Excuses, excuses!

Remember when Trump’s call with Ukraine leader Zelensky was “perfect” with “no quid pro quo” except that his Chief of Staff said yes, there was a quid pro quo, it happens all the time and we all need to get over it? Remember when Republicans stormed the SCIF, courted arrest, and ordered pizza—but the hearing they tried to block still took place, if delayed?

While the Ukraine story that Trump is being impeached over remains a simple one—that Trump held back Ukraine’s military aid in return for two “favors”: that they announce an investigation into Biden, and exonerate Russia from the 2016 election attack—Republicans under the glare of scrutiny have twisted this way and that, scrambled to find one excuse after another, watched their excuses crumble, and scrambled to find new ones, even though they might contradict the old ones.

None of it matters, because the idea is to confuse and obfuscate: a lights-and-sounds show that will distract from the basic fact that Trump has no good defenses left. All of these excuses have been debunked by experts and some actually contradict each other.

1. Zelensky phone call was “perfect”

(Sept 20-24)

Before the Whistleblower’s Complaint went public, Trump’s allies actually urged him to release the transcript of his July 25 call with Zelensky, under the notion that nothing untoward actually happened and the transcript would show that.

The article linked above does not name the “allies” in question, but some reporting suggested one of them was Mitch McConnell, and that AG Bill Barr also thought it was a good idea. Trump himself touted the notion that his call was “perfect”, “nice”, and “innocent”.

Of course the “perfection” of the phone call was belied by the actions of White House staff after it. Half a dozen people raised concerns immediately after the call, and alerted White House lawyer John Eisenberg. He, famously, chose to improperly bury the call record in a highly classified server and told officials to hush it up. They also chose to replace certain words and phrases with others or with ellipses to make it less incriminating.

2. Whistleblower’s Complaint is “hearsay”

(Sept 26-Oct 6)

Flailing in the days after the complaint was released, the right-wing media, GOP electeds in Congress, and Trump shied away from addressing the substance of the complaint, preferring instead to focus on the fact that the whistleblower (as he himself acknowledged) did not listen in to the July 25 Zelesky call as it was happening, but rather got information from a half a dozen staffers who did.

Many senators were faintly dismissive, using the “hearsay” argument as a hook. “It strikes me as someone who doesn’t have personal knowledge of what he’s talking about,” John Cornyn (R-TX) said. The complaint was “second- and third-hand,” Chuck Grassley (R-IA) said. Tim Scott (R-SC) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA) even suggested that unknown staffer might not even count as a whistleblower and perhaps should not be given whistleblower protections. Trump himself called the complaint a “fraud” and the whistleblower a possible “leaker and a spy“.

Strangely, the best evidence that the Whistleblower’s Complaint was accurate came the day before it was publicly released (and over and over, since), from the call summary, released by Trump himself. His own appointed DNI and IC Inspector General both found the complaint credible enough that both made criminal referrals and the IG informed Congress. By October 6, there was news of a whistleblower with first-hand knowledge troubled by the call. That ended the hearsay excuse.

3. The “secret gutting of the first-hand requirement”

(Sept 27-30)

The Federalist, right-wing news site that often spreads misinformation (who funds the Federalist?), created a kerfuffle that lasted about four days when journalist Sean Davis suggested that an obscure Intelligence Community form that required whistleblowers to have first-hand knowledge had been changed very recently, right around the time the whistleblower’s complaint was filed.

It spread like wildfire across the right-wing ecosystem. House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy tweeted about it. Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow pushed a conspiracy theory on Hannity’s show that this form was changed specifically in order to make the complaint permissible, suggesting that it was a Deep State coup. Trump himself tweeted out the Federalist article saying “WOW, they got caught!” and an all-caps “WHO CHANGED THE LONG-STANDING WHISTLEBLOWER RULES…”. His tweet was promoted by Russian propaganda website RT.

Within a day, the notion had been debunked by experts and journalists. The underlying rule had not changed since 2014. There isn’t, and has never been, a “first-hand requirement”. Within three days, the Trump-appointed Inspector General had felt the need to issue a statement to correct the misinformation, essentially putting the whole thing to bed.

