In a Quinnipiac University poll released two weeks ago, a plurality of respondents said that asking a foreign power to investigate a political rival was itself an act worthy of impeachment and removal from office.
Since then a seemingly more problematic question faces elected leaders: Was it acceptable for Trump to block aid to Ukraine that had been approved by Congress as leverage to force politically useful investigations? This has been an undercurrent since news first broke of Trump’s interactions with Ukraine but only somewhat vaguely. Recent revelations, particularly the testimony of acting Ukraine ambassador William B. Taylor Jr. on Tuesday, remove any reasonable doubt that this is specifically what happened.
Trump has been insistent: There was no quid pro quo involving Ukraine. That's hard to square with:
- Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney saying that aid was withheld in part to get Ukraine to investigate the hacking of the Democratic National Committee in 2016
- Taylor testifying that E.U. Ambassador Gordon Sondland and Ukraine special envoy Kurt Volker told him that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky needed to make clear that he supported investigations before he’d get a meeting at the White House
- Sondland reportedly telling officials in a July 10 meeting that a meeting between Trump and Zelensky would be predicated on Zelensky opening the investigations, according to former administration official Fiona Hill
- Volker, according to Taylor, saying he would tell Zelensky that a White House meeting depended on Zelensky opening investigations to “get to the bottom of things”
- Volker texting a Zelensky aide before Trump and Zelensky spoke to tell him that “assuming President [Zelensky] convinces trump he will investigate / ‘get to the bottom of what happened’ in 2016, we will nail down date for visit to Washington”
- Sondland telling a Zelensky aide, according to Taylor, that military assistance would be held until Zelensky committed to a Biden-related investigation
- Sondland telling Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) that aid depended on the investigations
- Trump denying a “quid pro quo” while confirming to Johnson that he wanted Ukraine to investigate the 2016 hacking
- Sondland telling Taylor in response to questions about a quid pro quo that Trump wanted a public announcement about an investigation
- After Trump’s instructions, Sondland telling Zelensky (again according to Taylor) that without an announcement about investigations, the United States and Ukraine would be at a “stalemate”
- Trump replying to Zelensky’s mention of military aid in their July 25 call with a request for a favor: an investigation of the hacking.
The best defense the White House has been able to muster was that there was no quid pro quo because they chose not to define the actions above as a quid pro quo. In response to Taylor’s testimony, White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham released a statement including that assertion. It read, in part:
“President Trump has done nothing wrong — this is a coordinated smear campaign from far-left lawmakers and radical unelected bureaucrats waging war on the Constitution. There was no quid pro quo. Today was just more triple hearsay and selective leaks from the Democrats’ politically-motivated, closed door, secretive hearings.”
Even beyond the denial of quid pro quo in the face of the evidence of a quid pro quo, the statement is grasping. The smear campaign from “far-left lawmakers” and “radical unelected bureaucrats” involves evidence released by:
- Kurt Volker, a George W. Bush and Trump administration appointee
- Fiona Hill, appointed to the National Security Council by Trump and also worked under Bush
- William B. Taylor Jr., asked to return to service in Ukraine by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo
- The rough transcript of Trump’s call with Zelensky released by the White House.
The “selective leaks” Tuesday included Taylor’s full opening statement, which is somewhat hard to take out of context.
Grisham and Trump allies broadly have argued that holding depositions of witnesses behind closed doors is itself suspicious. Republicans have made a big deal out of this despite, as The Washington Post’s Paul Kane reports, fully engaging in the process. Perhaps Republican attendees of the hearings have chosen not to leak any details that emerge that are exculpatory for Trump. Or perhaps there’s another reason that what emerges is so damning.
The problem for Trump’s allies is that the questions at stake are obvious and fundamental. From the outset of the Ukraine scandal, there has been an effort to redirect away from those fundamental questions and to ancillary ones. Isn’t the whistleblower biased? Isn’t the impeachment process unfair? Isn’t House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) reprehensible? Aren’t the motivations of various people chosen by Trump to serve in the government suspect? These are, admittedly, easier questions for Trump and his allies to answer than the questions about the propriety of soliciting politically useful information or using congressional aid as leverage to the president’s political benefit.
On Wednesday morning, Trump offered a new line of attack in a tweet.
The Ratcliffe argument (which Trump saw on Fox News) is an interesting one: Can you have a quid pro quo on aid without Ukraine knowing that aid was being held up? The problem with the point is twofold: Ukraine eventually learned about the aid, and the aid wasn’t the only point of pressure that Trump’s team was applying.
But Trump nonetheless goes sideways: Where is the whistleblower? The answer to that question is simple: It matters less each day who the whistleblower was or what their overwhelmingly accurate complaint articulated. The increasing weight of what's known about Trump's actions yields clarity.
It’s not about what the whistleblower or Schiff or Taylor did. It’s about what Trump did. And it’s about whether what Trump did is acceptable.