All Republicans in the U.S. Senate are so far presenting a united front to defend President Donald Trump against any full examination of the charges against him. But more than most of her colleagues, Iowa’s Senator Joni Ernst is becoming the public face of Trump’s defense.
She is also the leading voice in Congress for a talking point Ernst floated earlier this month: Trump has more firmly supported Ukraine against Russian aggression than did President Barack Obama.
Republicans have imposed unusual restrictions on journalists covering the impeachment trial, making it difficult for reporters to speak to senators outside of staged media availabilities. Ernst has been a prominent figure in those news conferences during the last two days of the trial.
After a mocking reference to the “mountain of evidence” she was awaiting from House impeachment managers, Ernst moved quickly to change the subject to the “lethal aid” Trump provided to Ukraine, in contrast to the Obama administration. My transcript:
Well, I am like Senator [John] Barrasso, I am waiting to hear that “mountain of overwhelming evidence,” and they have a little over three hours yet this evening where they can present that “overwhelming evidence.” I just can’t wait to hear it.
So, basically true, with everything that we’ve heard, it’s been over and over and over again, repetition of the previous day’s points, our previous points.
But I want to go back because it was brought up, of course, again today, the fact that the president held on to funding for approximately two months for lethal aid to Ukraine. And the House managers keep centering on that, they keep going back to that point. But I would remind them that Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014. 2014, under the previous administration.
That administration had every opportunity to present lethal aid to the Ukrainian people, and allow them to push back on Russian invaders. And yet they did not do that. They did not do that for two years, folks. Two years. And yet we’re acting like this is something new, that Russia has invaded this vulnerable country.
They keep going back to that, but not willing to recognize it was their own party, their own president that refused to take a stand against Russia, and instead cozied up to them, and decided not to take a stance to help our friends in Ukraine, and allow Russia to invade and gain a foothold for two years.
President Trump has done more for Ukraine in his short time in office than President Obama did when he had the opportunity to provide that aid to the Ukrainian people. Thousands of Ukrainian lives have been lost because President Obama didn’t take that stand. President Trump has.
We’re through the looking glass when Trump is portrayed as a steadfast ally of Ukraine, while Obama allegedly “cozied up” to the Russians. Who considered lifting sanctions on Russia days after his inauguration? Who declined to impose new sanctions on Russia that were mandated by a law he had signed? Who continued to hold up aid to Ukraine last summer, against the advice of senior administration officials?
After the president’s attorneys presented the first part of their defense to senators on January 25, Ernst was quick to declare they had “entirely shredded” the House managers’ case.
— CSPAN (@cspan) January 25, 2020
I was unable to find a longer version of that video on CSPAN’s website. My transcript of the clip shared on Twitter:
Thank you. I thought today was an incredible two hours. And within two hours I thought that the White House counsel and their team entirely shredded the case that has been presented by the House managers.
So what we heard today was very concise. It was full of truths and facts, as presented from the House managers’ own witnesses. It was not filled with half-truths and personal stories about being a soldier, or a chief of police, and wonderful appeals to the audience, but nothing relevant to the case.
What we saw today was factual, relevant to what is going on in the Senate, and it points out that there have been a lot of half-truths promulgated by the House managers and absolutely pushed by the media as well. So what we’re looking for: facts.
Sounds like a great opportunity to call witnesses with firsthand knowledge of disputed events. But uh oh–Ernst and her fellow Republicans have already voted to block any witness testimony or examination of documents the Trump administration has withheld in connection with the impeachment inquiry.
Incidentally, the president’s counsel strayed far from established facts on January 25. One of Trump’s attorneys asserted, “From the beginning, the president was talking about burden sharing.” But Heidi Przybyla of NBC News pointed out that Mark Sandy, the only Office of Management and Budget official who testified before the House inquiry, heard nothing about “burden sharing” as a reason to hold up aid until the whistleblower’s complaint had reached members of Congress.
If senators subpoenaed documents from OMB and other agencies, they might learn the facts about alleged “extensive efforts” within the administration “to generate an after-the-fact justification for the decision and a debate over whether the delay was legal.”
GOP senators elected Ernst in late 2018 to be vice chair of the Senate Republican Conference, in part because she was perceived as an effective television presence. (The conference exists to help senators communicate through television, radio, and online resources.)
At this writing, conservative and pro-Trump websites including Breitbart, the Daily Caller, and The Epoch Times have run news stories featuring Ernst’s January 25 remarks to reporters. All put her assertion about the “shredded” House case in their headlines.
UPDATE: Ernst took great offense at House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff citing a CBS News report that GOP senators have been warned, “vote against the president & your head will be on a pike.” She told journalists,
I was listening, until he got to the part where he just completely made a bunch of bullcrap up…Ohhhh, a confidant of the president told me that heads are gonna roll if you don’t hang together. That’s baloney.
Ernst added, “So I think he lost us, he lost us, and he offended us. And it’s, it’s hard to keep an open mind, when there’s so much baloney being thrown at you.”
I’ve yet to see evidence Ernst’s mind was ever open to the possibility that Trump committed impeachable offenses.
SECOND UPDATE: Speaking to reporters on January 27, after Trump’s lawyers continued to present their case, Ernst looked gleeful about the prospect that Trump’s impeachment defense will hurt Joe Biden politically.
ERNST: "IA caucuses are this next Monday evening. And I'm really interested to see how this discussion today informs and influences the Iowa caucus voters, those Demcaucus goers. Will they be supporting VP Biden at this point?"
— Alan He (@alanhe) January 28, 2020
Iowa caucuses, folks. Iowa caucuses are this next Monday evening. And I’m really interested to see how this discussion today informs and influences the Iowa caucus voters, those Democratic caucus-goers. Will they be supporting Vice President Biden at this point?
Alan He of CBS News posted further comments Ernst made off camera. As transcribed by him:
I really think it opened the eyes maybe of not just the folks in the Senate but maybe the folks at home that were watching this afternoon and with the IA caucuses coming up Feb 3 this next Monday night maybe it will influence some of those voters as well. I don’t think that was their point but I think it really calls into question the entire corruption issue in Ukraine.
If these proceedings affect Iowa voters at all, I would guess Biden will benefit. Like Trump, Republicans are obviously trying to sink Biden’s candidacy. Why do that, if not because you are afraid to face him in the general election?