You can be certain that Mulvaney’s TV appearance was preceded by feverish strategy sessions intended to formulate the strongest possible position for the White House, and, after Mulvaney’s debacle, one that they knew they would have to live with.
So we now know the contours of the case for the defense. Going forward, there may be room for small tweaks, but a whole new line could be disastrous for the White House now that a slim majority of the American people appear to favor impeachment and removal from office.
Here is the White House line:
- President Trump was withholding U.S. aid and the prospect of a meeting with the president of Ukraine to push Ukraine to address corruption concerns generally and to pressure European nations into giving Ukraine more aid.
- While Trump mentioned concerns with locating a supposedly missing DNC server “from time to time,” there was no connection between the withheld aid and any investigation of Democrats. That’s clear because the money was released with Ukraine’s having taken no definitive action of the matter.
- Suggestions to the contrary are the product of fake news and a hostile press, linked institutionally to a corrupt Democratic Party.
- There was no “quid pro quo.”
This last point was emphasized by Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), whose acknowledgment that impeachment may be a possibility — an important concession in light of how rabid a defender of the president he has been — was actually an attempt to set the bar inordinately high. Graham was arguing that impeachment required (1) evidence of a crime and (2) evidence that “Trump actually was engaging in a quid pro quo outside the phone call.”
Any trial lawyer will tell you it is vital to be sure you can deliver on all your promises made during your opening argument, and this is the opening argument for the defense. So can the White House deliver?
It’s hard to see how.
Begin with the centerpiece factual submission — namely that Trump’s goal was fighting corruption in Ukraine.
This contention is very unlikely to hold up against a series of witnesses — nearly all career public servants with no motive to lie — who already have begun to tell a story in which the clear goal of putting pressure on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was to get Ukraine to deliver dirt on a political opponent.
And it’s not just testimony, but severely damaging contemporaneous texts that will sharply undermine the administration line. For example, William B. Taylor, the U.S. chargé d’affaires in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, texted on Sept. 9, more than six weeks after Trump’s phone call with Zelensky, “I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.”
In some ways, the most powerful evidence against the general corruption theory is the sheer, and undisputed, fact, that Trump put Rudolph W. Giuliani, his frenzied bulldog of a personal lawyer, in charge of Ukraine policy, and made sure that everyone knew it.
It would be silly to argue that Giuliani was carrying out a broad anti-corruption policy in the service of U.S. national interests writ large. He was there by his own account to serve the president’s narrow personal interests.
As for the emerging mantra of “no quid pro quo,” it seems mostly a smart-sounding slogan (it’s Latin!) with no real meaning, and certainly no connection to any legal requirement.
The pivotal question for bribery would be simply whether Trump demanded anything of value (say, negative information on a political opponent such as the DNC or former vice president Joe Biden) in return for being influenced in the performance of any official act (say, releasing military aid or agreeing to a White House meeting). The official doesn’t even have to follow through, which blows out of the water Mulvaney’s line that it matters that the aid was eventually released.
But even though bribery is enumerated in the Constitution as a basis for impeachment, that line of analysis is in some ways overly legalistic. The actual story is worse than a crime. It is Trump’s top-to-bottom betrayal of the public trust — his wholesale substitution of his own petty interests for the nation’s interest he swore to serve — that most justifies impeachment.
Alexander Hamilton described impeachment as, first and foremost, a remedy for abuses or violations of the public trust, which he characterized as “political, as they relate chiefly to injuries done immediately to the society itself.”
Some things are even worse than an official on the take.