But Trump’s defenders, by definition, have to defend him. So over the past two months and, particularly, during the public testimony offered during the past two weeks as part of the impeachment inquiry, Trump’s allies in the media and on Capitol Hill have whipped up a slew of ways to cast Trump’s actions as innocent or acceptable, ranging from disparagement of House Democrats’ motives to picayune disputes over process.
At times, too, they’ve attempted to blunt the available evidence by suggesting explanations for Trump’s demands that aren’t centered on Trump seeking personal benefit. That’s enormously important, of course; if Republicans (and voters) accept that Trump only wanted the investigations to aid himself, then his use of his position to get it becomes deeply problematic. So Trump’s call for an investigation into Biden is transformed into merely one part of Trump’s long-standing crusade against corruption — a crusade that somewhat inconveniently was never manifested in any significant way before his call with Zelensky.
His demand that Zelensky dig into 2016 election interference by Russia, meanwhile, is recast as Trump having had broad concerns about efforts by Ukraine to interfere with the election. Day after day, during his comments at the start of the public hearings, Rep. Devin Nunes (Calif.), the House Intelligence Committee’s ranking Republican, would detail a litany of ways in which Ukraine allegedly tried to swing the election: an opinion piece from an ambassador, a Democratic National Committee contractor who was trying to learn more about work done in Ukraine by Trump’s then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort. Ukraine was cast as somehow equivalent to Russia in its efforts in 2016. And even when a witness on Thursday, former National Security Council staffer Fiona Hill, told House Republicans directly that this equivalence was both wrong and working to Russia’s favor, Nunes continued to bang the same drum.
It’s demonstrably ludicrous as both an argument and a defense. The argument hinges on a 2017 Politico article, which itself notes that there’s no evidence of any systematic effort by Ukraine to interfere in the election, and Nunes’s cherry-picked examples of places where Ukraine and 2016 overlap are obviously flimsy. But even if it were a robust argument, it fails as a defense simply because it’s not what Trump actually asked of Zelensky.
This is what he asked Zelensky, according to the rough transcript released by the White House: “I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say CrowdStrike … I guess you have one of your wealthy people … The server, they say Ukraine has it,” Trump said. “There are a lot of things that went on, the whole situation.”
When the rough transcript was released, there was a significant amount of head-scratching about this section. It’s so distant from reality that even those versed in Trump’s rhetoric and in the Russia probe had to sort of piece together what he was talking about.
What was he talking about? He was elevating a baseless conspiracy theory that goes like this. The Democratic National Committee was hacked in 2016. The hack was conducted by Russia, as The Post reported at the time and as determined in part by analysis of the DNC network by the California-based firm CrowdStrike. Since Russian culpability was problematic to both Trump and Russia at the time, their defenders looked for ways to undermine the attribution. Some settled on the idea that CrowdStrike’s analysis was suspect because one of the firm’s co-founders is part of a nonprofit organization that receives funding from a wealthy Ukrainian. Bingo-bongo, you’ve got yourself a conspiracy theory.
It’s wrong in two ways. The first and most obvious is that there’s no evidence at all that the third-degree relationship of the Ukrainian in any way affects CrowdStrike’s work. The other way in which it’s wrong is that CrowdStrike wasn’t the only group to determine that Russia was responsible. In fact, the government determined that independently, and special counsel Robert S. Mueller III obtained indictments against a dozen Russians that included detailed analysis of how the hack was conducted and the stolen material distributed.
Trump has constantly questioned the DNC hacking in various ways, lifting up questions about it as a way of offering slivers of doubt about Russia’s role — and by extension the validity of the Russia probe, in which members of his campaign were implicated. He spoke regularly, for example, about how the DNC didn’t turn over “its server” to the FBI, a claim that’s goofy because (a) there wasn’t a server at the DNC but instead a cloud-based network of databases that was accessed, and (b) the FBI got images of the necessary devices, which were precise copies of what those devices contained. Trump, not an IT specialist, thinks of this as being like a crime scene where someone isn’t handing over a fingerprint-covered knife. That’s not how it works.
All of that background brings us to Friday morning, when Trump called in to Fox News’s morning show “Fox & Friends” to discuss the impeachment inquiry. Now, remember: We’ve spent two months poring over Trump’s interactions with Ukraine and his call with Zelensky, and we’ve spent two weeks in which Republicans have scrambled to put together a feasible defense of his actions. By now, every American should know that what Trump presented to Zelensky about the server is nonsensical and that even his own party isn’t trying to defend that specific request as viable.
But everyone in America does not recognize that. Specifically, Trump doesn’t.
Here is an excerpt of his interview on Friday.
TRUMP: Lot of it had to do, they say, with Ukraine.
HOST BRIAN KILMEADE: But Mr. President …
TRUMP: You know, it’s very interesting. It’s very interesting. They have the server, right, from the DNC — Democratic National Committee.
KILMEADE: Who has the server?
TRUMP: Now, the FBI went in and they told them, get out of here. You’re not getting — we’re not giving it to you. They gave the server to CrowdStrike or whatever it’s called, which is a country — which is a company owned by a very wealthy Ukrainian. And I still want to see that server. You know, the FBI has never gotten that server. That’s a big part of this whole thing. Why did they give it to a Ukrainian company?
HOST STEVE DOOCY: Are you sure they did that? Are you sure they gave it to Ukraine?
TRUMP: Well, that’s what the word is. That’s what I asked, actually, in my phone call, if you know. I mean, I asked it very point blank because we’re looking for corruption. There’s tremendous corruption. We’re looking for — why should we be giving hundreds of millions of dollars to countries when there’s this kind of corruption?
TRUMP: And if you look at my call, I said, you know, corruption. I think he said it to me. He’s looking. He got elected on the basis of corruption.
“They have the server, right”: Wrong.
“They gave the server to CrowdStrike or whatever it’s called”: Wrong.
“Which is a company owned by a very wealthy Ukrainian”: Wrong.
“The FBI has never gotten that server”: Wrong.
Trump doesn’t even get his own conspiracy theory right.
But the important part is this: Trump, despite everything that’s happened over the past two months, makes clear that the defenses of his actions as being broadly about Ukrainian interference are hollow. Trump cares about this particular thing, this wrong, debunked thing that he talked about over and over and over during the campaign, and that’s all.
At the end, he sort of shifts back onto his talking points, but even there he trips over his own feet.
“And if you look at my call, I said, you know, corruption,” Trump says, which he didn’t. He catches himself: “I think he said it to me.”
Yes. Zelensky, prepped by Trump’s team to offer the president corruption-related investigations to get that meeting, did pledge to Trump that he’d look into corruption. But Trump expressed no interest in corruption himself, never mentioning it once, because corruption wasn’t what he cared about. Corruption was the cover his team was using, even back in July, to explain why Trump wanted these probes, and they passed that frame on to Zelensky. But Trump pretty obviously didn’t care much about corruption at all, at least not in comparison to embarrassing Biden and undermining the Russia probe.
On Friday morning, Trump made that clear once again. All that hard work by Nunes, tossed out the window.