In case you missed this desperate, bizarre and at times pathetic collective performance, here’s a guide to what Republicans are saying in order to defend the president.
“Trump was pressing Ukraine to dig up dirt on Joe Biden because he cares so deeply about fighting corruption.” Faced with a rough transcript provided by the White House in which President Trump explicitly asks the president of Ukraine to investigate a potential 2020 opponent, Republicans have argued that Trump’s interest was not in Biden per se, but in the issue of corruption more broadly. Because if there’s anything Trump hates, it’s corruption. Right?
So Trump’s conversation with President Volodymyr Zelensky was described this way on “Meet the Press” by Rep. Steve Scalise: “He and President Trump are talking about that in the conversation, things that both of them are doing to clean up corruption and drain the swamp.”
An international anti-corruption effort! So inspiring.
Yet Republicans have been unable to answer why, if Trump was legitimately working to stamp out corruption in Ukraine, he would send his personal lawyer to do the job and not, say, the State Department.
When asked that question, Scalise said: “Well, you’d have to ask Rudy Giuliani." When top White House adviser Stephen Miller was pressed repeatedly on this by “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace, Miller did a heroic job of dodging.
“Can I interest you in a plateful of lies?” Republicans, including Trump, have insisted that the real story is that when he was vice president, Joe Biden pressured Ukraine to fire a prosecutor who was investigating the company on whose board his son Hunter sat. The problem is that this is simply false. The prosecutor in question was viewed by pretty much the whole world as irredeemably corrupt, and he wasn’t investigating that company.
Nevertheless, Republicans obviously think that if they repeat this endlessly, it will create enough confusion to make people conclude that everyone’s corrupt. You can watch this absolute nightmare of an interview that CNN’s Jake Tapper did with Rep. Jim Jordan to see how they go about it.
“It’s all hearsay.” This is perhaps the strangest defense of Trump: Because the whistleblower did not personally hear the call between Trump and Zelensky but was told about it by multiple White House officials, it’s just hearsay and therefore need not be taken seriously.
“It’s all hearsay," said Sen. Lindsey Graham. “The whistleblower didn’t hear the phone call.”
The problem is that the whistleblower’s description of the call is backed up by the rough transcript the White House itself released. We have it in Trump’s own incredibly damning words.
“Here’s a made-up conspiracy theory about the whistleblower law that I got from the Internet.” This weekend, Republicans suddenly began alleging that they had discovered a new conspiracy, that the law covering whistleblowers was changed in August to allow hearsay evidence when such evidence hadn’t been allowed before, presumably so this whistleblower’s complaint could be filed.
As Kevin Poulsen of the Daily Beast explains, the theory began in the right-wing publication the Federalist, which misinterpreted a change in the check boxes on the form for filing whistleblower complaints as a secret and nefarious change in policy. In fact, there was no change in policy and as far as we can tell there has never been a requirement that whistleblowers report only firsthand information.
But for Republicans it was apparently too good to check. The lie was repeated by Jordan, Sean Hannity, Giuliani, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Graham. Trump himself repeated the lie in a tweet.
It would be stupid enough even were it not for the fact that at this point it’s completely irrelevant, since, to repeat, the allegations in the whistleblower complaint have been corroborated by the rough transcript that the White House itself released.
“It’s a conspiracy.” Republicans are setting off multiple smoke bombs of lunacy to blind everyone to what actually happened. Some of those theories go back to 2016, while others concern the whistleblower.
“I know the difference between a whistleblower and a deep-state operative,” said White House aide Stephen Miller on “Fox News Sunday.” “This is a deep-state operative, pure and simple.”
In one TV appearance, Giuliani somehow managed to bring in the FBI, Hillary Clinton and George Soros in a stream-of-consciousness riff about the forces working against Trump, a diatribe so incoherent that I won’t bother repeating it here.
There are other, even dumber arguments, like the idea that the investigation is illegitimate because Democrats hate Trump, or that Trump’s obvious quid pro quo was not a quid pro quo, I guess because he didn’t say the words “quid pro quo." As McCarthy said, “When I read the transcript, I see two leaders having admiration, not intimidation.”
One can’t help but ask: Is that really all they’ve got?
The answer is: Yes, that really is all they’ve got. When you have a president who is so spectacularly brazen about his corruption, justifying his actions requires logical and moral gymnastics far beyond the capabilities of anyone with a shred of dignity or integrity. So all Trump asks of them is that they be utterly shameless. They’ve got that covered.