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Opinion A sham trial for Trump carries risks for Republicans, too

(Patrick Semansky/AP)
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We constantly hear from our commentariat that Mitch McConnell is an untouchable tactical genius. So it’s not surprising that few have pointed out that the Senate majority leader’s position in the battle over President Trump’s impeachment trial is actually an unenviable one, despite all the clever maneuvering ascribed to him.

McConnell might succeed in wiring Trump’s trial to exclude new witnesses and evidence — and in preventing any unpleasant new revelations. But even if that happens, that is best seen as the least bad outcome for Republicans. And even that outcome will be freighted with political risk for them going forward.

A new investigative report from Kate Brannen for the Just Security website underscores the point.

The latest Trump impeachment updates

Brannen obtained numerous emails among administration officials that show internal concern over the legality of Trump’s freezing of military aid to Ukraine was deeper than previously known.

To recap, the New York Times recently published a detailed chronology that illustrated this consternation in great detail. The Times report showed, among other things, that top officials worried the aid freeze violated the law, since the money had been appropriated by Congress, and that no one could get a straight answer to why Trump froze the aid (he was extorting Ukraine into carrying out his political dirty deeds).

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has vowed to work with President Trump’s lawyers on impeachment and expects the Senate won't vote to oust the president. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

That Times report expanded on emails obtained by the Center for Public Integrity, pursuant to CPI’s Freedom of Information Act request for documents from the White House Office of Management and Budget and the Defense Department pertaining to the freezing of the aid.

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The CPI request resulted in some revelations. We learned that Michael Duffey, a top political appointee to OMB, urged Pentagon officials to keep the hold on the aid quiet.

But much of what CPI obtained has been redacted by the Justice Department.

That’s where Brannen’s scoop for Just Security comes in. Brannen viewed some of the emails obtained by CPI — but without the redactions — and thus learned some of what the Justice Department blacked out. Among the new revelations:

  • Duffey stated unequivocally that Trump was demanding that the freeze continue, even when the Pentagon badly wanted the money released.
  • Elaine McCusker, the acting Pentagon comptroller, directly asked OMB if the continued hold had been run through the Defense Department general counsel, which indicated an “early concern about the legality of these actions,” as Brannen writes.
  • McCusker emailed OMB officials to dispute OMB’s claim that the hold could still allow for the funds to be released in a timely fashion, and on another occasion, warned that this was in doubt. This showed concern that Trump’s hold was putting the prospects for that aid ever getting to Ukraine in real danger, undercutting a GOP talking point downplaying the hold’s significance.
  • McCusker informed OMB officials that administration lawyers had deemed it necessary for OMB to take additional procedural steps as part of the freezing of the aid — underscoring further worries about the legality of it.
  • McCusker repeatedly questioned OMB’s characterization of both the process and the potential consequences of the hold, showing additional concern about the White House’s forthrightness about what was happening.

All this was blacked out by the Justice Department. We keep learning that worries about the legality, propriety and ramifications of Trump’s freezing of the aid were worse than previously known — and so were efforts to keep all of it buried.

As it is, everything we already know about Trump’s corrupt pressure on Ukraine, and about ringleader Gordon Sondland’s communication directly to top Ukrainian officials that the military aid was conditioned on doing Trump’s bidding — which happened as Sondland took direction straight from Trump — indicates bottomless corruption.

But the story keeps getting more damning.

The House impeached Trump, but it was a victory for alternative facts, Russian disinformation and Fox News, says columnist Dana Milbank. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Susan Walsh / AP/The Washington Post)

McConnell is not in absolute control of this process. If a few vulnerable GOP senators want a more open trial, then it might happen. These new revelations should increase the pressure on them.

Of course, McConnell very well might succeed in getting 51 GOP senators to support a sham trial. But even if he does, this new reporting shows there’s still a lot more about this whole process that remains unknown, and could still come out.

The CPI is pushing in court for the full release of all those emails in unredacted form, and it’s possible they might get them in a few months. Meanwhile, media organizations will keep digging — and producing revelations.

McConnell might pull off a sham trial and a quick acquittal. But anything that comes out after that will be pinned directly on those vulnerable GOP senators, showcasing in retrospect how bad the Senate GOP’s coverup on Trump’s behalf really was.

Republicans might see this as a risk worth taking, since allowing witnesses and new evidence at Trump’s trial might be even more risky. But it’s still not a position to be envied.

Read more:

Marc A. Thiessen: Nancy Pelosi has no leverage. The sound you hear is Mitch McConnell’s laughter.

Greg Sargent: Trump is openly calling for his trial to be as corrupt as possible

Jennifer Rubin: An open letter to Lisa Murkowski

Greg Sargent: Explosive new revelations just weakened Trump’s impeachment defenses

Doug Jones: Every trial is a pursuit of truth. Will my colleagues in the Senate uphold that?