Both sides agree to those things because the White House released a rough transcript of the call in which those things are clearly delineated. But the White House, Trump and Trump's personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani have admitted to other actions and interactions detailed in a complaint filed by a whistleblower within the intelligence community.
The White House has admitted that, as the whistleblower alleged, it moved documentation of the call to a separate, highly secure storage system. The administration admits that it withheld aid to Ukraine that it had previously pledged, releasing it only last month. Giuliani has admitted working on Trump’s behalf to dig up information related to the Biden allegations, including meeting with Ukrainian officials. Trump has been explicit since the release of the call’s rough transcript and the whistleblower complaint that he believes Ukraine should investigate Biden.
These stipulated facts are at the heart of the Democratic push to impeach the president. They are also the focal point of a robust recontextualizing and reframing effort by Republicans and the president — spin, if you will — and the target of a blizzard of ancillary claims and allegations meant to obscure them.
It boils down to one question: Is Trump's request for foreign countries to investigate political opponents acceptable?
The Democrats’ central argument is that Trump sought Zelensky’s assistance in aiding Trump politically, either by undermining Biden (a possible 2020 opponent) or undermining the investigation into Russian interference — and, specifically, the individuals involved in launching it. There are additional questions about the extent to which Trump might have leveraged government resources to force Zelensky to comply in helping him — the withholding of aid, for example, or by withholding an official White House visit to the newly inaugurated Ukrainian president.
Seeking electoral assistance from a foreign government is illegal, as the chairman of the Federal Election Commission made clear in a tweet after Trump told ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos in June that he would be open to receiving assistance from a foreign power during his reelection bid. We are unquestionably now in the midst of the 2020 campaign, and Biden is one of the most likely opponents Trump will face. Undermining Biden is an electoral benefit to Trump. But there are broader constitutional questions raised about Trump’s behavior, too: To what extent, if any, is Trump undermining his oath of office by leveraging his position for his own personal political benefit?
The response from Trump and his allies is sweeping: Nothing wrong with any of this. Trump’s push for Ukraine to investigate Biden wasn’t about Biden, as such, but about corruption more broadly — the issue at the heart of Biden’s own opposition to Ukraine’s former general prosecutor. The requested favor, looking into that 2016 hacking, was simply an effort to learn more about interference in U.S. elections. Burying documentation of the call was about preventing leaks, not about concern over the contents of the conversation.
These arguments are dealt with cursorily, with a rhetorical wave of the hand, so that Trump and his allies can instead talk about other things. Maybe Biden actually did something wrong? Did the whistleblower file his complaint in the right way? Were the whistleblower rules changed to his benefit? Didn't the Democrats behave inappropriately in how they launched this impeachment inquiry?
It’s important to note, since the subjects were raised, that most of the questions posed in the preceding paragraph have clear answers, answers that don’t flatter the president’s side. The vast weight of the available evidence suggests that Biden’s push to oust Ukraine’s general prosecutor and for reforms aimed at combating corruption in 2015 was in line with American policy and agreed upon by both Democrats and Republicans. The whistleblower’s complaint followed the appropriate guidelines and was not a function of changing rules. The process by which the Democrats launched their inquiry is, of course, ancillary to the inquiry’s target.
By moving the public conversation to those things — a move that the media must follow to inform the public about their credibility, or lack thereof — the conversation moves away from that central question: Is Trump’s request for foreign countries to investigate political opponents acceptable?
Speaking to Zelensky, Trump didn’t ask for help in assessing the Russia investigation. He asked only that Zelensky look into one aspect of it that has seized Trump’s attention, a convoluted theory that requires several iffy steps to get from what actually happened to Ukraine.
The rough transcript of the Trump-Zelensky call also makes no mention of corruption specifically. Only Zelensky broaches the subject in general terms. Trump’s focus is solely on Biden, what he thinks Biden did and what he thinks Biden’s son Hunter did. Trump tells Zelensky that “Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it” — here the transcript includes an ellipsis — “It sounds horrible to me.”
That’s the question: Is that acceptable? Is it acceptable when Trump makes a similar request of China from outside the White House, as he did Thursday morning, without bothering to try to hide the directness of his request? This, in fact, is part of his defense: How could these be questionable actions when Trump is taking them so openly, right in front of microphones? Wrongdoing is usually hidden. Isn’t the fact that Trump is making these requests publicly and releasing transcripts a sign that what he’s doing isn’t wrong?
There is a good reason for preventing a president from leveraging his position to his own benefit, the same reason that prompted the Founding Fathers to prohibit a president from taking foreign money while in office. China’s aims and Ukraine’s aims are not America’s aims, something that, in other contexts, Trump has distilled into an oft-repeated slogan: “America First.” By asking a favor of Ukraine or asking China for assistance, he’s giving up negotiating leverage that he should be using for the broader good of the country.
Trump has been struggling to restructure America’s trade relationship with China for months. If they offer to give Trump dirt on his political opponents in exchange for lifting tariffs, how would Trump respond? This isn’t an academic exercise: As both sides agree, Ukraine’s president told Trump that his country would soon want to buy arms from the United States. Trump replied that he wanted Zelensky to “do us a favor, though” — try to find something that might undercut the Russia probe.
So, the question: Is that acceptable? Everything else is clouds. Everything else is blurring.