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Opinion | To Excuse Trump, Republicans Embrace Fantasy

Republicans are dismissing this week’s hearings, held in public, as pure theater. But they complained about the closed-door testimony beforehand. They’re shrugging off the accounts of William Taylor, George Kent and others as hearsay. But the White House has decreed that such firsthand witnesses as Mick Mulvaney not cooperate.

One moment, Mulvaney publicly acknowledges the shakedown of Ukraine’s president, insists that it’s how foreign policy is done and tells the media to “get over it.” The next, he tells the media that they’re reprehensible fabulists for reporting exactly what he said. One moment, Republicans completely ignore Trump’s infamous July 25 phone call and claim that there’s no direct evidence of his bullying and — yes, Nancy Pelosi is right — his bribery. The next, they acknowledge the call, sigh over Trump’s behavior but say that it’s hardly impeachable.

In fairness, that’s only slightly more confusing to me than the Democrats’ perspective on the call, a definitive piece of evidence that they may be inadvertently downgrading. Usually, a process like the one that they’ve been engaged in over the last seven weeks is about finding a smoking gun. This process began with the smoking gun, and the farther the Democrats travel from it — eight witnesses next week? — the more they risk implying that it wasn’t enough.

But for curious behavior, Republicans have them easily beat, and their conduct during the impeachment inquiry is the culmination and apotheosis of their conduct since Trump wrapped up the Republican presidential nomination: an utter sellout of principle and a pure embrace of fiction to pacify an emotional infant and keep him from spitting up on them.

During Wednesday’s hearing, Republicans again suggested — while maintaining straight faces — that Trump’s foremost concern was corruption in Ukraine. Steve Castor, the Republicans’ chief counsel, also gave one of the president’s most convenient (and thus favorite) conspiracy theories a fresh whirl, positing that perhaps American intelligence officials had it all wrong and Ukraine, not Russia, hacked Democratic emails in 2016 and otherwise interfered in the election.

How would this make Trump’s demand that Ukrainians smear Joe Biden in return for millions of dollars of already-authorized aid O.K.? It wouldn’t — but what a juicy distraction! And what a perfect gateway for Castor’s attempt to get Taylor to testify that Trump legitimately believed that Ukrainians were, in Castor’s words, “out to get him.”

Try to follow along. Not only does incompetence equal innocence, but also paranoia is exculpatory. Same goes for the relative dastardliness of a deed, which becomes innocuous if it’s not maximally obnoxious. That’s my takeaway from when Castor, referring to Rudy Giuliani’s shenanigans, asked Taylor: “This irregular channel of diplomacy, it’s not as outlandish as it could be — is that correct?” Clarence Darrow, move over. Another genius of jurisprudence demands space in the history books.

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