Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.) led the way last week by arguing that Trump hadn’t even asked Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate his political rival in their July 25 phone call:
Here’s her exchange with CNN’s Manu Raju:
RAJU: Is it ever okay for an American president to ask a foreign power to investigate a political rival? Why do you think that’s okay?LESKO: He didn’t – he didn’t do that.RAJU: He did ask Zelensky –LESKO: He did not do that.
Trump not only specifically requested an investigation of Joe Biden in that July 25 call with Zelensky — he said, “Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution, so if you can look into it ... It sounds horrible to me” — but he also asked China and Russia to take similar actions at other junctures. Trump said publicly, “And by the way, likewise, China should start an investigation into the Bidens.” He also, in 2016, asked Russia to find and turn over Hillary Clinton’s missing emails, saying, “Russia, if you’re listening: I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.” Trump said the last one was a joke; the events since then sure seem to call that into question. Trump has now asked three countries to look into his political rivals.
Lesko’s fellow Republican, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), was asked a similar question by CBS News on Tuesday, and he had another take: That Biden wasn’t Trump’s opponent.
“He’s not the campaign rival,” Meadows said. “There’s a whole lot of Democrats that would disagree with you. A whole lot of Bernie [Sanders] supporters that are watching right now that would suggest that that’s not the case.”
.@nancycordes: "Is it appropriate for the president to ask a foreign country to investigate an American citizen who appears to be his campaign rival?"— CBS Evening News (@CBSEveningNews) December 18, 2019
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC): "He's not his campaign rival...there's a bunch of Democrats that would disagree." pic.twitter.com/BOQUtnlVFG
Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) then echoed the argument on the House floor. “Joe Biden was not the opponent of Donald Trump," King said. "He’s in a 21-way primary.”
It is true that Biden hasn’t won the Democratic nomination. But he is indisputably Trump’s campaign rival, as are all of the Democrats running. Trump himself has made clear he views Biden as a rival, devoting lengthy portions of his speeches to attacking Biden. Meadows’s implication is that Trump didn’t have a personal motivation to push for investigating Biden, which is patently ridiculous.
Even the White House has admitted the aid was withheld. On the House floor Wednesday, Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) maintained not just that military aid to Ukraine wasn’t used as part of a quid pro quo but also that the aid wasn’t withheld.
“And in the end, what was the result? Articles of impeachment based on an event that never happened,” Cole said. “A purported quid pro quo that did not exist. Aid that was allegedly withheld, that in reality was never withheld at all.”
Stunning revisionism from Rep. Tom Cole: "Aid that was allegedly withheld, that in reality was never withheld at all."— Chris Cameron (@ChrisCameronNYT) December 18, 2019
This is false, and out of line with even the official Republican defense outlined in their report that Trump was acting on “genuine and reasonable” skepticism. pic.twitter.com/YweEgKyNhX
If we’re being charitable, perhaps Cole was just inartfully saying that the aid was eventually released. But it was unquestionably withheld — for nearly two months — and he says it was “never” withheld.
Even the White House has admitted the aid was withheld. In his infamous October news conference admitting the aid was withheld as part of a quid pro quo — which he later recanted — acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney said the aid was indeed withheld and that it was okay to tie it to one of Trump’s investigations. “Then [Trump] also mentioned to me, in the past, that the corruption related to the DNC server?” Mulvaney said. “Absolutely, no question about that. But that’s it. And that’s why we held up the money.”
Mulvaney at another point referred to “when we cut the money off.”
In the same comment, Cole also notably denied there was any quid pro quo, and others joined him in that Wednesday. “The transcript speaks for itself: There was no quid pro quo,” Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.) said. Added Rep. Jim Baird (R-Ind.): “The president did not commit any crimes. He did not break any laws. And there was no quid pro quo.”
Except that there rather clearly were quid pro quos, as multiple witnesses have attested and as Mulvaney himself momentarily confirmed. It has been extensively shown — including in text messages we can see with our own eyes — that a White House meeting for Zelensky, in particular, was understood by the Ukrainians to be tied to announcing the investigations. Now, you could say that Trump hasn’t personally been proved to have ordered the quid pro quos. But there were quid pro quos, and according to multiple witnesses in both cases, they were communicated to Ukraine.
And, really, that’s a nice little coda to this whole thing. Trump’s first denial when the Ukraine scandal burst into public view was that there was “no quid pro quo.” And even after everything we’ve learned, a few Republicans are still willing to toe that line.