At the time of the call, multiple witnesses were perplexed about why Trump was holding up military aid to Ukraine. Others couldn’t understand why Trump was reluctant to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in the Oval Office. They testified that when they heard the call or read its transcript months later, it all clicked for them. Trump was holding these things back to get Ukraine to investigate his political opponents.
Democrats have taken that a step further: The call itself is evidence that Trump was leveraging the power of his office and official diplomatic tools to help his reelection bid.
So how are Republicans defending Trump’s call now that it’s a central piece of evidence against him? And where does their defense fall short? Let’s review some of the main things they said in Wednesday’s House Judiciary Committee hearing.
Defense No. 1: Trump asked Zelensky for a favor for the country, not for him
This defense centers on Trump’s first ask to Zelensky in the call, which comes right after Zelensky mentions getting more weapons from the United States. “I would like you to us a favor, though, because our country has been through a lot, and Ukraine knows about it,” Trump replied.
A couple of Republican lawmakers said that Trump was talking about how the Mueller investigation had put the country through “a lot,” and therefore he wanted Ukraine to help. (The call took place the day after special counsel Robert S. Mueller III testified to Congress about his findings in the Russia investigation.)
Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) said: “Here, the president’s talking about the country. That’s what he’s talking about.”
Where this falls short: Even if you agree with the unsubstantiated premise that the Mueller report was driven by politics rather than facts, it makes no sense that Trump would want another country to help him out here. What was Ukraine going to do to try to heal partisan divisions in the United States wrought by Russian interference and the ensuing investigation?
What’s more likely is that Trump was trying to place his request to investigate Democrats in the context of the Mueller investigation, which he considered unfair to him. We know the Ukraine allegations were derived from trying to undermine Mueller.
Defense No. 2 and 3: Zelensky said the call was okay, and he eventually got his military aid
Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) made these dual defenses in one sentence: “Zelensky has said there was no pressure on me, and the aid came through within six weeks after the phone call in question was made.”
Where that falls short: It ignores timing and context. Zelensky has a strong motivation to say he didn’t feel pressured on the call with Trump. There’s evidence that the Ukrainians may have at least suspected their military aid was held up when Trump talked to their president. And Zelensky still hasn’t received an Oval Office meeting with Trump, which would go a long way toward helping him fight Russian-backed separatists. His country is at war. Zelensky can’t afford to upset Trump by accusing him of wrongdoing.
Defense No. 4: Trump doesn’t say “investigate Democrats to get your money” on the call
Here’s Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Tex.): “So if military aid or security assistance is part of that quid pro quo, where in the July 25 transcript does President Trump ever suggest that he intends to withhold military aid for any reason?”
Where that falls short: Trump didn’t have to be that explicit for Ukraine to know what was going on. Even if Ukrainians didn’t know for sure that Trump had held up their military aid, they knew an Oval Office meeting hung in the balance of what was said on this phone call. Trump also asks for some of the investigations as Zelensky brings up military aid.
National security experts have testified that when the president of the United States asks “for a favor, though” from a smaller country reliant on the United States to help fight its battles, it’s not a “favor.” It’s a demand.
“In this case, the power disparity between the two leaders, my impression is that in order to get the White House meeting, President Zelensky would have to deliver the investigations,” testified Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the White House’s top Ukraine expert, who listened in on the call.
Defense No. 5: In subsequent meetings with Zelensky, no one demanded a quid pro quo
Here’s Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio): “But you know what did happen in those 55 days that the aid was paused? There were five key meetings between President Zelensky and senior officials in our government. … None of those five meetings was aid ever discussed in exchange for an announcement of an investigation into anybody, not one of them.”
Where this falls short: It’s just not true, especially when you zoom out to conversations Trump officials say they had with Zelensky’s aides.
- European Union Ambassador Gordon Sondland testified that Zelensky asked about aid when meeting with Vice President Pence in September.
- After that meeting, Sondland told a Zelensky aide that they needed to announce political investigations to get their military aid.
- Other testimony suggests that diplomats in Trump’s orbit told Zelensky in early July there was a quid pro quo to get his White House meeting.
- At one of those meetings Jordan outlines, a September meeting between two U.S. senators and Zelensky, Zelensky asks about the aid again, the New York Times reports. He was told only Trump could release it.
In fact, there was so much communication between Washington and Ukraine about all of this that Zelensky had an interview set up with CNN to announce these political investigations — which witnesses testified he didn’t want to do — and it got scuttled only when the whistleblower complaint came out.