The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The GOP Ukraine defense asks us to believe Trump cared deeply about things he rarely discussed

In essence, Trump’s Republican defenders want America to do anything but read the transcript.

House Intelligence Committee ranking Republican Devin Nunes (Calif.) said Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election prompted President Trump to investigate. (Video: The Washington Post)

Over the course of the first day of public testimony in the House impeachment inquiry, Republicans outlined a somewhat sketchy defense of President Trump. At its heart were two lines of argument: that Trump’s interest in a strong Ukraine was well established (neutralizing, they hoped, the halt Trump placed on providing aid to that country) and that his efforts to get Ukraine to launch new investigations were rooted in his obvious opposition to corruption.

“As we’ll learn in these hearings,” the House Intelligence Committee’s ranking Republican, Devin Nunes (Calif.), said on Wednesday, “after expressing skepticism of foreign aid and concern about foreign corruption on the campaign trail, President Trump outraged the bureaucracy by acting skeptically about foreign aid and expressing concerns about foreign corruption.”

The problem with that argument in particular is that it’s directly at odds with all other available evidence. It is not only not the case that Trump has not focused on corruption to any significant degree as president and it is not only the case that Trump has basically not focused on corruption in Ukraine at all, but it isn’t even the case that Trump focused on corruption in Ukraine in the call he had with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. For all of Trump’s regular insistences that America “read the transcript” — that is, the rough transcript of the Trump-Zelensky call — House Republicans on Wednesday essentially asked that Americans not to read the transcript, lest they learn just how little of a focus Trump put on the subject.

We all understand that Trump is not someone who keeps his passions bottled up inside. A review of Trump’s public comments compiled by shows that he has, in fact, talked about corrupt entities and corruption regularly, particularly in the last year.

But his mentions of corruption as president have almost exclusively been pejorative: his labeling of political opponents, the D.C. “swamp” or the media as corrupt. His mentions of corruption in the context of governments beyond the U.S. federal government make up about 1 in 6 of his uses of the term before September of this year, when the Ukraine scandal broke.

He talked about corruption in the context of Ukraine only once before September. By contrast, he’d talked about corruption in Iran a number of times. He’s talked about purported corruption by social media companies more than corruption in Ukraine. He’s talked far more about corruption in Puerto Rico than in Kyiv.

Even corruption in Romania came up more often than corruption in Ukraine. Trump talked about corruption in that country during press availabilities after meetings with Romanian leaders. When Trump twice met with former Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, on neither occasion did he mention corruption.

He did not mention it in his call with Zelensky, either.

At no point before September did Trump mention any of the specific allegations that his attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani mentions in an opinion piece published by the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday, allegations that Giuliani claims spurred Trump’s requests for investigations in the Zelensky call. Trump never mentioned, for example, the release of documents in August 2016 exposing under-the-table payments to his then-campaign manager Paul Manafort. That document release was cited by Giuliani as a rationale for Trump asking Zelensky to probe “Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.”

That’s not what Trump requested of Zelensky, of course, but we’ll come back to that.

Overall, Trump has talked about Ukraine less frequently than he has corruption.

There were times that Trump mentioned allegations that Ukraine had some role in interfering in the 2016 election. He lifted up a Sean Hannity report in July 2017, for example, that was based on sketchy Politico article from earlier that year. In March, he highlighted a similar claim made by writer John Solomon (which had come to his attention via Hannity). In neither case did he get into any of the specifics mentioned by Giuliani or House Republicans. At no point, for example, did he mention the DNC contractor who sits at the center of the allegation, a woman named by both Giuliani and Nunes.

Particularly in the months leading up to September, Trump’s mentions of Ukraine often centered specifically on the allegations that were included in Trump’s requests of Zelensky: the debunked claim that former vice president Joe Biden had acted corruptly in regard to Ukraine and a claim that Ukraine had somehow been involved in misleading the world about the hacking of the Democratic National Committee in 2016.

His claims about Ukraine having some role in the DNC hacking extend back to an April 2017 interview with the Associated Press. The peak of his accusations against Biden came in May of this year, correlating to a report in the New York Times articulating the Biden charges.

That May mention of corruption in the context of Ukraine? It was a retweet of the Times reporter who’d lifted up the spurious Biden allegations — the same reporter, incidentally, who wrote the 2017 Politico article.

Trump has talked far more often about very specific requests he made to Zelensky than the more general concerns Republicans and Giuliani insist motivated his requests. What Trump asked Zelensky to look at was what Biden and his son had done in Ukraine and whether Ukraine had a DNC server or a link to the DNC hacking. Those are both things he talked about publicly in the spring and summer of this year.

When Trump talked about corruption generally before the emergence of the Ukraine scandal, he was mostly using the term to disparage a news media that insists on accurately describing what he’s done.