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Opinion For Trump, incompetent bribery is still bribery

President Donald Trump departs the White House on Thursday. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

The Republican goalposts on impeachment were last seen crossing the Mississippi River and speeding onto the Great Plains. When they reach the Pacific Coast and can be moved no further, it appears they will teeter on a lonely, wind-whipped cliff: the contention that President Trump and his enablers tried to make a “drug deal” with Ukraine but were too clumsy and clueless to pull it off.

“Drug deal” is the metaphor former national security adviser John Bolton reportedly used to describe Trump’s attempt to coerce Ukraine into smearing Democratic front-runner Joe Biden. A more precise term is bribery — demanding manufactured dirt on Biden in exchange for release of nearly $400 million in military aid — and federal law makes clear that seeking such a trade is just as illegal as actually making it happen.

Republicans are pretending otherwise, though, because it’s unclear what else they can say. After just two days of public testimony in the impeachment probe, Trump’s defenders are left sputtering.

Trump and his apologists began, weeks ago, by charging that the whole allegation was fabricated out of Never-Trump animus. But then Trump released the rough summary of his July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, and it was clear that something wrong indeed had happened.

Trump wanted Republicans to join him in proclaiming that the call was “perfect” and that there was “no quid pro quo” involved. But his own words to Zelensky — “I would like you to do us a favor though” — made that defense, to use a Watergate-era term, inoperative.

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The complaint that this was all about a single phone call, which is perhaps a slender thread from which to hang the impeachment of a president, was obliterated by last week’s testimony. Three veteran diplomats with deep expertise in Ukraine and no apparent ax to grind — State Department official George Kent, acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine William B. Taylor Jr. and ousted Ukrainian ambassador Marie Yovanovitch — described a months-long campaign, spearheaded by Trump lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani, to pressure Ukrainian officials into publicly opening investigations into Biden and his son Hunter, and also into pursuing a disproved conspiracy theory involving a nonexistent Democratic National Committee email server.

The vivid narrative told by Yovanovitch, in particular, apparently so unnerved Trump that he attacked her on Twitter while she was still in the witness chair. That created another “cleanup on Aisle Five” moment in which Republicans who might have wanted to aggressively grill Yovanovitch instead had to treat her with kid gloves.

For some of Trump’s defenders, a major theme was that Kent, Taylor and Yovanovitch had not spoken directly to the president, and that therefore the information they had to offer was all “hearsay” or “second-hand.” But that all fell apart late Friday, when a member of Taylor’s staff in Kyiv, David Holmes, testified in a closed-door deposition about overhearing a phone conversation between Trump and Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland in which Trump pressed for news about “the investigations” he was seeking.

So the Trump defense shifted back to complaints about the impeachment inquiry process, designed and led by Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.). On “Fox News Sunday,” House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) charged repeatedly that those who had testified were “Schiff’s witnesses.” Host Chris Wallace pushed back, pointing out that they were actually career Foreign Service officers “working in the Trump administration.” And as Scalise well knows, Republicans had an equal opportunity to question the witnesses at their depositions and the public hearings. They were, in fact, the House of Representatives’ witnesses.

With at least eight more officials testifying publicly this week, Republicans are left with a defense that really is no defense at all. “The Ukrainians did nothing to — as far as investigations goes — to get the aid released,” Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) said on “Face the Nation.” “So there was never this quid pro quo that the Democrats all promise existed.”

There are two problems with arguing that Trump is innocent because his scheme ultimately failed: the facts and the law.

The stubborn facts are that the military aid to Ukraine was released only after a whistleblower’s complaint came to the attention of Congress, meaning the jig was up; and that Zelensky was all set to announce the bogus investigations Trump wanted.

And federal law states that a public official who “seeks” or “demands” something of value in exchange for performing an official act is as guilty of bribery as one who actually receives such a favor.

Alas for Trump, incompetent bribery is still bribery. And it’s still an impeachable offense.

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Read more:

Jonathan Capehart: Here’s a way to counter a Republican effort to rewrite history on the whistleblower

E.J. Dionne Jr.: Between impeachment and the election, politics is literally on a split screen

Jennifer Rubin: The least useful question in impeachment coverage

Ruth Marcus: Marie Yovanovitch’s femininity is her superpower

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