But extraordinary new revelations in the New York Times about Trump’s corrupt freezing of military aid to Ukraine will — or should — make this much harder to get away with.
McConnell badly needs the media’s both-sidesing instincts to hold firm against the brute facts of the situation. If Republicans bear the brunt of media pressure to explain why they don’t want to hear from witnesses, that risks highlighting their true rationale: They adamantly fear new revelations precisely because they know Trump is guilty — and that this corrupt scheme is almost certainly much worse than we can currently surmise.
That possibility is underscored by the Times report, a chronology of Trump’s decision to withhold aid to a vulnerable ally under assault while he and his henchmen extorted Ukraine into carrying out his corrupt designs.
The report demonstrates in striking detail that inside the administration, the consternation over the legality and propriety of the aid freeze — and confusion over Trump’s true motives — ran much deeper than previously known, implicating top Cabinet officials more deeply than we thought.
Among the story’s key points:
- As early as June, acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney worked to execute the freeze for Trump, and a top aide to Mulvaney — Robert Blair — worried it would fuel the narrative that Trump was tacitly aiding Russia.
- Internal opposition was more forceful than previously known. The Pentagon pushed for the money for months. Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and then-national security adviser John Bolton privately urged Trump to understand that freezing the aid was not in our national interest.
- Trump was unmoved, citing Ukraine’s “corruption.” We now know Trump actually wanted Ukraine to announce sham investigations absolving Russia of 2016 electoral sabotage and smearing potential 2020 opponent Joe Biden. The Times report reveals that top Trump officials did not think that ostensibly combating Ukrainian “corruption” (which wasn’t even Trump’s real aim) was in our interests.
- Lawyers at the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) worked to develop a far-fetched legal argument that Trump could exercise commander-in-chief authority to override Congress’ appropriation of the aid, to get around the law precluding Trump from freezing it.
- Michael Duffey, a political appointee at OMB, tried to get the Pentagon to assume responsibility for getting the aid released, to deflect blame away from the White House for its own role in blocking it. This led a Pentagon official to pronounce herself “speechless.”
- Duffey froze the aid with highly unusual bureaucratic tactics, refused to tell Pentagon officials why Trump wanted it withheld and instructed them to keep this “closely held.” (Some of this had already been reported, but in narrative context it becomes far more damning.)
It’s impossible to square all this with the lines from Trump’s defenders — that there was no pressure on Ukraine; that the money was withheld for reasonable policy purposes; and that there was no extortion because it was ultimately released. As the Times shows, that only came after the scheme was outed.
Multiple officials worried that the hold violated the law or worked extensively to skirt it. Others saw Trump’s actions as contrary to the national interest and never got a sufficient explanation for his motives. One top official executing the scheme tried to distance the White House from it and keep it quiet.
What makes all this new information really damning, however, is that many of these officials who were directly involved with Trump’s freezing of aid are the same ones Trump blocked from appearing before the House impeachment inquiry.
This should make it inescapable that McConnell wants a trial with no testimony from these people — Democrats want to hear from Mulvaney, Bolton, Duffey and Blair — precisely because he, too, wants to prevent us from ever gaining a full accounting.
We now have a much clearer glimpse into the murky depths of just how much more these officials know about the scheme — and just how much McConnell and Trump are determined to make sure we don’t ever learn. That’s so indefensible that it might even breach the levee of the media’s both-sidesing tendencies.
Trump’s defenders are taking a huge risk
Here’s another possibility. If McConnell does pull off a sham trial leading to a quick acquittal, more might surface later that, in retrospect, will get hung around Republicans’ necks and reverse-reveal just how corrupt their cover-up really was.
As George T. Conway III has noted, in such a scenario, Trump’s defenders will suffer blowback from “the very evidence they sought to suppress.”
This new report underscores the point. The Center for Public Integrity (CPI) is currently battling the administration over a tranche of OMB and Pentagon documents related to the aid freeze that CPI just obtained due to a court order. This is how Duffey’s emails surfaced, but much of what CPI has obtained has been blacked out.
CPI is asking a judge to lift the blackouts, and a ruling is expected as early as March. So it’s plausible that CPI could obtain a great deal of new information — showing even more clearly how worried officials were that Trump’s freeze was breaking the law — in only a few months.
That could come after Senate Republicans ran a sham trial and acquitted Trump. Do they really want to be on the hook for having suppressed such evidence, even in the face of a whole new round of deeply incriminating revelations?
Apparently they see that outcome as less risky than allowing witnesses to testify. Which again shows how worried they are about allowing the American people to gain a full accounting of Trump’s corruption.