Politics

GOP defenses for Trump's Ukraine call quickly collapse under scrutiny

Key Points
  • Trump, his aides and select allies in Congress have feverishly sought to redirect a whistleblower's complaints toward Democratic adversaries.
  • Yet even cursory scrutiny of evidence that has emerged so far knocks down assorted GOP arguments like shanties in a hurricane, writes John Harwood.
President Donald Trump looks on during a bilateral meeting with India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the sidelines of the annual United Nations General Assembly in New York, September 24, 2019.
Jonathan Ernst | Reuters

The Republican defenses for President Donald Trump's conduct on Ukraine simply don't hold up.

At first glance, that can be hard to discern. Trump, his aides and select allies in Congress have feverishly sought to redirect a whistleblower's complaints toward Democratic adversaries.

"It is the height of insanity for the Democrats to try and bogusly impeach President Trump for simply calling out this corruption," a Republican National Committee spokesman asserted over the weekend.

Yet even cursory scrutiny of evidence that has emerged so far knocks down assorted GOP arguments like shanties in a hurricane. Here's a brief review:

It was hearsay

House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy notes that "the whistleblower wasn't on the call" between Trump and his Ukrainian counterpart. "Hearsay," Sen. Lindsey Graham insists, cannot be a basis for impeachment.

Both observations are irrelevant. In the partial transcript of the call released by the White House itself, Trump's own words affirm the whistleblower's account. That is direct evidence, not hearsay.

"If they thought it would be exculpatory, they miscalculated badly," GOP former Sen. Jeff Flake told me.

Biased whistleblower

The president says the still-unidentified whistleblower harbors "known bias" against him. This observation, which the intelligence community inspector general called "arguable," does not discredit the whistleblower's allegations, which the inspector general found "credible."

If the whistleblower's information is accurate, his motivation doesn't matter. Trump's own former homeland security advisor, Thomas Bossert, has described himself as "deeply disturbed" by the president's behavior, too.

Media distortion

On "60 Minutes" Sunday night, CBS correspondent Scott Pelley asked about Trump's comment that "I need you to do us a favor, though" after Ukraine's new president requested military aid to counter Russian aggression.

"You added a word there," GOP leader McCarthy replied, referring to the damning "though."

McCarthy's assertion was false; Pelley accurately quoted the White House-released document. The most charitable interpretation of the GOP leader's embarrassment is that he had not actually reviewed the evidence he had gone on national television to discuss.

It wasn't about Biden

On "Meet the Press," House GOP Whip Steve Scalise insisted the favor Trump sought was an investigation into the cybersecurity firm Crowdstrike, rather than dirt on Biden. That investigation, in turn, might explain the true source of outside interference in the 2016 election.

In fact, the partial transcript shows Trump specifically requested an investigation of Biden and his son. The U.S. government already knows the origin of 2016 interference: Russia, which favored Trump over Hillary Clinton.

Scalise alluded to unfounded suspicions among conspiracy-minded Republicans that Ukraine, seeking to help Clinton, was the real meddler. Those suspicions, former Trump aide Bossert notes, have been "completely debunked."

Biden interfered

Trump asserts that, as Barack Obama's vice president, Biden sought to protect his son by demanding that Ukraine fire a prosecutor. At the time, Hunter Biden worked for a Ukrainian energy firm that had faced an investigation.

Yet Biden's demand was not personal. He made it on behalf of the U.S. government and allies including the European Union and the International Monetary Fund – none of whom have accused the former vice president of misconduct.

Moreover, Ukrainian officials say the investigation into Hunter Biden's company was inactive when the prosecutor was ousted. The prosecutor who replaced him told the Los Angeles Times he had no evidence of illegality.

No quid pro quo

In the call, Trump did not explicitly condition military aid on a new Biden investigation. "I didn't do it," the president told reporters. "There was no quid pro quo."

As a matter of propriety, that does not absolve Trump for baselessly seeking derogatory information about a domestic rival from a foreign government – an abuse of presidential power under any circumstances.

But former federal prosecutor Mimi Rocah, calling Trump's purpose "100%" clear, notes that even mobsters don't make extortion demands explicit. Writing in The Washington Post, Flake said the partial transcript "removed all ambiguity about the president's intent."

"The whistleblower's account seems convincing," concludes Kori Schake, a former national security aide to President George W. Bush, "that the president was using our country's foreign policy to blackmail a foreign country."

Ukraine is getting aid

The U.S. expanded military assistance to Ukraine after Russia seized part of its territory in 2014. Trump says he has helped more than Obama.

But furnishing aid requires support by Congress. Both parties have provided it.

The Trump administration's Pentagon, State Department and National Security Council all supported the aid this summer, Fox News has reported. But Trump personally froze it just days before calling the Ukrainian leader.

Trump unfroze the aid only after the whistleblower complained to Congress. The Ukrainian leader still hasn't gotten the long-sought meeting in Washington he reminded Trump about on the call.

Increasingly frenetic on Twitter, Trump now warns that his impeachment could provoke "civil war." At a minimum, the Ukraine revelations have amplified conflict within his own party.

Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois condemned Trump's warning of civil war as "beyond repugnant." GOP Rep. Mike Turner criticized the Ukraine call as "not OK"; Sen. Mitt Romney found it "deeply troubling."

A new CBS poll found that 23% of Republicans support an impeachment inquiry into the matter. GOP lawmakers who have avoided public comment face a tightening squeeze between party loyalty and conduct they cannot persuasively defend.

"The fissures are growing," GOP former Rep. Carlos Curbelo told me. "I've heard from members who are at the end of their ropes. They just feel trapped."

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