4. “Adam Schiff wrote the whistleblower complaint”

(Oct 2-Oct 4)

The way this story morphed from a journalistic report about a routine procedure into an inflamed accusation about COLLUSION! can offer a master-class to an aspiring propagandist.

On October 2nd, the New York Times reported that the whistleblower had approached Adam Schiff’s committee for advice after his initial report to the CIA’s head lawyer appeared to go nowhere. He received advice from an aide on how to file it without divulging what the underlying complaint was about.

Despite the original story stating clearly that the aide followed proper procedures on the advice, right-wing outlets (including our friend Sean Duffy from the Federalist) twisted it into headlines blaring that the whistleblower “colluded” with Democrats. From that to “orchestrating”, as GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy suggested.

Rep. Stefalnik was pretty tame in contrast, calling it “reckless behavior” by the Chairman of House Intelligence Committee, on which she serves:

Trump went further, claiming that Adam Schiff “helped write it” in response to a question from Fox News. A Facebook post went even further, claiming that Pelosi and Schiff “devised” the complaint.

The debunking began right away. That Facebook post was flagged as “false” in concert with Politifact. Republican Senators Chuck Grassley and Richard Burr defended the whistleblower. Rachel Maddow, in her appearance on The View, calmly explained the unutterably routine nature of the contact between the whistleblower and Schiff’s committee:

Such contact between potential whistleblowers and Congressional Committees is utterly routine and happens two or three times a month, Maddow explained; and the procedures the committees suggested the whistleblower should follow were by the book.

5. “No Quid Pro Quo”

(Aug 31-Nov 20)

The “No Collusion” mantra worked so well for Trump during the Mueller investigation that he was out early with the new version: “No Quid Pro Quo”. Much like “No Collusion”, while the words meant one thing, his actions demonstrated the opposite. Trump’s supporters have flaunted this denial (obscured by Latin), while in reality explicitly carrying out his true intent.

In August 2019, Sen. Ron Johnson, a Republican, became very concerned that the aid to Ukraine was being held up. This was to be expected, because Johnson is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, the very committee that spearheaded the Ukraine military aid through Congress. He got concerned enough to call Trump directly on August 31st. What he heard from Trump is the classic double-speak: he strongly denied a quid pro quo, while affirming that he would only release aid if the Ukrainians coughed up the investigations he wanted.

On September 7th, on a phone call with Amb. Gordon Sondland, once again Trump insisted: “no quid pro quo“—while laying out a de facto quid pro quo demand: that in order to free up aid, President Zelensky himself would have to make an announcement about starting an investigation into Biden—an announcement from the Prosecutor General would not suffice. Despite the “no quid pro quo” smokescreen, the content of the call showed a quid pro quo. It concerned NSC official Tim Morrison enough that he went to the NSC counsel with the information.

On September 9th, Charge Bill Taylor questioned the extortion of Zelensky, calling it “crazy”. As their texts show, Amb. Gordon Sondland, who was the only one of the diplomats in direct touch with Trump, got back five hours later with a strongly-worded denial, purportedly from Trump himself: “no quid pro quo’s of any kind”.

According to Sondland’s testimony, during that call with Trump, he also added: “I want nothing. I want nothing. I want Zelensky to do the right thing.” These words showed up verbatim in Trump’s Sharpie notes to himself as he went to the podium on a November 20th press conference. If it seems odd that Trump would need notes to remind himself of what he himself purportedly said, yes, it is odd indeed. In fact, it may be that this call never happened, and Trump needed verbatim notes to remind himself of what Sondland claimed he had said.

It is important to remember that by time Trump started pushing this slogan, he had already been briefed on the whistleblower’s complaint. It was always a cover story—and formed the early set of talking points. Talking points given to the Republicans by the White House when the whistleblower’s complaint went public contained “no quid pro quo” prominently. Republicans from Chuck Grassley to Pat Toomey and Mark Meadows pushed it every chance they got. It could have been great! Simple, clean, consistent.

But the excuse crumbled quickly. Special Envoy Kurt Volker’s testimony released on Oct 3 clearly showed an attempt to extort Ukraine. Sen. Johnson admitted that it sure sounded like a quid pro quo. Even on Fox News, Republican member of the House Intelligence committee Chris Stewart was challenged on the no quid pro quo excuse based on the released texts.

