President Trump’s explicitly stated position on the Ukraine scandal is that there was nothing whatsoever wrong with the conduct detailed in the White House summary of his call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Yet two new revelations underscore why this will only grow harder for Republicans: A diplomat will testify to new details about the freeze in military aid to Ukraine, and it’s now clear the “transcript” of Trump’s call is incomplete. Both will worsen the basic dynamic for Trump.
Trump has now made his need for Republicans to defend him on substance explicit. He just tweeted that Republicans are “very unified and energized,” and “now are starting to go after the Substance, even more than the very infair Process.”
Trump added that “the Transcript leads EVERYBODY to see that the call with the Ukrainian President was a totally appropriate one.”
In claiming Republicans are “starting” to go after substance, Trump is giving voice to what he needs to see happen.
The crucial context here is that on repeated occasions, Republicans have opted for fig-leaf ways of signaling support for Trump — to keep the rage of Trump and his supporters at bay — that simultaneously avoid defending him on the substance.
Senate Republicans recently put forth a resolution attacking the process of the House impeachment inquiry, which the New York Times described as a way to “allow Republicans" to “show the party base that they were behind Mr. Trump even as they refrained from defending his actions.”
And when House Republicans stormed an impeachment hearing, that secured a lot of Fox News coverage showing the base they were going to war — but the stunt was mainly a protest (based on bad-faith nonsense) of the process, an effort at misdirection away from substance.
Defending Trump on the substance will only get harder.
More revelations are coming
On Wednesday, Catherine Croft, who worked on Ukraine-related issues for the National Security Council, will testify in the House impeachment inquiry. Here is part of what she will say:
On July 18, I participated in a sub-Policy Coordination Committee video conference where an OMB representative reported that the White House Chief of Staff, Mick Mulvaney, had placed an informal hold on security assistance to Ukraine. The only reason given was that the order came at the direction of the President.
We already knew Mulvaney had done this at Trump’s direction, but this bolsters that key revelation. And anything that focuses attention on Trump’s freezing of the aid makes this worse. Let’s recap.
First, Trump wanted the Ukrainian president to launch “investigations” to absolve Russia of its role in sabotaging our election in 2016, and help rig the 2020 election by smearing potential opponent Joe Biden. This was dramatically reinforced by Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman’s testimony this week.
Second, part of the quid pro quo has already been established: We know that Trump’s ringleaders in this scheme, acting at Trump’s direction, conditioned a White House meeting on getting those “investigations." That was confirmed in those texts and also reinforced by Vindman.
All of which leads to an impossible-to-dodge question: Given that Trump fully intended the meeting to be used to leverage the investigations he was demanding, why would he suddenly not intend the frozen military aid to accomplish precisely the same thing, at exactly the moment he was maximizing his leverage over Zelensky?
Trump froze the aid a week before the July 25 call. Ambassador William B. Taylor Jr. contemporaneously objected to precisely this quid pro quo in those texts, and testified to it himself.
It’s likely only a matter of time until this is more firmly established. Tim Morrison, who testifies this week and contemporaneously discussed this matter with Taylor, is expected to confirm key aspects of Taylor’s account.
Which brings us to this “transcript.”
About that ‘transcript’
As the New York Times reports, Vindman, who listened in on the call, testified that he had protested that the summary left out key elements of it. In some cases, his edits were incorporated. In others, they were not:
The omissions, Colonel Vindman said, included Mr. Trump’s assertion that there were recordings of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. discussing Ukraine corruption, and an explicit mention by Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, of Burisma Holdings, the energy company whose board employed Mr. Biden’s son Hunter.
The recording of Biden is probably a reference to this video of Biden talking about working to oust a Ukrainian prosecutor (which doesn’t remotely support the conspiracy theory Trumpworld is spinning). And this doesn’t alter our understanding of this whole story, since Trump has repeatedly referenced this recording and his desire to see the Bidens investigated.
But it’s still important. It shows that on this call, Trump was more focused on the Bidens — and Zelensky more focused on investigating Burisma — than the summary implied.
“This doesn’t change our understanding of the underlying betrayal,” Ned Price, a former senior director at the National Security Council, told me. “But it makes it much harder for Trump to argue that this was about ‘corruption.’ The omitted edits underscore the fact that Trump was singularly focused on the Bidens.”
Note that Trump’s claim that the “transcript” totally exonerates him is central to his demand that Republicans defend him on the substance. Trump wants Republicans to forcefully argue that he did nothing wrong by pointing to that transcript, as he is doing.
But not only do they know that the conduct it revealed was indefensible; and not only is the quid pro quo for military aid closer to getting nailed down; it’s now even harder to point to the “transcript,” because it has been overshadowed by the omissions from it. What’s more, these omissions will remind Republicans that they are flying blind about how bad this could get, making them still more skittish.
The latest commentary on the Trump impeachment
Looking for more Trump impeachment coverage following the president’s acquittal?
See Dana Milbank’s Impeachment Diary: Find all the entries in our columnist’s feature.
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Read the most recent take from the Editorial Board: It’s not over. Congress must continue to hold Trump accountable.
The House impeachment managers weigh in in an op-ed: Trump won’t be vindicated. The Senate won’t be, either.
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