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President Trump has “declared war” against the House’s impeachment inquiry, we’re told, based on an eight-page letter written by the White House counsel that openly declares a posture of maximal resistance, on the grounds that the inquiry is illegitimate.
Legal experts have already torpedoed the absurd idea that the White House gets to declare the House’s impeachment inquiry illegitimate. The Constitution grants the House “sole power of impeachment,” and the chambers set their own rules. The White House claims the House must hold a full vote to render the inquiry operative, but this is simply baseless.
So let’s focus on something else in the letter: It unequivocally declares that in his phone call to the Ukrainian president, Trump did nothing whatsoever wrong.
In the letter, White House counsel Pat Cipollone claims that Trump heroically released the rough transcript of that call, even though this came only under extreme political duress. “The record clearly established that the call was completely appropriate,” Cipollone insists, adding that “there was nothing wrong with the call.”
The rough transcript of the July 25 call released by the White House reveals that Trump directly pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate likely general-election opponent Joe Biden, and to try to invalidate our intelligence services’ conclusion about the Russian attack on our political system on Trump’s behalf.
But, putting aside the fact that Trump’s demands were based on nonsense, what’s notable here is that the White House’s official position is that the conduct itself, that is, Trump’s act of pressing Zelensky to do these things, is perfectly okay.
But the White House itself knows this is nonsense. Here are five facts that demonstrate this:
As Glenn Kessler demonstrates, not only has much of the whistleblower’s complaint been confirmed via outside sources; the White House itself has confirmed that this particular stashing of the call did occur. This wouldn’t have been necessary if the call was completely kosher.
Trump keeps saying the events in the transcript didn’t happen. Trump just tweeted that the whistleblower’s claim of “pressure” on Zelensky is false. He has made this claim on other occasions.
But the transcript simply does show pressure: After Zelensky made it clear that Ukraine badly needs U.S. support for its military defenses, Trump says he wants “a favor, though,” making this a condition, and then states his demands, stressing that it’s “very important” that Zelensky implement them. If the events depicted were perfectly appropriate, Trump wouldn’t have to keep lying to obscure what happened.
The texts show Trump is lying about pressuring Zelensky. The texts released by Democrats show that the call was part of a systematic, long-running plot carried out in part by two U.S. ambassadors (Kurt Volker and Gordon Sondland) to pressure Zelensky to carry out Trump’s demands.
Just before the call, Volker texted a Zelensky aide to say that the White House had indicated to him that carrying out those investigations was conditional for getting a White House meeting. Some time after the call, Sondland described those investigations as the “deliverable” needed in exchange for that meeting.
Crucially, the White House isn’t defending this quid pro quo. Instead, Trumpworld has claimed there isn’t one. You don’t need a quid pro quo for this to be impeachable, but the texts simply do establish one — and raise further questions about whether military aid was also dangled. If the call were kosher, the White House would be able to defend what actually happened, including the surrounding events that illuminate it.
The White House won’t release the full call transcript. Experts have said the White House transcript likely reflects material omissions, and Democrats have subpoenaed the full transcript. The White House’s current position of zero cooperation means it won’t be released unless the courts force it.
That wouldn’t be necessary if there were “nothing wrong with the call.” Surely the White House could at least release most of the transcript in a way that avoided revealing sensitive information.
The White House blocked Sondland from testifying. This came just hours before Sondland was set to appear. The texts show that Ambassador William Taylor repeatedly confronted Sondland, asking him why the military aid was conditioned on helping Trump’s political campaign. Sondland denied that particular quid pro quo.
Notably, Trump himself keeps citing that denial from Sondland as exonerating. Yet the White House is blocking him from scrutiny. We now know one obvious reason: Sondland talked directly to Trump before telling Taylor there was no quid pro quo. If the call were fine, there’d be no reason to block Sondland from shedding more light on events illuminating how Trump himself intended his ongoing demands.
To sum up: The White House’s position is now that everything on the call was perfectly appropriate, but also, the most conspicuous confirmed misconduct on the call didn’t happen, the White House won’t release the full transcript of it, and the one witness to surrounding events whom Trump himself cites as exonerating him must not be allowed to face questioning.