Then, OMB head Mick Mulvaney held an hour-long press conference where he blew it all out of the water. He boasted that they did indeed hold back aid in return for Zelensky announcing an investigation into 2016 US elections. He also informed us that this is how things are normally done and that we should get over it. To top it off, he also said that there were concerns that they were perhaps breaking the law: the Impoundment Act, to be specific. While he tried to back away from his own words later that evening, the “no quid pro quo” excuse never achieved the clear ring of a bell again.

Amb. Sondland drove the last nail in: during the opening statement of his November 20th hearing before the House Intelligence Committee, he affirmed that there had been a quid pro quo sought, and laid out the elements of it.

6. “Quid Pro with No Quo”

(Oct 23)

A variant of the “no quid pro quo” was the excuse that the Ukrainians didn’t know that military aid was withheld.

How can you call it extortion if the party being extorted doesn’t know it is being extorted? Trump highlighted a statement from Rep Ratcliffe (at one point his choice for DNI) in a tweet:

Rep. Ratcliffe’s statement on Fox and Friends was itself a twisting of Ambassador Bill Taylor’s testimony to the House Intelligence Committee in a closed door deposition. Bill Taylor reported that the Zelensky administration initially did not understand why their promised aid had not come through—not that they were unaware that aid was withheld. On the contrary, it was painfully clear to them that their military aid had not reached their coffers.

That excuse was killed in the crib by a New York Times article reporting that “word of the aid freeze had gotten to high-level Ukrainian officials by the first week in August”. Further, on November 21st, DoD official Laura Cooper testified that the Ukrainians were already asking about the hold on the expected military aid by July 25th, the very day of the Trump-Zelensky phone call.

7. “Impeachment is illegitimate because the House hasn’t held a vote

(Oct 1-Oct 28)

Right out of the gate, the Republicans put up a firewall in response to the House’s impeachment inquiry. The White House argued that the inquiry was illegitimate and no documents would be forthcoming from them. Sec of State Pompeo called the inquiry an attempt to “intimidate and bully” in a scathing letter and refused to provide documents or permit State employees to testify.

But how do you refuse a subpoena? Simple. You just say the subpoenas are not subpoenas! The argument went like this: since the full House hasn’t voted on starting an impeachment inquiry, it isn’t really an impeachment inquiry, merely a song-and-dance routine, as Andrew McArthy, former US Attorney and Republican spin doctor, wrote in The Hill. And any subpoenas sent out under the aegis of the inquiry aren’t subpoenas, merely pieces of paper.

GOP House members went with the argument Andrew McArthy laid out. The pushback seemed well-orchestrated—Rep Michael McCaul, Ranking Member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, wrote to his counterpart, Rep. Eliot Engel; while GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy wrote to his, Speaker Pelosi. Both spoke with one voice: this is not an impeachment inquiry. It is illegitimate.

This was a short-sighted gambit, as ought to have been obvious from the start. Since Pelosi had the votes in the House, she could have held the vote at any time, as she eventually did, on October 28th. Besides which, several State Dept employees broke the firewall. They sent documents/texts over to the House in response to subpoenas and showed up to testify in private. These included George Kent, Marie Yovanovich, and Fiona Hill.

The gambit to prevent anyone from testifying led to only the witnesses least friendly to the President testifying, as was foreseeable from the start. This is why it was not a very good gambit.

8. “Trump doesn’t have due process in House Intelligence hearings

(Oct 11-Nov 21)

Compared to the House Republicans’ rather focused legalistic pushback, White House Lawyer Pat Cipollone’s letter to the House leaders read as wild, frantic, and decidedly un-lawyer-like. Sure enough, it turned out that Trump wrote or dictated major parts of it despite it being purportedly signed by the White House Lawyer.

It argued that since the President was not permitted to have his counsel present during the House Intelligence depositions in order to cross-examine witnesses, or view transcripts and evidence, he was being denied due process.

They have kept up this drumbeat throughout, with other Trump boosters making variants of this same argument. Some, like Rudy Giuliani who is actually being investigated for his role in events intimately connected with impeachment:

Others, like Federalist Society lawyer Steve Calabresi, who explicitly named the 6th amendment as the particular rights being violated.

