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No credible defense of Trump’s Ukraine conduct, says GOP strategist

House Republicans unanimously opposed Thursday's vote to formalize impeachment rules, insisting the process to date has been flawed and opaque. Longtime GOP strategist Michael Steel, who previously served as press secretary for former Speaker of the House John Boehner, joins Nick Schifrin to discuss that argument and why “there isn’t a case to be made” that the president is innocent of wrongdoing.

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  • Nick Schifrin:

    We reached out to more than 50 Republican members of the House of Representatives to come on the program tonight. None of them accepted our invitation.

    For a Republican perspective on today's news, I'm joined by longtime GOP strategist and former press secretary for Speaker John Boehner Michael Steel.

    Welcome to the "NewsHour."

    Republicans have been criticizing the process, as you know, throughout the last few weeks, specifically that these depositions have been held behind closed doors, instead of having public hearings.

    Republicans had a chance today to vote for public hearings. Why did they vote against it?

  • Michael Steel:

    Well, I think they would argue that it's too little, too late.

    I think that if this vote had been held three or four weeks ago, it would have been a meaningful part of this inquiry. I think, at this point, they're closing the barn door after the cow has already run off, from the Republican perspective.

    I think that we will continue to see closed-door depositions. We're not going to yet see the sort of robust, open, fair, transparent, televised hearings that marked the Watergate impeachment inquiry and the impeachment inquiry against former President Bill Clinton.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    We heard language that goes even farther today from Steve Scalise, number three in the House, accused the Democrats of imposing Soviet-style rules.

    How are these rules Soviet, when Democrats say that they actually are based on the impeachment rules that Republicans set when they impeached or tried to impeach Bill Clinton?

  • Michael Steel:

    And some of the rules that were put in place by former Speaker Boehner as part of the Benghazi Select Committee.

    The argument — and I think there is a lot of fairness to it — is that this is a secret proceeding behind closed doors. The news is being released selectively by the majority.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But that's what it's been so far. These — we're talking about public hearings.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Michael Steel:

    … so far.

    When we get — those criticisms will not be valid when and if we get to open, televised hearings, where Republicans have the ability to confront some of these witnesses, cross-examine them, live on camera, and the American people can see and judge.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    What will the Republican strategy be when we begin those public hearings?

  • Michael Steel:

    I think it depends on the substance that we find.

    I think that the president's defense that his phone call was perfect is probably not going to hold up. It seems very likely that there will be evidence of a quid pro quo, either retrospectively, looking for information about what interference may have occurred in the 2016 election, what, if any, involvement Ukraine had in that, which I don't think that our intelligence services judge as any. But that's a question.

    The other is whether the president was looking for dirt on his potential political rival — or his political rivals, potential opponent, Joe Biden, and his son.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Specifically, Joe Biden and his son Hunter, yes.

  • Michael Steel:

    And that's a very different standard there.

    But you can argue — and I think Republicans probably will if the facts are what we think they will turn out to be — that what the president did is wrong, it is an abuse of his office, but it doesn't rise to the level that he should be impeached, convicted, and removed from office less than a year before the American people will be allowed to make that judgment for themselves.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    There's a lot of nuance in that argument you just made. It is not a 10-second or 12-second sound bite.

    Let's talk about the substance. I mean, are there members of the House whom you're speaking to who are concerned about the substance of this inquiry and what the president did vis-a-vis either 2016 or Vice President Biden and Ukraine over the last few months?

  • Michael Steel:

    Sure.

    And I don't think that — the way our laws are constructed, if the facts are what we think they are, I don't think you can make a credible defense of the president on the substance, which is why so much of this debate thus far has focused on the process.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    That's not the language the president has been using, though.

  • Michael Steel:

    That's exactly right.

    The president is the outlier here. The president wants to insist that the phone call was perfect. He continues to refer to the memorandum describing the call as a transcript, which it is not. We have seen news reports suggesting that there were important things — important details omitted from that memo.

    So this is the real problem. Republicans can defend the president successfully. He has to be — he has to be willing allow them to make the argument that, yes, he did do something wrong, but it doesn't rise to the level that he should be removed from office.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So far, he has not been willing to allow Republicans to make that argument. Why would he going forward?

  • Michael Steel:

    It's interesting.

    He has not attacked Republicans who have made that argument generally, the Mitt Romney attacks aside. There have been some cases where Republicans have made that argument, and he has not unleashed a tweetstorm on them.

    He obviously believes that there's nothing wrong substantively and wants Republicans to make a substantive case for him.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But?

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Michael Steel:

    But there's nothing you can — there isn't a case to be made there.

    So he has a choice. He can either allow them to make the case that comports with the facts, that is defensible, that is safe, or he will leave Republican elected officials on the mile-high swinging bridge, and he will be taking an axe to the ropes. He will undercut them completely if he tries to insist they make a factual, substantive case for what was pretty clearly, it seems, if the facts were what we think they are, a quid pro quo and inappropriate.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And quickly, in the time we have left, you believe that, if the president allows Republicans to make that argument, that, hey, maybe this wasn't perfect, but it's not impeachable, that they will come out ahead?

  • Michael Steel:

    I think that they will — the American people will agree that it is a time — that the voters should choose.

    And I think the vote that was held today will prove to be a very bad vote for the 30-odd House Democrats sitting in seats that the president won in 2016, half of them in seats that he won by big margins.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Michael Steel, thank you very much.

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