But this defense is cracking up. That’s because we’re now learning, one after another, that all of the people around him knew that it was grievously wrong — that is, all except for those who were carrying out Trump’s corrupt scheme.
As this becomes more public, Trump’s position will grow increasingly unsustainable — not just as a rhetorical matter but also in terms of whether he’ll be able to keep the support of Senate Republicans, his final line of defense.
The latest domino to fall is John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser. The New York Times reports that in July, Bolton grew so alarmed by efforts to pressure Ukraine to launch “investigations” into Joe Biden and his son that he instructed an aide to alert White House lawyers.
That aide is Fiona Hill, a former senior White House adviser on Russia and Europe. Hill testified about this exchange with Bolton to House investigators as part of their impeachment inquiry. Hill told them that Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, Trump lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani and acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney had run what The Post calls a “shadow” campaign to pressure Ukraine to do Trump’s political bidding.
“I am not part of whatever drug deal Sondland and Mulvaney are cooking up,” Bolton reportedly told Hill to tell White House lawyers.
Crucially, this eruption came after a meeting in early July at which Sondland made it clear that the goal of this shadow campaign was to get Ukraine to revive investigations into Burisma, the company on whose board Biden’s son Hunter sat. This confirmed for Bolton that the goal was to leverage Ukraine into acting as Trump’s weapon against Biden — that is, by manufacturing smears designed to debilitate him in the 2020 election.
This long-running plot, of course, culminated in Trump’s July 25 call in which he pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to undertake investigations that would undercut the idea that Russia interfered on Trump’s behalf in 2016, and again help him rig the election in 2020.
Trump’s defense is collapsing
It is striking how many people around Trump did not share his view that this conduct was entirely unobjectionable, or, as Trump keeps putting it, “perfect.” The story now is that those ranks are swelling fast. Let’s review:
- As the whistleblower detailed, White House officials were “deeply disturbed” by the July 25 call — so much so that they loaded the transcript onto an ultra-classified computer system normally reserved for the most sensitive information in the government’s possession.
- We subsequently learned that at least four national security officials were so unnerved by this ongoing pressure campaign that they raised concerns with White House legal staff both before and just after the call.
- And now we know this conduct made Bolton go “ballistic” and fear it would “blow up” the White House, leading him to also alert White House lawyers to it.
Trump’s stance continues to be that this pressure was entirely within his legitimate authority. The White House counsel’s letter, which we now know was largely dictated by Trump, declares that there was “nothing wrong” with the July 25 call as detailed in the rough White House transcript. That transcript shows Trump explicitly naming Joe Biden while demanding investigations.
Thus, Trump’s explicit position is that pressuring Ukraine to help him smear a leading domestic political opponent, not merely to investigate unspecified “corruption,” was absolutely fine. In his own words, Trump has flatly said that Ukraine “should investigate the Bidens.”
Trump puts GOP senators in untenable spot
I submit that this is a key reason vulnerable GOP senators are having so much trouble with their responses to this scandal. You probably saw that viral video of Colorado’s Cory Gardner repeatedly refusing to say whether it’s appropriate for the president to ask a foreign leader to investigate a political rival:
Iowa’s Joni Ernst was also caught on video pulling a similar homina homina homina. The rub here is they can’t condemn this, because Trump continues to tell the GOP base that this conduct was, and is, the correct thing to do.
It’s a form of poetic justice: Trump’s shamelessness, his brash and open flaunting of his ability to engage in bottomless corruption to rig the next election on his own behalf with impunity, is precisely what’s making it harder for Republicans to distance themselves from it.
But as more and more people around Trump let it be known that they viewed this corrupt conduct with horror, this refusal to condemn that conduct will become impossible to sustain. That will edge those senators into a position where they are acknowledging it’s indefensible while saying it’s not impeachable.
That stance may be just tenable enough to allow Republican senators to vote against removing Trump. But the increasing precarity of this balancing act will further weaken those of them who are already vulnerable to losing reelection. And as they withdraw their defense of Trump on the substance of his corruption, that will weaken him politically as well.