Ukraine for his own political benefit.

The testimony of Ambassador William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, and George Kent, deputy assistant in the European and Eurasian Bureau at the U.S. Department of State, was met with the kind of sharply partisan response that has marked the House Democrat-led impeachment inquiry to date.

Democrats who support impeaching Trump called the testimony, which detailed how the Trump administration dealt with Ukrainian leaders, damning. Republicans responded by challenging the impeachment process and arguing it didn't prove the president had done anything impeachable.

“This is just political theater. The Democrats have been rehearsing this for weeks. This is the opening day of the play. They have a well-rehearsed script,” said U.S. Rep. Mike Johnson, R-Benton.

U.S. House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, a Jefferson Republican who has been one of Trump's most vocal supporters, called the impeachment inquiry a "total sham."

"THIS is what Dems are basing impeachment off of? Unbelievable," Scalise said on Twitter as the House Intelligence hearing was taking place.

Louisiana Republicans in Congress have firmly defended Trump amid the impeachment probe, as well as past challenges to the president.

Trump is scheduled to be in Louisiana, where he remains politically popular, for the second time in less than two weeks on Thursday, when he holds a rally for Republican gubernatorial candidate Eddie Rispone in Bossier City. His last rally, in Monroe, drew thousands of supporters.

Rispone, a wealthy Baton Rouge businessman, is attempting to stop Gov. John Bel Edwards, the only Democratic governor in the Deep South, from getting a second term in Saturday's election.

House Democratic leaders are hoping to have an impeachment vote by the end of the year. If the chamber votes to impeach, which is likely, the process then moves to a trial in the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate. The Senate ultimately will decide if the president should be removed from office — considered an unlikely scenario. Senate Republican leaders have said they expect the trial will take up to eight weeks.

“If this comes to the Senate, we will handle the proceeding seriously and impartially, not like the media circus going on in the House,” U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, said after Wednesday's hearing.

U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, said it’s good that the hearing was held in public view. Until Wednesday, hearings had been conducted behind-closed-doors with only members from three designated committees allowed to attend.

But, he said, the process being used still raises red flags.

Currently the impeachment inquiry is being handled through the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, a panel where each party’s leader gets to handpick members. Traditional standing committees are selected through the caucuses’ steering committees and voted on by peers — a process largely driven by areas of interest and expertise.

Republicans have argued that directing impeachment first to the Intelligence panel, rather than the standing House Judiciary Committee, has made it more partisan.

“This is a Judiciary Committee issue,” Graves said. “(Intel)’s not based on merit or expertise; it’s based on politics.”

None of Louisiana's six U.S. House members is on the Intelligence Committee. Two — Johnson and New Orleans Congressman Cedric Richmond, the lone Democrat in the state's delegation — are on Judiciary, which is expected to take over the impeachment inquiry after Thanksgiving.

U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, R-Alto, called the process to date a “charade.”

“We’re down to the third (and) fourth retelling of what someone else heard,” he said. “But the people of Louisiana can see through the lies and understand the truth: (Trump) did nothing wrong.”

Kent and Taylor spent more than five hours detailing their concerns over whether Trump halted millions in military aid and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's White House visit until the Eastern European country agreed to investigate unproven allegations about former Vice President and now Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden and the Democratic National Committee.

A whistleblower's report about July 25 phone call and Trump's request from Zelenskiy for “a favor" prompted the forming impeachment probe. Neither Kent or Taylor was personally on the call but received reports about it.

The White House has released an incomplete transcript of the call that Republicans have pointed to, along with Zelenskiy's assurances that he didn't feel pressured by Trump, as evidence that Trump did nothing wrong.

“Would I have said things the way they were said? No, but you have both Zelenskiy and the president saying there was no quid pro quo,” Graves said. “There were no conditions met.”

Johnson, who joined Trump for the LSU vs. Alabama game in Tuscaloosa on Saturday, said Trump "has nothing to hide."

“There simply isn’t anything wrong here. We believe the evidence is very clear,” Johnson said. “There really wasn’t any quid pro quo at all or anything that would come close to that.”

Email Elizabeth Crisp at ecrisp@theadvocate.com and follow on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp.