It’s not surprising that Trump would embrace a column by Strassel, an opinion columnist whose views of investigations into the president overlap with Trump’s so neatly that it’s as though they came from the same mold. Trump has tweeted about Strassel or retweeted her more than 20 times, usually because she’s raising an eyebrow at new reporting about Trump’s behavior. After the report by former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III came out in April, Trump suggested that Strassel get the Pulitzer Prize.
It is also not surprising that Trump sent this column to that audience. Trump, like many observers, seems to think that an impeachment in the House is a foregone conclusion, meaning that it will be up to the Senate to decide whether Trump gets to remain in office. Trump hopes they’ll be swayed by Strassel’s column, an effort to broadly debunk the idea that an impeachment inquiry is warranted.
Let us all hope that our elected senators are smarter than to accept Strassel’s presentation as accurate. Below, I walk through the claims that Strassel makes, evaluating them and noting where they fall short. As the note from the White House began: Good afternoon, senators! Here’s why Strassel’s column is bad.
The central premise of Strassel’s column is that Democrats seek to obscure a lack of fire by whipping up smoke. She compares the situation to the Mueller probe and to the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh.
“Democrats and the media for three years used a fog of facts and speculation to lull America into forgetting there was never a shred of evidence of Trump-Russia collusion,” the column begins. “They flooded the zone with another flurry of scattershot claims in their campaign against Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh. Republicans might bear these tactics in mind as they confront the left’s new impeachment push.”
In her first sentence, Strassel argues that … there was never any evidence of collusion? This is the argument from which she begins? There was never a campaign adviser who was informed about Russia having dirt on Hillary Clinton? There was never an email suggesting that the Russian government wanted to help the Trump campaign? There was never contact between WikiLeaks and members of the campaign?
Mueller’s report found that there was insufficient evidence of any collusion between the primary Russian effort and the campaign to bring any charges. But neither the report nor common sense suggests that there was “never a shred of evidence.”
Since Trump released the rough transcript of the call in July between himself and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Strassel writes, “the debate has descended into the weeds of process and people. This is unsurprising given House Democrats’ decision to keep hidden the central doings of their impeachment inquiry, and the media’s need to fill a void."
This is an utterly disingenuous argument — that the Democrats and the media are trying to obscure the question. The media in particular keeps asking Republican senators if the central question — should Trump have sought political help from a foreign leader? — is acceptable. Senators, like Sens. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) keep responding by … descending into the weeds of process and people.
Strassel admits as much! In short order, she makes obvious that it’s Republicans who are muddying the waters by focusing on the whistleblower who brought the Trump-Zelensky call to light.
Republicans are “highlighting the anonymous whistleblower, his motives and his methods,” she writes. “They’ve pointed out the whistleblower’s admission that his information was secondhand. They’re drilling into whether he was biased on behalf of a current Democratic presidential candidate.”
How is this not descending into the weeds in a tangential way? The inspector general who reviewed the whistleblower’s complaint noted that while there was some possible political bias by the whistleblower, the complaint itself was credible. The IG’s determination, in fact, is the reason that Republicans knew about possible bias in the first place. But how does it matter? If a guy hears from his ex-wife that her new husband is selling drugs to children, should the police decline to investigate because the man is both biased and not observing the crime directly?
Anyone arguing that motive matters here is willingly engaging in the obfuscation to which Strassel ostensibly objects.
“Motive matters,” Strassel continues, “but what matters more is the accuracy of the complaint itself. The real news of the past few weeks has been the steady accumulation of evidence that its central claim is totally wrong.”
How so? Well, she explains, because the whistleblower complaint “alleged, for instance, that Mr. Trump asked Ukraine to ‘locate and turn over servers.’ He didn’t.” It also “claims Mr. Trump ‘praised’ a prosecutor named Yuriy Lutsenko and suggested the Ukrainian president ‘keep him in his position.’ That didn’t happen either.”
Remember: The whistleblower was hearing from people involved in the call what happened. The rough transcript of the call — which on its own first page notes that it’s not a verbatim transcript — includes both a mention of a server and of an ousted prosecutor.
Here’s where Trump raised the issue of a server.
Here’s where he praised an unnamed prosecutor who was “shut down,” probably Lutsenko.
Strassel’s “the complaint was wrong” argument is the sort of technicality-embracing pedantry that fifth-graders use to wriggle out things they don’t want to do. That the whistleblower was aware of the discussion of the server, aware of the discussion of the prosecutor, aware of the discussion of former vice president Joe Biden captures the details salient to the issue at hand: what Trump wanted from the Ukrainian president. It’s like our aforementioned ex-husband telling the police that the new husband is selling fentanyl, only to have the police learn that he’s selling kids heroin. Except not even that far off the mark.
“There is simply no evidence of what House Democrats have made the central claim of their impeachment inquiry,” Strassel writes, “that Mr. Trump engaged in a ‘quid pro quo’ by withholding aid to Ukraine unless it ‘opened an investigation’ into former vice president Joe Biden.”
This, my friends, is called a “straw man.”
When Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced the impeachment inquiry, the focus was on Trump’s request for political assistance from a foreign leader, something that Trump himself admits having done. Her critique was broader than just that, but it was clearly not an effort centered on an explicit quid pro quo of aid for a Biden probe.
That said, Trump did reply to Zelensky’s indication that he wanted to buy weapons from the United States by saying, “I would like you to do us a favor though” — investigate that server. There are lingering questions about why aid to Ukraine was withheld. There was a text message released in which Trump’s Ukraine envoy prepared a Zelensky aide for the call by directly tying Zelensky’s desire for a White House meeting to the Biden probe. There is a suggestion in text messages exchanged between administration officials that the aid was being withheld to pressure Ukraine to act on an investigation.
Strassel waves this last point away in hilariously sloppy fashion.
Democrats “neglect to point out that the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, shut down that claim in his own text: ‘You are incorrect … The President has been crystal clear no quid pro quo’s of any kind,' ” she writes.
For her part, Strassel neglects to point out that Sondland went on to suggest that they “stop the back and forth by text” — in other words, stop discussing the issue in a place where there’s documentation of what was said. (He had made the same point earlier in the discussion, too.) Strassel also declines to point out that Sondland’s very formal reply came only after he spoke on the phone with Trump himself. Sondland’s message reads less like a sincere rejection of the idea than like a news release from a law firm.
Republicans, Strassel suggests, would “be better off uniformly noting that the central players in this episode, and the written record, have already refuted the complaint, and that anything further is theater, no different from the Russia-collusion hype.” Neither the written record nor all of the central players have refuted the complaint; in fact, Trump himself has provided plenty of evidence that the whistleblower complaint was on the mark. What’s more, the entire point of the investigation is to determine the extent of possible wrongdoing. Strassel asks Republicans to vote that her client is not guilty during the trial’s opening statement.
She concludes in a masterpiece of irony.
“The left is again counting on the public getting lost in a swirl of innuendo,” Strassel writes. “But facts matter, especially when it comes to impeachment.”
That last point, at least, is true.