Trump, meanwhile, is imploring Republicans to redouble their efforts to defend him. And now they’ve stormed the House impeachment inquiry in protest.
Unfortunately, Trump supporters’ arguments are making less and less sense. The goal posts are moving, and the obfuscations and outright falsifications are proliferating.
Let’s run through some of the most trafficked defenses and what’s wrong with them.
1. Quid pro quos happen all the time
As evidence of a quid pro quo involving Trump’s demands for politically expedient investigations has piled up, his supporters have in some cases ditched arguing that there was no quid pro quo. Instead, they have suggested quid pro quos are just standard practice.
“We do that all the time with foreign policy,” acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney said last week, after saying military aid to Ukraine was withheld in part because Ukraine wasn’t investigating a Trump conspiracy theory.
Some, such as Washington Post contributing columnist Hugh Hewitt, have even likened the situation to agreements between governments, such as the Louisiana Purchase.
"I'll take Quid Pro Quos for $1,000 Alex"— Hugh Hewitt (@hughhewitt) October 23, 2019
"U.S. acquired approximately 827,000 square miles of land west of Mississippi river for $15 million."
"What is Seward's Folly?"
"Sorry @Steelers fans, it is 'What is the Louisiana Purchase, the Louisiana Purchase.'" #QuidProQuoJeopardy
Of course, quid pro quos are part of government work. What this is really about is whether there was a corrupt quid pro quo. The question is whether the quid pro quo involved investigations personally desired by Trump that could help him politically.
The fact that Mulvaney reeled in his admission says it all. He and the Trump team know that a quid pro quo in which the aid was withheld more broadly over Ukraine rooting out its corruption would be legitimate; if it was withheld for personal favors for Trump, that’s far different.
It would be as if the Louisiana Purchase involved Thomas Jefferson not buying territory west of the Mississippi River from France in 1803 but instead spending $15 million of government money for damaging information about his 1804 opponent, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney (who just so happened to be a former U.S. minister to France).
2. They didn’t know Burisma was about the Bidens
A related defense to the one above is this: Maybe there was an explicit quid pro quo on an investigation involving the Bidens, but those involved didn’t know it involved the Bidens. They just knew it involved the Ukrainian energy company Burisma Holdings, whose board Hunter Biden happened to serve on.
“I recall no discussions with any State Department or White House official about former vice president Biden or his son, nor do I recall taking part in any effort to encourage an investigation into the Bidens,” Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, testified last week. He added that as of August, “I did not know until more recent press reports that Hunter Biden was on the board of Burisma.”
Outgoing energy secretary Rick Perry added Wednesday morning on Hewitt’s radio show: “In our conversations dealing with this issue, I never heard the president say the words ‘Biden.’ I never heard the word ‘Biden’ mentioned, not from him, not from staff, not from the E.U. ambassador, not from [former special envoy to Ukraine] Kurt Volker.”
Here’s the thing, though: Trump and his personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani did not hide that this was about the Bidens. There was a major controversy in May — before many of the key events here played out — in which Giuliani planned and then canceled a trip to Ukraine that he explicitly said was meant to push for these investigations. Trump himself invoked the Bidens publicly on May 19.
Giuliani also admitted at the time that he was trying to help Trump personally.
“Somebody could say it’s improper,” Giuliani conceded of his planned Ukraine trip. He added, “I’m going to give them reasons they shouldn’t stop [investigating], because that information will be very, very helpful to my client and may turn out to be helpful to my government.”
If people didn’t know the true reason for the Burisma push, it’s difficult to believe it wasn’t a willful ignorance. They would have had to be burying their heads in the sand.
3. The whistleblower has been proved wrong
This one keeps popping up. Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel tweeted it Wednesday before getting an approving retweet from Trump.
But the rough transcript released by the White House of Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky shows the whistleblower had almost all of the key details about it correct. The other major accusation that the whistleblower made — that the White House put the transcript in a code-word-level computer system — has also been confirmed by the White House.
