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Could impeachment hearings sway Texas Republicans dismayed by Trump’s Ukraine tactics?

WASHINGTON — When impeachment hearings start Wednesday, Democrats aiming to expose abuse of power will have a number of audiences in mind — none more closely watched than the handful of Republicans who have questioned President Donald Trump’s actions in Ukraine.

While most Republicans in Congress have circled the wagons aggressively, a few have distanced themselves from Trump’s tactics, even as they also reject impeachment.

That includes one of the Texans on the intelligence committee, the forum for the hearings — former CIA undercover officer Will Hurd.

“Trying to get information on a political rival to use in a political campaign is not something a president or any official should be doing,” he said Sunday.

Democrats have begun to describe Trump’s actions as “extortion,” sidestepping the “no quid pro quo” defense promoted by Trump and his allies. Whatever the label, they argue, the president sought to leverage U.S. military aid and a coveted White House audience for Ukraine’s new president into an announcement of a corruption probe that would tarnish Democratic front-runner Joe Biden.

Hurd and another West Texas Republican, Rep. Mac Thornberry, a leading GOP voice on national security, condemned Trump’s actions Sunday even as they insisted he should not be impeached. Both are retiring next year.

“I believe it’s inappropriate for a president to ask a foreign leader to investigate a political rival,” Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Clarendon, former chairman and now the most senior GOP member of the Armed Services Committee, told ABC’s This Week. “That leads to a question if there’s a political rival with a family member who is involved in questionable activity, what do you do? Just let them alone? But set that aside. I believe it was inappropriate. I do not believe it was impeachable.”

On Wednesday the public will hear directly from William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, and from George Kent, the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary of state responsible for Ukraine, as the impeachment inquiry moves from closed-door sessions to the drama of televised hearings.

Four Texans serve on the intelligence committee.

Rep. Joaquin Castro of San Antonio, the only Democrat, fully supports removing Trump from office.

On the GOP side, two of the Texans are retiring: Hurd, who lives in suburban San Antonio, and Rep. Mike Conaway of Midland, a CPA.

The fourth Texan on the panel is Rep. John Ratcliffe. A former U.S. attorney and mayor of Heath, a small town east of Dallas, he’s been one of Trump’s most trusted allies throughout the probe. Outside the deposition room, he has accused Chairman Adam Schiff of peddling falsehoods, going so far as asserting that he “planted fake evidence” in his eagerness to bring down Trump.

In July, Trump named Ratcliffe to serve as the new director of national intelligence, but dropped the nomination within days amid backlash in both parties from lawmakers who viewed his experience as too thin.

Ratcliffe sat with Trump at Game 5 of the World Series. At his Dallas rally on Oct. 17, the president called him “one of the best lawyers you’ll ever find. He’s slick, he’s smooth, but boy, he’s loyal, he’s talented and he’s got them all buffaloed because they’re not as good as him.”

Trump has insisted on Republicans defending him unequivocally, and most of the Texans have.

“The call to the Ukrainian President was PERFECT. Read the Transcript! There was NOTHING said that was in any way wrong,” he tweeted Sunday. “Republicans, don’t be led into the fools trap of saying it was not perfect, but is not impeachable. No, it is much stronger than that. NOTHING WAS DONE WRONG!”

Donald J. Trump

@realDonaldTrump

The call to the Ukrainian President was PERFECT. Read the Transcript! There was NOTHING said that was in any way wrong. Republicans, don’t be led into the fools trap of saying it was not perfect, but is not impeachable. No, it is much stronger than that. NOTHING WAS DONE WRONG!

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On Monday, Trump kept up a torrent of attacks, claiming without substantiation that Schiff “doctored” transcripts the committee has released from witnesses’ closed-door depositions.

Hurd, the president’s biggest critic among House Republicans, has not defended Trump directly.

On Fox News Sunday, he took Trump to task for indulging in “fringe thinking” by pushing the discredited theory that Ukraine, rather than Russia, had hacked into Democratic emails during the 2016.

“Was that an understanding based on debunked information? Yes. But is that a violation of the law? I don’t think so,” Hurd said.

Still, he echoed a number of GOP talking points, accusing Schiff of deception regarding contacts he and his aides had with the whistleblower whose anonymous complaint about Trump’s July 25 call with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy triggered the impeachment push.

Hurd also insinuated that Hunter Biden received his $50,000-a-month spot on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company, because his dad was vice president.

“I would love to hear from Hunter Biden,” he said.

That said, Hurd wouldn’t rule out impeachment, calling it only “premature” without knowing more about the $391 million in aid that was frozen when Trump was demanding a Biden probe.

Contrast that with the more full-throated defense from Republicans such as Rep. Bill Flores, R-Bryan.

“There’s no evidence that he did anything in that call that adheres to the doctrine of quid pro quo. … The call is not an impeachable offense,” he said, adding, “Ukraine has corruption issues. … He’s asking them to try to get that handled. And he’s perfectly within his rights to do so.”

Rep. Randy Weber, R-Friendswood, called it entirely appropriate for Trump to prod Ukraine to dig into Hunter Biden’s business activities.

“When the president of another country says, ‘Can you help me drain the swamp in my country,’ and [Trump] says, ‘Be glad to help you. Here’s a couple examples you might want to go after,’ there’s nothing wrong with that,” Weber said.

Besides, he argued, Zelenskiy never delivered on anything Trump asked of him.

“Did he go out and say OK, we’re going to release this criminal? We’re going to put this person in jail? We’re going to start this investigation? What did he do? Did he hold a press conference? Answer: zero,” Weber said. “He didn’t do anything for that purported quid pro quo. There was none.”

Rep. Michael McCaul of Austin, the top Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee, likewise said he’s heard nothing that rises to an impeachable offense because there was no explicit quid pro quo.

“We are all going to keep an open mind through the process, but the process itself has been very cloak and dagger, in the most secret room in the United States Capitol. I’m one of the few members that can actually sit in there and listen to this testimony, and I can’t comment on it,” he said.

As for demanding an investigation of the Bidens, McCaul has no problem with that.

“Ukraine had a history of corruption,” he said. “Burisma was considered to be a corrupt company. Doesn’t matter if it’s a U.S. citizen or the son of a vice president. If it’s corruption it’s corruption.”

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