I ran through a few of those two weeks ago, but the intervening 14 days — in which we’ve seen still more confirmations of a quid pro quo — have produced more thin or disingenuous defenses and more reason to doubt some previous defenses.
Let’s run through a few of them.
1. This is all about the July 25 call
As the evidence has built, Trump and his top allies have set about implying that really the only thing at issue here is his July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Trump has tweeted repeatedly the suggestion that he can’t get in trouble because the call was “perfect” and contains no explicit quid pro quo. He has even suggested that witnesses are being called to testify only about the call and the rough transcript of it that the White House put out.
What I said on the phone call with the Ukrainian President is “perfectly” stated. There is no reason to call witnesses to analyze my words and meaning. This is just another Democrat Hoax that I have had to live with from the day I got elected (and before!). Disgraceful!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 4, 2019
He is also running with a “read the transcript” campaign slogan.
The Republican National Committee argued Wednesday in a news release that acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine William B. Taylor Jr.’s testimony is invalid because he “was not on the July 25 call and he did not read the transcript until it was publically released for the world to see.”
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) suggested that Democrats were impeaching Trump “based on this phone call” but that he “did nothing wrong.”
Some other examples:
Morrison’s testimony today is devastating to the false Democrat narrative that anything illegal or improper happened on the July 25 Trump-Zelensky call. It’s also devastating to the credibility of certain other witnesses who have asserted there was anything illegal or improper.— John Ratcliffe (@RepRatcliffe) October 31, 2019
The thing is, though, that this isn’t just about the transcript — not hardly. That’s a significant piece of evidence, certainly, but relatively little in these depositions have been devoted to it. And we’ve seen six witnesses confirm a quid pro quo outside of the call.
Whether any of those quid pro quo allegations lead directly to the president is another issue. Republicans want to defend the call because that’s the evidence they know for certain, and they believe it isn’t deadly for Trump. The call, though, shows Trump explicitly asking for the same investigations that have been invoked in the quid pro quos — and maybe even attaching them implicitly to continued U.S. military aid. (For more on the Javelins thing, see David French’s piece in the National Review.)
To suggest this is all about the call is to ignore an abundance of other evidence. The fact that Trump and Republicans don’t really want to talk about that other evidence is about as telling as anything.
2. Taylor isn’t a ‘fact witness’
This is from the same RNC statement I mentioned above. The committee claimed that Taylor’s absence from the July 25 call meant he was not a “fact witness” in this investigation.
“Taylor is not a fact witness,” the committee said. “He was not on the July 25 call and he did not read the transcript until it was publicly released for the world to see.”
This is an extension of the argument that the whistleblower was a “hearsay witness” because their information was often secondhand. And it’s just as bogus.
For one, as with the whistleblower, the core elements of Taylor’s testimony have been confirmed by other witnesses, under oath. And what’s more, it completely misrepresents what “fact witness” means, just as it misrepresented what “hearsay” was. The Justice Department defines a “fact witness” as an “individual whose testimony consists exclusively of the recitation of facts or a description of events.” Taylor is describing the events he was privy to, including communications with major players in the scandal such as Gordon Sondland, Kurt Volker, Tim Morrison and others.
Just because Taylor didn’t draw the line directly to Trump, to whom he testified that he hadn’t spoken, doesn’t mean he’s not a witness to very pertinent facts.
3. Taylor was relying on the New York Times to ascribe Giuliani’s motive
Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.) on Wednesday joined in the efforts to suggest Taylor doesn’t know anything by tweeting this:
Star witness? Taylor said in depo he believed reason POTUS wanted Ukraine to investigate Ukrainians' interference w/ the 2016 election & Burisma was just to get dirt on Biden. He later admitted to me his sole source of info was...wait for it...The NY Times. pic.twitter.com/Yj6DUlkit7— Lee Zeldin (@RepLeeZeldin) November 6, 2019
“Star witness?” Zeldin tweeted. “Taylor said in depo he believed reason POTUS wanted Ukraine to investigate Ukrainians’ interference w/ the 2016 election & Burisma was just to get dirt on Biden. He later admitted to me his sole source of info was…wait for it…The NY Times.”
Pretty damning stuff … except that the New York Times article at issue isn’t some anonymously sourced piece. It quotes none other than Giuliani himself — extensively — admitting that this was an effort to get information for his “client.”
Giuliani admitted he was “meddling in an investigation, which we have a right to do."
“There’s nothing illegal about it,” Giuliani said. “Somebody could say it’s improper. … I’m asking them to do an investigation that they’re doing already and that other people are telling them to stop. And I’m going to give them reasons they shouldn’t stop it because that information will be very, very helpful to my client, and may turn out to be helpful to my government.”
It’s difficult to read “very, very helpful to my client, and may turn out to be helpful to my government” as anything other than Giuliani admitting this is a political effort aimed at digging up dirt. He even admits any benefit to the U.S. government is ancillary.
4. Ukraine didn’t know about the quid pro quo
Now that a quid pro quo has been extensively confirmed, the GOP has moved from arguing that there was no quid pro quo to arguing that it couldn’t have been corrupt because Ukraine didn’t know about it.
Republicans even pointed to Taylor’s testimony, in which he ventured that Ukraine didn’t know about the military aid being withheld until it was reported publicly on Aug. 29. How could there be a corrupt quid pro quo if Ukraine didn’t even know it was being leveraged!?
But that ignores three things. One is the Times has reported Ukraine knew in early August.
The second is that there was still a 12-day window between the public report that the aid was withheld and when it was released Sept. 11. It seems eminently possible that it was released not out of the goodness of Trump’s heart but because he was getting extensive bipartisan pressure. Perhaps it was intended for leverage, but it was no longer tenable to try to leverage it because of the pressure.
And the third is that the other thing allegedly leveraged as part of the quid pro quo — an Oval Office meeting — was very much known to Ukraine. Even before Sondland communicated that quid pro quo directly to top Ukrainian official Andriy Yermak, Ukraine knew the White House was slow-rolling the meeting. You can see in the rough transcript of the July Trump-Zelensky call that Zelensky is trying hard to get Trump to commit. And as early as May, Zelensky and top aides reportedly held a meeting trying to figure out how to navigate Giuliani’s efforts, according to the Associated Press.
In other words, they knew they were being leveraged. Exactly when they had explicit confirmation that a meeting or military aid specifically might have been used is pertinent, but it doesn’t change the fact that the leverage was known. And in both cases, they were aware of the alleged quid pro quos with time still very much on the clock.
5. Trump is just trolling
Trump’s allies will often beg off questions about stuff like this by suggesting the president just says stuff — or even that he’s trolling us. That’s what Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said when Trump extended his request for investigations of the Bidens to China.
But Taylor’s testimony, which we got the full transcript of Wednesday, shows how serious these kinds of things can be internally. He testified that Cabinet officials had a difficult time scheduling a meeting with Trump about releasing Ukraine’s military aid because everyone was trying to put out the fire started by Trump’s flirtation with purchasing Greenland.
“I think this was also about the time of the Greenland question, about purchasing Greenland, which took up a lot of energy in the [National Security Council]," Taylor said.
Maybe it’s time to retire the whole “seriously, not literally” thing.