As it happens, the formal legal brief that the White House just released in Trump’s defense itself illustrates the true nature of this attempted coverup as clearly as anyone could ask for.
McConnell’s rules, which are in a draft resolution, appear designed to make it politically as easy as possible for GOP senators to facilitate Trump’s coverup. After opening statements and questioning from senators, the Senate will vote on whether any subpoenas for new witnesses and documents will be permitted.
If 51 GOP senators then vote “no,” that would be it. Senators would not have to vote specifically on whether to subpoena former national security adviser John Bolton or acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney.
Nor would senators have to vote on whether to subpoena any of the specific documents and evidence that the administration refused to turn over to the House impeachment inquiry. It would be politically harder to vote against specific demands, and McConnell’s rules appear designed to spare GOP senators from that.
These rules will be fought over first. But McConnell probably has enough GOP votes to pass them.
The big tell in the White House brief
Trump’s legal team has submitted a lengthy brief in his defense that is packed with the same old nonsense. It insists Trump pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Joe Biden’s activities in Ukraine out of genuine concern over corruption, a reference to Biden’s work as vice president to oust a Ukrainian prosecutor, supposedly to protect his son Hunter.
That narrative is fabricated. And the notion that Trump was genuinely concerned about this invented corruption, as if it were just pure coincidence that Trump also worried he might face Biden in 2020, is laughable on its face.
What’s notable in the White House brief, however, is its treatment of Trump’s conditioning of political acts — a White House meeting and hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid — on Zelensky doing his bidding.
The brief argues that two of the people who spoke directly to Trump about the freezing of military aid both exonerated him. That’s a reference to Ambassador Gordon Sondland, who personally conveyed the extortion demand to Ukraine but said he only “presumed” the money was conditioned on announcing investigations and testified Trump told him “no quid pro quo.”
It’s also a reference to Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who asserted Trump personally told him he’d “never” demand such a quid pro quo, after Johnson had expressed deep concern about the frozen aid.
But note how the document references Sondland and Johnson: It repeatedly describes them as the only two people on record who discussed this with Trump. That language is here:
The only two people with statements on record who spoke directly to the President on the matter — Sondland and Senator Ron Johnson — directly contradicted House Democrats’ false allegations.
In addition to the transcript, the central fact in this case is this: there are only two people who have made statements on the record who say they spoke directly to the President about the heart of this matter — Ambassador Gordon Sondland and Senator Ron Johnson. And they both confirmed that the President stated unequivocally that he sought nothing and no quid pro quo of any kind from Ukraine.
This is the “central fact” in this case. But the very use of the phrase “on record” gives away the entire sordid game.
Here’s why. The whole reason Sondland and Johnson are the only people “on record” — that is, the only people who directly discussed the frozen aid with Trump who testified to the House impeachment inquiry — is because Trump blocked all the other people who also discussed this with him from testifying.
And so, Trump’s own brief itself underscores the truth about the coverup — that it’s all about keeping all of these other witnesses with direct knowledge of Trump’s freezing of the aid off of “the record.” It’s all about keeping them from sharing what they know under oath.
“The brief reveals the secret sauce to the coverup — to try to keep others who directly communicated with the president from going on the record,” Ryan Goodman, a law professor at New York University, told me.
As it is, the argument that Sondland and Johnson exonerated Trump is nonsense. In the same call where Trump supposedly told Sondland “no quid pro quo,” Trump also told him to convey to Zelensky that he must do Trump’s bidding, even as Trump continued withholding the money.
“The brief carefully relies on these third-person accounts to claim what the president did or did not say,” Goodman told me. “The irony is the Sondland call is actually one of the most incriminating parts of the record. When Sondland told other officials of this very call, it set off alarm bells.”
And Johnson’s statements actually undercut Trump’s case, because Johnson’s concern about what Trump had done itself illustrated how indefensible it was. There is zero reason to accept Trump’s phony denials to Johnson or Sondland at face value: The extortion demand actually was conveyed to Zelensky by Sondland, who was acting at Trump’s direction throughout, and Trump himself directly expressed it to Zelensky on July 25.
What this all shows is that, if GOP senators vote as McConnell hopes, they’ll actually be voting to never hear from the people with the most direct knowledge of the very conduct Trump and his defenders say was entirely above reproach. After all, Trump blocked them from speaking to the House as well.
Those GOP senators will be voting to carry Trump’s coverup all the way through to completion.