Stewart’s unwillingness to lob personal attacks on Vindman, a decorated war hero and top national security aide, reflects a broader sentiment that has emerged in the House GOP conference as Democrats have taken their impeachment probe public.
While Republicans have shown zero signs of breaking with President Donald Trump when it comes to impeachment itself, GOP lawmakers are also making clear that they’re not willing to fully embrace Trump’s scorched-earth defense tactics, which have centered — at least in part — on tearing down his critics, sometimes against the advice of his own allies and advisers.
“There’s no need to attack. I was a combat veteran,” retiring Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) told POLITICO. “I think the better position to take is: there’s nothing impeachable.”
When asked whether Trump’s personal attacks put Republicans in a tough spot, King was unequivocal: “yes.”
Despite the White House’s efforts to hire impeachment messengers and increase coordination with Hill Republicans through regular staff meetings and conference calls, it’s clear that the president will continue to act as a one-man war room, even as it threatens to undermine GOP efforts to defend Trump.
The Republican approach is more a difference of style than substance, as GOP lawmakers on the House Intelligence Committee have tried to carefully pick apart the witnesses’ testimonies. Democrats have already staged four televised hearings in their impeachment inquiry, which is focused on whether Trump tried to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to announce investigations into his political rivals, including Joe Biden.
But virtually none of the GOP members on the panel have adopted Trump’s bombastic tone toward the witnesses. Instead, Republicans on Tuesday deployed a much softer approach toward both Vindman and Jennifer Williams, a senior National Security Council aide to Vice President Mike Pence who Trump disparaged as a “Never Trumper” over the weekend. Both witnesses were on the July 25 call between Trump and Zelensky and found the conversation to be inappropriate.
The GOP sought to undermine Vindman by questioning his judgment, including whether he was motivated to come forward by a bias against Trump. But most Republicans were careful not to question his loyalty to the United States, while some went out of their way to praise his heroic acts on the battlefield. Vindman, whose family fled the Soviet Union when he was a child, has already been subject to baseless attacks from some on the right regarding his allegiance to the United States.
And when Vindman was testifying behind closed doors last month, Republicans went out of their way to defend the Purple Heart recipient — drawing an unmistakable line when it comes to their defenses of Trump.
“We need to show that we are better than that as a nation,” Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), the third-ranking House Republican, said at the time. “It is shameful to question their patriotism, their love of this nation, and we should not be involved in this process.”
Democrats did, however, object to a line of questioning from a GOP committee attorney who grilled Vindman over Ukraine’s offer to serve as its defense minister. Democrats viewed that exchange as a veiled attack on Vindman’s commitment to the United States.
“That may have come cloaked in a Brooks Brothers suit and in parliamentary language, but that was designed exclusively to give the right-wing media an opening to question your loyalties,” Rep. Jim Himes (R-Conn.) said at the hearing.
Republicans also treaded lightly when it came to both Williams and Marie Yovanovitch, a well-respected diplomat who was ousted from her post as ambassador to Ukraine following a smear campaign by Rudy Giuliani.
The GOP has been mindful of the optics of trashing some of the only female witnesses in the impeachment probe and hashed out a strategy to not attack the witnesses in personal terms, which they feared would play directly into Democrats’ hands.
So Republicans were dumbfounded last Friday when Trump dropped a grenade into the middle of the hearing by blasting Yovanovitch as a failed ambassador right as she was giving emotional testimony about how she was mistreated by the Trump administration.
“Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad. She started off in Somalia, how did that go?” Trump tweeted. “Then fast forward to Ukraine, where the new Ukrainian President spoke unfavorably about her in my second phone call with him.”
Republicans were deeply uncomfortable with the mid-hearing attack, which Democrats called a blatant example of witness intimidation — a similar accusation that was attached to Trump’s Twitter slam on Williams over the weekend. Many in the GOP, as they have done time and again, largely ignored the president’s words and instead bent over backwards to praise Yovanovitch.
“You’re tough as nails and you’re smart as hell,” said Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas). “You’re a great example of what our ambassadors should be like. You are an honor to your family. You are an honor to the foreign service. You are an honor to your country.”
Yet even as Republicans admit that it is problematic for Trump to be slamming witnesses ahead of — or in the middle of — their testimony, none of them are willing to directly criticize the president for his broadsides.
“It’s not something I would do,” Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas), who sits on the House Intelligence Committee. “It’s just not my style.”