The problem with this arguments is explained here and here: due process/6th amendment applies to criminal proceedings, which this is not one of. The process in the House Intelligence is the fact-collecting phase, akin to Grand Jury proceedings that lead to an indictment. Counsel for the accused is certainly not present in this phase—and it is carried out in secret. The venue for “due process” for Trump will be at the Senate trial, if one occurs, where Trump’s counsel will be invited, and permitted to cross-examine witnesses.

9. The storming of the SCIF: “Secret hearings”

(Oct 14 – Oct 23)

One one side were the sober depositions given by career foreign service officials testifying to wrongdoing by the President. On the other side: the antics of House Republicans intended to disrupt, deflect, and distract from what was going on inside the secure basement room.

Rep. Matt Gaetz of FL led the charge. Claiming that he had the right to be included in the proceeding (even though he is in none of the three committees that were holding the depositions), he demanded to be let in. True to his Trumpian roots, he threw out nicknames like “kangaroo court” and “Shifty Schiff” when he was thrown out.

National Security official Fiona Hill was being deposed in the secure facilities at that time. Later, when the transcript from that deposition was released, we see that Gaetz only left the room when Adam Schiff told him to “absent himself” and threatened that the time wasted by him would come out of the Minority’s questioning time.

A week or so after his first attempt to storm the hearings, Gaetz gathered an army of three dozen House Republicans to demand entry into the secure facilities, self-consciously comparing it to the charge of the Spartans in the movie 300. They ordered pizza, attempted to take their cell phones where not permitted, hosted a press conference—and disrupted DOD official Laura Cooper’s testimony for about five hours.

Later, we learned that storming the SCIF was an express strategy for the cameras that Trump supported, and that Gaetz was courting arrest—though House Democrats did not take the bait.

Of course, the entire “Brooks Brothers Farce”, as independent journalist Marcy Wheeler called it, was based on nonsense. As she explains, 12 of the 41 Republicans involved in the “charge” are members of the committees holding the hearing, so they could have simply entered in the normal way. 27 of the 41 voted in 2017 to not permit such protests on the House floor, let alone inside the SCIF. Committee chairs generally set the rules about who is permitted into committee hearings, so Schiff was not breaking any rules; in 2015, Republican Benghazi Committee Chair Trey Gowdy threw fellow Republican Darrell Issa out of a similar hearing for the same reason.

10. “Different rules in House Judiciary from the Nixon/Clinton impeachments”

(Oct 31-Dec 6)

On October 31st, the House established rules for Trump’s impeachment. Trump reacted instantly on Twitter calling it the “greatest witch hunt in American history!” Republicans from Sen. Inhofe to Rep. Scalise to Rep. Steil complained that Trump was not getting the same due process protections as Nixon and Clinton did during their impeachments.

Politifact rated this claim “Mostly False” but the details are fascinating.

The rules adopted by Nadler’s committee were indeed quite similar to the Nixon and Clinton impeachments, with one key difference: Trump’s counsel will only be allowed to participate in requesting and cross-examining witnesses if they break the stonewall and start providing documents to the inquiry.

No photo description available.
A comparison chart provided by the House Judiciary

Now I am but a simple country non-lawyer, but his makes eminent sense to me. In fact, it is a logic trap. If Trump wants to send his lawyers to perform his defense, he is in essence accepting that the inquiry is legitimate. If so, there can be no excuse to refuse subpoenas. Yes, some documents could be covered by executive privilege, but that privilege has to be invoked in specific areas, which they have not done.

On the other hand, if the White House blanketly refuses all subpoenas, they are not participating in the process at all, so there is no reason to unilaterally disarm and give them due process.

Under these rules, Chairman Nadler invited Trump to inform them if they intend to participate in the process. On December 6th, which was the deadline, the White House lawyer Pat Cipollone turned down the offer to participate. So that’s that. One can hardly complain about not being given due process when one isn’t accepting the invitation to participate.

11. Attempts to out the whistleblower

Consider a tipster who calls in a burglary in progress. The cops arrive and find the stolen goods, they obtain public confessions by the burglars and plenty of first-hand witnesses.

