Ohio's Sen. Rob Portman Finds Himself in Central Role in Trump Impeachment Drama

As co-chair of the Senate Ukraine Caucus, Portman has had a unique role in the controversy around President Donald Trump's withholding of aid to that country — and he could be a decisive factor in the impeachment trial's next phase.

click to enlarge U.S. Sen. Rob Portman - Gage Skidmore
Gage Skidmore
U.S. Sen. Rob Portman

As President Donald Trump's impeachment trial lurches toward a pivotal vote about whether senators will hear additional witness testimony, Ohio's Republican senator has had a key role in the drama.

As a member of the Senate, Rob Portman is one of Trump's 100 jurors — and one that Democrats may need to convince if they want  impeachment charges the U.S. House passed against Trump to stick. But his involvement in the situation is more complex than that.

The impeachment proceedings relate to Trump's interactions with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, specifically a July 25 phone call in which the president asked for an investigation into political rival former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden. Trump is accused of withholding roughly $400 million in aid to Ukraine while seeking that investigation. 

The president's critics — including Democrats but also former Ohio Gov. John Kasich and U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney, both Republicans — say the president broke the law with the telephone inquiry and subsequent public statements asking Ukraine and China to investigate Biden and his son, the latter of whom received hundreds of thousands of dollars for serving on the board of an energy company in Ukraine.

During his time as vice president, Biden pushed Ukraine to remove Viktor Shokin, a prosecutor there long thought to be corrupt. Trump alleges that the elder Biden did so because that prosecutor was investigating his son.

Thus far, there is no evidence that this was the case — and a number of statements from officials both in the U.S. and Ukraine, including Portman, show that the prosecutor who was removed was indeed suspected of corruption.

Portman is the co-chair of the Senate Ukraine Caucus. Trump has credited Portman specifically with eventually convincing the president to release the aid in question — though that release in September came after a whistleblower complaint was filed about the aid being withheld. 

Portman has acknowledged that Trump's behavior on his call with Zelensky was inappropriate. 

“The president should not have raised the Biden issue on that call, period," he told the Columbus Dispatch last year. "It’s not appropriate for a president to engage a foreign government in an investigation of a political opponent."

But Portman says that phone call isn't enough to impeach the president, and that the real reason the president was withholding the money is because other European allies in the region weren't pulling their weight when it comes to security funding for Ukraine. That's an assertion fact-checkers dispute, however. 

Where Portman stands could become increasingly important in the coming days as the Senate mulls whether it will call additional witnesses, including Trump's former national security advisor John Bolton. His testimony could be a bombshell — excerpts from a book Bolton will be releasing claim that Trump explicitly said he would withhold the Ukrainian aid until the country announced an investigation into the Bidens.

Republican leadership has opposed additional testimony before the Senate. But some GOP senators could be wavering — Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell yesterday acknowledged he didn't have the votes to close the door to new witnesses just yet.

Portman was one of seven Republicans to ask questions about the possibility yesterday as Trump's defense team wrapped up its arguments. His question:

“Given that impeachment proceedings are privileged in the Senate and largely prevent other work from taking place while they are ongoing, please address the implications of allowing the House to present an incomplete case to the Senate and request the Senate to seek testimony from additional witnesses.”

The query seems to suggest that Portman will vote against testimony from Bolton and others. But nothing is certain yet.

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