“To impeach a president, who 63 million people voted for, over eight lines in a call transcript is baloney,” Castor said.
This was an obvious misrepresentation of the allegations being leveled by Democrats. While Trump has frequently insisted that the transcript contains all of the information necessary to render a judgment, Democrats have consistently argued that the call is part of a pattern of behavior in which Trump and his team pressured Ukraine to launch investigations that would benefit the president politically.
During the full debate on the articles of impeachment Wednesday, Rep. Douglas A. Collins (Ga.), the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, similarly argued that the case didn’t boil down to part of the transcript. Instead, he offered a rapid-fire series of statements that he argued were exculpatory.
“I would remind this whole body that is more than eight lines,” Collins said. “In fact, there’s four facts. There was no pressure, there was no conditionality, they did nothing to get it, and they got the money. ”
It's a shorthand that requires some unpacking, so let's unpack it.
“There was no pressure.” Collins is arguing that Ukraine in fact wasn’t pressured by Trump to launch the investigations — that the country and Zelensky were free to ignore Trump’s request.
If this is true, it undercuts the first article of impeachment, which accuses Trump of abusing the power of his office by leveraging his position to compel Ukraine to launch the probes. If Ukraine didn't feel pressure, it's harder to argue that any power was being abused.
This claim depends on assertions from Ukrainian officials that they were under no pressure from the administration. It includes Zelensky’s own comment to reporters during a one-on-one with Trump on Sept. 25.
At first, he tried to demur.
“I think you read everything,” Zelensky said when asked whether he felt pressure. He was referring to the rough transcript, which had been produced that morning. “So, I think you read text. I — I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be involved, to democratic, open elections of U.S.A.”
Then, obviously aware of why the question was being asked, Zelensky denied being “pushed. ”
“No, you heard that we had, I think, good phone call,” he said. “It was normal. We spoke about many things, and I think, and you read it, that nobody push it. Push me. ”
“In other words,” Trump interjected, “no pressure. ”
The immediate problem with that summary is that Zelensky and other Ukrainian officials can’t be expected to honestly answer the question — because they are still under that pressure! David Holmes, a top staffer at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, explained why during his public testimony last month.
“Ukrainians understood that that’s something the president wanted, and they still wanted important things from the president,” Holmes said. “So I think that continues to this day. I think they’re being very careful. They still need us now going forward.”
From their first conversation, Zelensky made clear how eager he was for Trump to visit Ukraine. In the second conversation, the one in July, he repeatedly pushed for a visit to the White House. (He raised the subject again, somewhat acidly, when the two met in September.) The benefit to Zelensky as a new leader is obvious: showing that the United States supports his administration, a key demonstration, given Ukraine’s conflict with Russia.
Zelensky and his staff still need that. They’re not likely to antagonize Trump by publicly disagreeing with his assessment of their interactions. Particularly when sitting right next to him.
“There was no conditionality.” Collins’s next “fact” centers on a question touched on above, whether Trump conditioned official acts on Ukraine’s announcement of investigations.
It’s clear that at least one act — that White House visit — was directly and repeatedly conditioned on an announcement of investigations. In May, Trump tasked a team of officials with leading efforts in Ukraine in concert with his private attorney, Rudolph W. Giuliani. In late June, one of those officials, then-Ukraine special envoy Kurt Volker, reportedly told Zelensky that a meeting depended on the probes being launched. In early July, another official, Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, made the same connection in two meetings with Ukrainian officials. Immediately before the July 25 call, Volker texted an aide of Zelensky’s named Andriy Yermak to say that a meeting depended on Zelensky’s agreeing to investigations. That text message came after Volker received a message from Sondland, who had just spoken with Trump. Shortly after Yermak and Giuliani met in Madrid, Yermak and Volker discussed the probes-for-meeting agreement in another set of messages.
What’s murkier is whether aid to Ukraine, which was suspended in early July, was also directly used as leverage. Sondland at one point told Yermak that aid would resume only when the investigations were announced, but he claimed that he had reached that conclusion independently. (Holmes testified that Ukraine had probably come to a similar conclusion after hearing that aid was withheld.)
Collins’s argument depends on ignoring the meeting-for-probes evidence in favor of the aid-for-probes haziness. Needless to say, that’s not a fair rhetorical play.
“They did nothing to get it, and they got the money.” These points, too, get to the question of aid.
That Ukraine “got the money,” that it received the aid that had been appropriated by Congress without formally announcing the investigations suggests that there was no link between the two, right?
Imagine a different scenario. Imagine that a thief steals a priceless painting and offers to return it in exchange for $1 million. With the cops closing in, he throws the painting out the front door. Should he therefore not face any charges?
The scenario here is different, of course, but only subtly so. The aid was put on hold in July; Ukraine learned about the aid being held at some point later that month. Why didn’t they kick up a public fuss? As Catherine Croft, a Ukraine specialist at the State Department, testified, Ukraine wouldn’t want to draw attention to any suggestion that the United States’ support of the country was wavering — particularly because most of the aid was military. This, again, speaks to the pressure Ukraine was under.
It was released on Sept. 11 only after questions had been raised about the reason for the hold. On Sept. 5, The Washington Post editorial board for the first time publicly linked the aid stoppage to Trump’s desired investigations. On Sept. 9, House Democrats announced investigations into Giuliani’s efforts in Ukraine and the stoppage in aid. Trump and the White House were by then already aware of the fight brewing over a whistleblower complaint that centered on the president’s interactions with Ukraine.
With enemies closing in, Trump threw the aid out the door. Not all of it, mind you; more than $30 million was never disbursed.
Even the idea that Ukraine “did nothing to get it” is debatable. In August, Yermak, Volker and Sondland were working on a public statement announcing investigations, an effort that collapsed when Giuliani insisted that the investigations (the ones benefiting Trump) be specifically identified in the announcement. Within a few weeks, that evolved into another form. Zelensky was scheduled to be interviewed by CNN’s Fareed Zakaria in New York in mid-September, so the parties agreed that he should make the announcement at that point.
Once the aid was released, that announcement was still in the works. Holmes and acting Ukraine ambassador William B. Taylor Jr. pressed Yermak and Zelensky not to go through with the interview, worried that it would look as if they were weighing in on U.S. politics. According to Zakaria, it wasn’t until The Post’s first reporting about Trump’s interactions with Ukraine in mid-September that Zelensky finally pulled the plug.
In other words, Trump was on track to get what he wanted from Zelensky anyway when the aid was released on Sept. 11. It wasn’t just that he was throwing the aid out the door because his enemies were closing in. Trump also saw a big sack with a dollar sign printed on it sitting on his front step.
Collins’s delineation of the four arguments above was meant to rebut the idea that Republican arguments against impeachment hinged largely on process instead of the merits. Unfortunately, his arguments on the merit aren’t very good.
They are, however, better than insisting that Democrats are focused only on eight lines in the rough transcript.