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?
While the Ukraine story that Trump is being impeached over remains a simple, over-confirmed one—that Trump held back military aid due to Ukraine in return for two “favors”, that they manufacture dirt against 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 create distraction: a lights-and-sounds show; a multitude of water-cannons shooting chaff across the air; sand thrown into every gear in sight. A circus, in other words.
Now I’m not much of a one for circuses. But I do like lists, and here’s my list of Republican excuses for Trump’s behavior.
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.
Whistleblower’s Complaint is “hearsay” [SEPT 26-Oct 6]
Flailing wildly 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 because, as the whistleblower himself acknowledged, he 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, 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.
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 of the Ukraine 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.
“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:
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.
“No Quid Pro Quo” [Sept 9-Oct 17]
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”. It got started when US Ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor questioned the extortion of Zelensky, calling it “crazy”: Ambassador Gordon Sondland spoke to Trump before responding five hours later with the Trump-tutored tag-line: “no quid pro quos of any kind”.
This remained the mantra right out of the gate after the whistleblower complaint went public. Talking points given to the Republicans by the White House 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. Republican Senator Ron Johnson expressed concerns that the way Ambassador Sondland had put it in a conversation, 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 opening 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. 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.
“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”.
[The “process” excuse, the “coup” excuse, the “corruption” excuse…all coming next. Follow this blog to be notified.]