What about the tipster? His unpaid tickets, personal history, drug addictions, are all irrelevant. For the people who are glad the burglary was foiled, the anonymous tipster was a dutiful citizen who called in to right a wrong. For the burglars, the tipster is a stinking rat, who must be exposed and threatened so that no other passers-by dare call in a burglary again.

And that’s where we are.

Trump has consistently asked for the whistleblower to be outed, even though he has faced threats to his life. Trump claims the whistleblower “defrauded the American public“—a charge (Conspiracy to Defraud the United States) that his own former campaign manager Manafort was found guilty of. His supporters in Congress like Senator Rand Paul have called the whistleblower partisan and a Biden man, as though a tipster’s political leanings matter given that the complaint can be verified with first-hand witnesses. Trump and Rand Paul have also claimed that Trump has a right to face his accuser—the whistleblower—in court. But this is a lie that got four Pinocchios from the Washington Post fact-checker. If and when articles of impeachment are sent to the Senate, it will be the House that is the accuser, and Trump’s lawyers will have a chance to defend him at the trial.

More egregiously, Republicans in the House actually tried to out the whistleblower multiple times during hearings. While questioning Lt Col Vindman, Ranking Member Nunes tried to bully him into revealing the name of the whistleblower by demanding he plead the fifth unless he was willing to answer, until Chairman Schiff stepped in to say that the whistleblower has the right to statutory anonymity.

Rep. Jim Jordan later did the same, while insinuating that Chairman Schiff was lying about not knowing the identity of the whistleblower:

Besides, despite the Republican pretense that their interest in the whistleblower is merely a matter of fact-finding, they gave the game away when they turned down an offer from the whistleblower’s lawyer to have them answer written questions instead of appearing in person. If information is all they wanted, rather than to publicly out and humiliate the anonymous official, they would have jumped at the offer.

Trump’s GOP defenders, whether elected officials or voters, are able to live with a great deal of cognitive dissonance. Therefore you see spectacles like these—on the one hand, they have claimed that the whistleblower’s complaint is hearsay because the anonymous official did not attend the call, therefore can’t be trusted. On the other hand, they keep up the pretense that hearing from the whistleblower in person is of utmost importance. Somehow, both these thoughts live inside the same heads without nullifying each other.

12. “Bad but not impeachable

(Oct 10 – Nov 10)

A fascinating Washington Post report on a particular lunch meeting attended by Republican Senators begins like this:

A growing number of Senate Republicans are ready to acknowledge that President Trump used U.S. military aid as leverage to force Ukraine to investigate former vice president Joe Biden and his family as the president repeatedly denies a quid pro quo.

Washington Post, Nov 1, 2019

This was a trial balloon sent up by Senate Republicans once the “no quid pro quo” and its variants had crumbled. It involved acknowledging that what Trump did was wrong, but not admitting that it rose to the level of impeachment.

No one can doubt the Republican ability to turn into pretzel shapes in their defense of Trump. But occasionally when the task becomes too monumental even for them, this is the defense they resort to. Sometimes it emerges as a concern-trolling recommendation to Democrats to censure Trump and leave it at that. (It is important to remember who this protects—Senate Republicans, who will have to take a politically-toxic vote either way: either to acquit a criminal, or convict the base’s darling. A vote to censure avoids the need for a Senate trial altogether.)

Of course, what these arguments leave unsaid: the implicit suggestion is to permit voters to decide the question during the election of 2020. This is clearly not going to work, because in part what Trump is being impeached for is asking a foreign government to help him cheat in that very election. As Tim Miller once said:

It is akin to the Tour de France saying that the verdict on Lance Armstrong’s doping should be whether or not he still wins the bike race he was just caught cheating in.

Tim Miller, Bulwark, October 17

But ultimately, this defense might suffer from another quite fatal flaw: that their “client” Trump does not brook any criticism whatsoever. He tweeted out a very deflating response to this trial balloon:

13. “Trump did not know what Rudy, Sondland, and Mulvaney were up to

(Nov 7 – Nov 20)

As the more basic excuses had fallen away—Trump did ask the Ukrainian President to investigate Biden; aid was indeed held back; the Ukrainians knew that aid was held back, and repeatedly tried to free it up; and process arguments weren’t sticking, or stopping impeachment—Republicans road-tested a new one.

