House Republicans have now formalized their defense of Trump with the release of a new report as the impeachment process shifts into its next phase, and at the center of it is an effort to make that corrupt motive disappear entirely.
The report’s new argument is that, yes, Trump might have made requests of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to announce “investigations” that would validate Trump’s (invented) theory of Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election and his (fabricated) narrative of corruption on the part of Joe Biden and his son in Ukraine.
But, Republicans say, Trump was right to do this, because his concerns about these things were legitimate and were subsumed into a much broader — and, again, legitimate — set of concerns about corruption.
The argument is a joke. But it also illustrates in a backhand way just how unconvincing any effort to sanitize away Trump’s corrupt motives must inevitably be.
The GOP argument requires ignoring voluminous evidence of those corrupt motives. It also requires accepting the spectacularly absurd idea that the investigations Trump actually did ask for were not just motivated by a general desire to fight corruption but also benefited Trump politically out of pure coincidence.
The narcissism defense
The report’s argument is that Trump didn’t baldly condition official acts (a White House meeting; hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid) on getting Zelensky to announce those investigations. But it was legitimate for Trump to hesitate in granting them, because his request for those investigations was reasonable.
To buttress this, the report claims Trump holds a “deep-seated, genuine, and reasonable skepticism” of Ukraine’s “history of pervasive corruption.” This means Trump’s “hesitation” to grant the meeting and military aid was “entirely prudent.”
The report selectively quotes testimony that Trump saw Ukraine as a corrupt country. But then the report brazenly cites Trump’s concerns about Ukrainians opposing him in the 2016 election as grounds for Trump’s dim views of Ukraine!
The report cites cherry-picked facts to suggest those concerns were legitimate. But as Glenn Kessler has shown, the full body of known facts doesn’t come remotely close to demonstrating the sort of state-level effort by Ukraine to interfere in our election that Russia actually did mount.
That aside, this aspect of the report is a spectacular self own. It actually shows that for Trump, the view of Ukraine as corrupt was long hopelessly entangled with his theory that Ukraine tried to block him from winning in 2016.
We know from careful reporting in The Post that this is exactly what shaped Trump’s views: In May, Trump was already privately ranting about Ukraine’s effort to “take me down,” and that this suffused his view of Ukraine as “corrupt.” Trump’s own former Homeland Security chief has said Trump lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani regularly filled Trump’s head with this line of nonsense, agitating him.
Call it the narcissism defense: Trump genuinely persuaded himself that Ukraine had interfered in our election to harm him, which makes his concerns about undefined Ukrainian corruption legitimate. (Some Republicans are gravitating toward saying this crackpot theory is true, which is worse.)
Trump had corrupt motives and still does
In the real world, the evidence that Trump didn’t care about generic corruption — and that he was advancing his own corrupt interests above all — is overwhelming. As early as May, Giuliani publicly announced his pressure campaign on Ukraine, explicitly saying Ukraine must investigate the 2016 Ukraine and Biden theories, and not because of generic corruption, but because this would be “very helpful” to Trump.
The president himself told Zelensky on their July 25 call that Giuliani was acting at his direction in carrying out this whole scheme. On that call, Trump explicitly demanded those two investigations, not an investigation of generic corruption. Those released texts showed Giuliani, Ambassador Gordon Sondland and Ukrainian officials negotiating a statement announcing those investigations in particular.
Sondland explicitly testified that the meeting was dangled to leverage those investigations, that he personally informed a top Zelensky aide that the military aid was also conditional on them and that he was acting at Trump’s direction all throughout.
We don’t even need to prove Trump himself explicitly drew that latter link. Trump’s extortion demands — and Sondland’s and Giuliani’s, carried out at Trump’s direction — are a matter of public record, and by themselves, they are deeply saturated in corrupt motives.
After all, the investigation into the 2016 Ukraine theory stood to benefit Trump politically, because it would help absolve Russia of its own 2016 sabotage of our election for Trump — and make Trumpworld’s eager efforts to coordinate with and benefit from it disappear, making another round of it easier.
The investigation into Biden, of course, stood to benefit Trump politically for more obvious reasons. Yet the GOP report claims concerns about Biden’s corruption were reasonable.
That’s nonsense on its face, but more to the point, it’s self-undermining. In both these cases, the GOP argument requires us to believe Trump was legitimately concerned with corruption, while also believing the two investigations he actually did demand both stood to benefit him politically only out of pure coincidence.
It’s an awful argument. But if Republicans really want a debate about whether Trump was and is operating out of profoundly corrupt motives, it’s one Democrats should lean into hard.