The new GOP strategy appears to be misdirection.
In recent days, Republicans have maintained a laserlike focus on a very narrow defense of Trump: that there was nothing illegal about his July 25 phone call with Ukraine’s president. In doing so, they are glossing over and even outright ignoring a growing mountain of evidence that much more explicit quid pro quos existed outside that call.
Trump has for weeks tried to keep the focus on his supposedly “perfect” call with Volodymyr Zelensky. He even said Thursday that he’s so proud of it he might read it during a fireside chat.
GOP lawmakers have approached the call more cautiously. Several have said it was bad that Trump asked a foreign leader to investigate a political opponent, former vice president Joe Biden, even as they don’t view it as an impeachable offense. Most have simply ignored the matter altogether.
The new line, though, seems to be that even if the call wasn’t “perfect,” at least it wasn’t illegal, and that proves this is a witch hunt.
Republicans hailed outgoing White House aide Tim Morrison’s testimony Thursday. In it, the National Security Council aide said that even though he raised concerns about the July 25 call, “I want to be clear, I was not concerned that anything illegal was discussed."
As I wrote at the time, it may be helpful for Trump that not everybody was so concerned about this being illegal. But Morrison was a White House aide. The idea that he wouldn’t view the call in such a troubling light isn’t hugely surprising. What is surprising is how many officials — including those hired by the Trump administration — seemed to disagree.
What’s more, that’s a completely subjective call made by a nonlawyer based on evidence that is already known. We have the rough transcript of the call. Morrison’s view of whether it was illegal is pretty irrelevant.
Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Tex.) said Morrison’s testimony was “devastating to the false Democrat narrative that anything illegal or improper happened on the July 25 Trump-Zelensky call."
House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) agreed that Morrison’s testimony “was very damaging to the Democrats’ narrative.”
Rep. Gary Palmer (R-Ala.) added: “The investigation into President Trump has been centered around a phone call with President Zelensky of Ukraine, but the call transcript, which I have read, and Zelensky himself have both confirmed that President Trump has not committed a crime or abused his power."
And Rep. Ted Budd (R-N.C.) said: “This [impeachment inquiry] resolution does not change the fundamental facts about this saga. We have the transcript of the phone call between President Trump and the Ukrainian president. During the call, there was no pressure or conditionality placed on U.S. aid, and both President Trump and President Zelensky have said there was no quid pro quo.”
This defense would make sense if the call were the only evidence here. But that’s hardly the case. I’ve said from the beginning that the call contains no explicit quid pro quo, but that doesn’t mean one didn’t exist elsewhere. Indeed, six people have now said as much publicly — including three under oath. If anything, the call fills out the details of a president who badly wanted these investigations, and now we’re learning about what people did behind closed doors to make them happen — including allegedly dangling hundreds of millions of U.S. government dollars and a long-sought White House meeting.
The narrowness of the defense makes sense for Republicans. If they can pretend this is all about the phone call, they can argue that there isn’t necessarily a smoking gun in it. The call seemed to alarm people, but we’re learning that many of them were already quite concerned about the efforts vis-a-vis Ukraine; indeed, the real blowup here seemed to occur July 10, when multiple aids blanched at Sondland’s proposal to a top Ukrainian official. National security adviser John Bolton stopped the meeting, according to their testimony, and called the whole thing a “drug deal.”
When the damaging evidence was first emerging here, Republicans tried to keep the focus on the whistleblower and their supposed “hearsay” accusations — even as just about all of them were being confirmed. Now that evidence is growing of a quid pro quo, they’re trying to keep the focus on one single call, as if it’s the central and even only piece of evidence.
But it’s not. It’s certainly significant, but few cases rest on one piece of evidence. And these Republicans apparently want you to miss the forest for a tree.