WASHINGTON—Top Republicans on Sunday offered sharply divergent views of President Trump’s interactions with Ukraine, showcasing the party’s challenges to mount a unified defense of the president in advance of public impeachment hearings set to begin this week.
One senior GOP House lawmaker condemned Mr. Trump’s decision to press Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter as inappropriate, but said it didn’t warrant impeachment.
A Republican senator said the matter would turn on Mr. Trump’s intent: If he sought an investigation of the Bidens for political reasons that could constitute an impeachable offense.
Yet others sought to put the spotlight on the Biden family—urging investigators to probe the substance of Mr. Trump’s unsubstantiated allegations that the vice president took actions that may have benefited a Ukrainian energy company where Hunter Biden served on the board.
As the public phase of the impeachment inquiry opens, Mr. Trump’s Republican allies Capitol Hill are trying to formulate a message that will resonate with the broader public. Though the president maintains strong backing from the GOP base, opinion polls show support for removing Mr. Trump from office hovers close to 50% among the broader public.
The Democratic-led House has scheduled two open hearings with senior U.S. diplomats this week with the hope of making a case to the American people that Mr. Trump’s conduct warrants removal from office. Mr. Trump has defended his interactions with the Ukrainian leaders, saying he was only trying to combat corruption in that country.
“Republicans, don’t be led into the fools trap of saying it was not perfect, but is not impeachable,” Mr. Trump said Sunday in a tweet. “NOTHING WAS DONE WRONG!”
House Republicans are pressing Democratic leaders to bring Mr. Biden’s son before Congress as they seek to show Mr. Trump was right to have concerns about Ukrainian corruption. Mr. Trump has suggested, without producing evidence, that Mr. Biden took official actions by seeking to have a Ukrainian prosecutor removed over corruption claims that could have benefited the company while his son sat on its board.
The Bidens deny any impropriety. Hunter Biden has said his acceptance of the seat showed “poor judgment.”
A Ukrainian official this year said he had no evidence of wrongdoing by Mr. Biden or his son.
Rep. Adam Schiff, chairman of the intelligence committee, said Saturday he was evaluating the GOP witness requests—but suggested he wouldn’t allow the hearings to be used to launch an investigation of Mr. Biden.
Meanwhile, a legal battle is brewing in the courts over whether close presidential advisers have to obey congressional subpoenas. Late Friday, acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney asked to join a lawsuit seeking a ruling on whether he and another White House official have to obey a congressional subpoena or a Justice Department opinion that he is immune from being called to testify.
A simple majority of the House is required for impeachment. Democrats control 233 of the 435 chamber’s seats. In the Senate, a two-thirds majority is necessary to convict and remove a president from office. There, Republicans control 53 of the 100 seats.
In 1999, then-President Clinton was impeached by a GOP-controlled House, but prevented his removal by the Senate in part by leveraging his high approval rating to keep congressional Democrats united.
During his Senate trial in January 1999, Mr. Clinton had a public approval rating of 68%, and only 32% of adults were in favor of the Senate removing him, while 60% were opposed, according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll at the time.
Mr. Clinton was impeached by a GOP-controlled House for lying under oath about his personal relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky and trying to obstruct justice in covering up the relationship.
Mr. Trump is under scrutiny for asking a foreign government, Ukraine, to investigate Mr. Biden, a presidential rival, and his son—with Democrats probing whether Mr. Trump temporarily held up millions in foreign assistance to add pressure to his demands.
As the hearings begin on Capitol Hill, Mr. Trump is in a significantly weaker political position that Mr. Clinton. In a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released last week, some 53% said they approve of the Democratic-run impeachment inquiry, with 44% disapproving. Nearly half, or 49%, said Mr. Trump should be impeached and removed from the White House, with 46% opposing impeachment and removal.
The polling shows a sharp partisan split, with support for removing Mr. Trump from office among Democrats at 88%, while opposition to such a move stood at 90% among Republicans.
Bob Shrum, an unofficial adviser to Mr. Clinton during impeachment, said the Republicans’ shifting messaging hasn’t helped Mr. Trump.
“Republicans started out saying he didn’t do it. Then he said he did it, but there is no quid pro quo. But then they said there might be quid pro quo, but it’s not an impeachable offense,” said Mr. Shrum, now the director of the Center for the Political Future at the University of Southern California, a bipartisan research organization seeking to restore a more civil political dialogue.
“They are just trying to provide enough of smokescreen, so when the Senate doesn’t convict they can say he shouldn’t have been impeached in the first place,” he said.
Former Republican Rep. Tom Davis, who served on the House Oversight Committee during the Clinton impeachment, said the scattershot messaging stems in part from the fact the Trump White House doesn’t have a war room dedicated to crafting a daily messaging strategy as the Clinton White House did.
“It’s a higher risk—a coordinated, singular message is much better from a Republican perspective,” he said, adding that the Democratic messaging against Mr. Trump too had been “evolving.”
Republicans have complained about the process Democrats are using to pursue the Ukraine inquiry. But on substance, divisions within the GOP have begun to emerge.
“I believe that it is inappropriate for a president to ask a foreign leader to investigate a political rival,” said Rep. Mac Thornberry (R., Texas) Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.” Mr. Thornberry, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, added, “I believe it was inappropriate. I don’t believe it was impeachable.”
But Sen. John Kennedy (R., La.) said that if Mr. Trump pushed for an investigation into a political rival for his political benefit, that could amount to an impeachable offense.
“Here are the two possible scenarios. Number one: The president asked for an investigation of a political rival. Number two, the president asked for an investigation of possible corruption by someone who happens to be a political rival,” Mr. Kennedy said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
“The latter would be in the national interest. The former would be in the president’s parochial interest and would be over the line,” Mr. Kennedy said. Pressed if “over the line” meant impeachable, Mr. Kennedy said: ”Yeah, probably.”
Texas Rep. William Hurd, a moderate Republican and a former Central Intelligence Agency officer, also brought up the question of Mr. Trump’s intent in withholding U.S. military aid to Ukraine.
“I think if you’re trying to get information on a political rival to use in a political campaign, it is not something a president or any official should be doing,” Mr. Hurd said on “Fox News Sunday.” “I think everybody—most Republicans have said that that would be a violation of the law.”
Other Republicans defended Mr. Trump’s reasoning for withholding aid, arguing it was because of larger concerns about corruption in the country and not specifically because he was seeking an investigation into Hunter Biden and Burisma, the energy firm that appointed him to its board.
“I remain sympathetic with President Trump’s legitimate concerns about the corruption [in Ukraine]….He’s been very consistent in his conversations with me and others that that was his reason for withholding funding,” said Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.) argued there was nothing legally problematic with the president putting contingencies on foreign aid.
“Presidents have withheld aid before for corruption,” Mr. Paul said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “So the thing is, I think it’s a mistake to say, ‘Oh, he withheld aid until he got what he wanted.’ Well, if it’s corruption, and he believes there to be corruption, he has every right to withhold aid.”
House Democrats say the hearings, set to begin Wednesday, will tell a fuller story of Mr. Trump’s interactions with Ukraine.
“There will be new information,” said Rep. Jim Himes, a Connecticut Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, which is conducting the impeachment inquiry.
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