It was clear by early November that the Ukrainians had been extorted. But by whom?

Rudy Giuliani had confirmed his involvement in the Ukraine/Biden endeavor during multiple cable appearances through the summer and fall. CoS Mulvaney stepped up to the podium and admitted his own role freely in mid-October. And Amb. Sondland—in early November, he rocked GOP defenses by amending his testimony to admit that he had, indeed, conveyed to the Ukrainians that they would have to cough up the public announcements President Trump was seeking in order to release aid.

Although Sondland put forth this revision on November 5th as a mere matter of his memory being refreshed, it is clear that he had to do something in order to square his denials with the testimonies of diplomats who had fully reported his role.

Not only were these three actors implicated, they were the only three with a direct line to Trump, thus the only three who had the power to implicate him directly. Even with his amended testimony, it appeared that Sondland had carefully shielded Trump’s role, saying that he took his instructions from Rudy Giuliani, as he was instructed to do by Trump (thereby putting Trump at one remove).

So House Republicans tested the “freelancers” excuse—that Rudy, Sondland, and Mulvaney were free-lancing their extortion of Ukraine without Trump’s knowledge. This was already a very weak defense. Rudy had been all over for months saying he was acting on behalf of his client, Trump—and Trump clearly told President Zelensky to “work with Rudy”, as he did Sondland.

But then came Sondland’s hearing on November 20th. In it, he laid out that not only was “everyone in the loop” regarding the quid pro quo with Ukraine, but also that Trump directed them.

While Republicans still tried to frame this as a “presumption” on Sondland’s part, two other witnesses: Tim Morrison from the NSC, and Charge Bill Taylor, attested that Sondland conveyed very specific instructions from Trump after his September 7th call with Trump: that in order to free up aid, it would not be enough for the Prosecutor General of Ukraine to make an announcement about opening an investigation into Biden: President Zelensky would have to do so personally. As is apparent from released texts, Sondland spoke to both Trump and Zelensky multiple times during this period in order to pull off the quid pro quo. It is not possible for him to have been mistaken in his understanding of Trump’s specific instruction.

Could Sondland be lying in order to implicate Trump, rather than being mistaken? Pointedly, although this testimony has been in the public record for weeks, no one in the White House has spoken up to correct Sondland—neither Trump, nor his lawyers. They have let his testimony stand.

14. The funds were ultimately released, “no quid in the pro quo”

On September 11th, with Zelensky poised to surrender to Trump’s demands and announce on CNN that he would be opening investigations—using a statement scripted by US diplomats, no less, like a hostage video—Trump abruptly released the hold on military aid. Thus, Zelensky “got lucky” and never needed to make the announcement.

Republicans have used the release of aid to argue that there was no quid pro quo (or bribery) intended. Clearly this argument is flawed, because the law does not treat, for instance, an attempted murder more leniently than a murder consummated. The notion that a thwarted crime is in any way exculpating is so absurd that Jonathan Chait nicknamed it the “Sideshow Bob defense” after the Simpsons character.

Rep. Jordan went further. He claimed that all Trump had wanted was to ensure Zelensky was on the up-and-up; once he had determined that, he released aid on his own.

But this narrative leaves out some very key events. There was contemporaneous reporting that Congress had discovered that aid was being withheld, causing alarm among Senators. Sen. Durbin threatened to hold back $5 billion in Pentagon funding—this played a major role in getting aid released. Later, we found out that the White House had been briefed on the whistleblower’s complaint, and concerns had been raised within about its legality, when he finally released the aid.

It also leaves out the fact that President Zelensky still has not gotten the Oval Office meeting that was also withheld in return for “favors”.

Increasingly, it looks as though Trump released the aid, as Rep. Adam Schiff said, because he got caught.

15. “Trump wanted to make sure Ukraine was fighting corruption”

Ultimately, all defenses of Trump were destined to end in this. It comes full circle from “perfect call”. This is the defense Trump always wanted his defenders to mount, and now, with the House Republicans response to the HPSCI inquiry, they have done it. And it is now the main defense that Republicans offer on cable news appearances.