Much of the information was secondhand, meaning more investigation was necessary. But that investigation is now taking place. No longer do we have to depend on an anonymous complaint, because firsthand witnesses are confirming it on the record and under oath. Even if certain details from the whistleblower might not pan out, that’s pretty well beside the point right now.
4. Trump isn’t getting due process in House inquiry
Republicans have decried the House impeachment inquiry process as secretive, noting that the depositions are taking place behind closed doors and that witnesses aren’t allowed to have government lawyers at their side. This was at the heart of the scene Wednesday morning.
As to the second complaint, The Post’s Paul Kane notes that would be against House rules.
“3. Witnesses may be accompanied at a deposition by personal, nongovernmental counsel to advise them of their rights. Only members, committee staff designated by the chair— Paul Kane (@pkcapitol) October 18, 2019
or ranking minority member, an official reporter, witness, and witness's counsel are permitted to attend.”
As Just Security notes, the Justice Department has argued that excluding such counsel “would impair the President’s constitutional authority to control the disclosure of privileged information and to supervise the executive branch’s communications with Congress.” But allowing the White House to supervise and withhold information during impeachment proceedings is problematic, at best. And the Justice Department’s view is a guideline, not the law.
As to due process: The impeachment inquiry is not a trial — it is akin to an investigation, in which there are no opportunities to present competing narratives. The trial occurs in the Senate if the House impeaches Trump, and it is in the upper chamber where all of that can take place. What’s more, there are Republican members in these depositions who can effectively cross-examine the witnesses.
Whether the proceedings should be more public is up for debate. Holding them in secret prevents witnesses from coordinating their testimony, and it prevents potential grandstanding. That cost is transparency and a fear that the picture we’re getting might be slanted. Democrats have said they will release everything at some point, though, and the media has obtained statements from some witnesses.
The White House has cited a lack of due process for its refusal to cooperate with the inquiry. John Yoo had a good piece on this that noted that the House isn’t required to provide any of these things, even though it perhaps should.
5. An abuse of power is not a crime
This was a new one on Tuesday night, and it may seem like an uncharitable paraphrase. But it’s what former acting U.S. attorney general Matthew G. Whitaker said on Fox News.
“Abuse of power is not a crime,” Whitaker said. “Let’s fundamentally boil it down. The Constitution’s very clear that this has to be some pretty egregious behavior.”
The idea that abuse of power isn’t a crime is highly debatable. It depends on what the abuse is and whether it involves trading government favors for personal gain. Some have argued that this could also amount to extortion of Ukraine or campaign finance violations.
But impeachment doesn’t require a crime. It requires “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” That’s a subjective standard in some ways, but you could make an argument that there is some bribery taking place. In addition, scholars have said an abuse of power is exactly what the Founding Fathers had in mind for impeachment.
6. Ukraine didn’t know about the frozen military aid
Implicit in some of the arguments is that, even if the military aid was held up for leverage on particular investigations, Ukraine didn’t even know about it.
Trump tweeted as much Wednesday morning, quoting Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Tex.): “Neither he (Taylor) or any other witness has provided testimony that the Ukrainians were aware that military aid was being withheld. You can’t have a quid pro quo with no quo.”
Neither he (Taylor) or any other witness has provided testimony that the Ukrainians were aware that military aid was being withheld. You can’t have a quid pro quo with no quo.” Congressman John Ratcliffe @foxandfriends Where is the Whistleblower? The Do Nothing Dems case is DEAD!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 23, 2019
Just hours later, the New York Times reported that Ukraine did, in fact, know about the frozen aid, as of early August:
But in fact, word of the aid freeze had gotten to high-level Ukrainian officials by the first week in August, according to interviews and documents obtained by The New York Times.The problem was not a bureaucratic glitch, the Ukrainians were told then. To address it, they were advised, they should reach out to Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, according to the interviews and records.
Knowing about this in early August would have given Ukraine weeks to understand the leverage potentially being used against it before the aid was restored in mid-September — and these were weeks during which Ukraine’s public message about launching the investigations was being negotiated between both sides.
It seems that yet another defense of Trump on this has fallen apart, in the face of new evidence and logic.