It goes like this: “Everything Trump did in extorting Ukraine was to ensure that Ukraine was taking up some particular anti-corruption measures. Biden really was corrupt in his actions in Ukraine (debunked). Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election against Trump (also debunked). Crowdstrike—the security firm that first reported on Russia’s attack is owned by a Ukrainian (wrong). The “server” might be found in Ukraine (incorrect, also nonsensical).”

Even if these theories were false, Trump believed them—therefore, holding back aid was not a political ploy, but rather a national interest one.

This is an absurd defense. Let’s make it crystal clear why, because at first glance one might find it beguiling.

First, we do not ask foreign countries to investigate US citizens. We have a perfectly good DOJ for this purpose, under Trump’s hand-picked AG Barr, no less. Asha Rangappa explains further.

Second, in rule-of-law countries, as we purport to be, the President does not get involved in particular investigations. This is the job of the Justice Dept and Presidents are supposed to be at arms’ length.

Third, the deliverable that Trump demanded from Zelensky was not the opening of an investigation, but rather, an announcement on CNN about opening an investigation. A real investigation would shy away from public announcements, as they are meant to be secret. That alone shows that Trump’s goal was a political hit job rather than a rigorous investigation.

Fourth, as Samantha Vinograd explains here, “there is an entire State Department bureau—the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement (INL)—focused on law enforcement efforts overseas, including investigating corruption.” Why was this bureau not included in his effort, if this was a valid concern?

Another legitimate route would have been to go through Bruce Schwarz, the Deputy Assistant Attorney General for International Affairs, as the Mutual Legal Assistance treaty requires. Did the request for investigation into Biden ever make it up to his office? No, it did not.

Fifth, if this was a valid foreign policy goal and Trump was doing just what a President ought to do, why was US foreign policy not changed to reflect this? Why were diplomats, OMB officials, and NSC officials left in the dark about it, frantically trying to determine why aid was blocked? If all was on the up-and-up, why did Trump resort to his off-the-books personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, with help from the indicted Parnas and Fruman, to carry out valid US foreign policy?

As Fiona Hill testified, she learned at a certain point that while she and other non-partisan officials were involved in a national security/foreign policy effort, people who should never have been involved were given a domestic political errand—and their goals were opposed. Official US foreign policy remained as it always had been, to aid Ukraine in their war against Russia. While the domestic political errand involved blocking that aid.

Sixth, if this was a change in foreign policy as set by the President, why did he not inform Congress that he had doubts about the aid package they had passed? Instead, Senators were left wondering what the hold-up was. Congress is in charge of appropriations. In order to secure an aid package for Ukraine, by law, the Pentagon had to certify Ukraine on anti-corruption measures—as they had. Instead, aid was blocked under a veil of secrecy about the reasons behind it.

In fact, blocking the aid after Congress had passed it is a violation of the Impound Act. The concern over breaking the law is why two unnamed OMB officials resigned.

Seventh, what has Ukraine done in the meantime to have freed up the aid? There has been no announcement made on Biden investigations nor on any 2016 election investigations. And yet, aid has been freed up. Why? This is often held up as an exculpatory act—that after all, the quid pro quo did not succeed. In fact, it is solidly incriminating: they released the aid once they were caught.

And finally, eighth: if the claim is that aid was held back as a matter of foreign policy, it means that there was a quid pro quo, but it was a justified quid pro quo. If so, why did Trump say multiple times that there was none, instead of mounting the Mulvaney “I ordered the Code Red” defense—yes, dammit, there was a quid pro quo, I ordered it, and it was great! Instead, defenders from Trump’s legal team to Republican in Congress and Barr’s DOJ gasped collectively at Mulvaney’s press conference, and not only stepped back from it gingerly themselves, but also made Mulvaney go out and clean it up the next day.

The truth is, Trump has no defense. He was stepping out of line, and he knew he was stepping out of line. He extorted Ukraine in order to dirty up Biden’s political fortunes. But he hid the extortion from the rest of the US government, choosing instead to rely on his personal lawyer to carry out his domestic political errand.

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