Opinion | The Disorienting Defenses of Donald Trump – The New York Times

Opinion | The Disorienting Defenses of Donald Trump – The New York Times

The case for weighing the impeachment of President Trump boils down to a few simple points: In an effort to win re-election in 2020, Mr. Trump apparently attempted to extort a foreign government into announcing an investigation of his top political rival. The president did so while also trying to revive a conspiracy theory that casts doubt over whether the Russian government interfered in the 2016 election on his behalf. Witnesses have already testified that in order to achieve those goals, Mr. Trump withheld hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid against the bipartisan wishes of Congress. All the while, the president and his staff have refused to cooperate with the congressional investigation into what transpired.

Republicans find themselves in a tough spot. Lawmakers swear an oath to uphold the Constitution, which obliges them to act as a check on the executive branch and any abuses of its power. Yet instead of considering the testimony, many Republicans have chosen reflexively to defend Mr. Trump — not an easy task in the face of such strong evidence of inexcusable behavior.

Here’s a field guide to some of the lines of attack that Republicans have used so far. See if you can recognize them if they appear during the public hearings scheduled to begin this week.

There was no quid pro quo.

This was the first and cleanest defense of Mr. Trump’s July phone call with the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky. Mr. Trump and his allies offered it up after the White House released a partial summary of the call.

Yet no matter how many times Mr. Trump exhorts Americans to “read the transcript,” the call summary itself establishes that immediately after Mr. Zelensky brought up the military aid, Mr. Trump said he wanted him to “do us a favor though,” and then mentioned investigating the Bidens and a conspiracy theory about the Democratic National Committee server in 2016.

Don’t believe the president’s own words? Multiple government officials have attested that there was indeed a quid pro quo, and it involved the withholding of nearly $400 million in military aid to Ukraine until Mr. Zelensky agreed to go on TV and announce the investigations Mr. Trump wanted.

William Taylor Jr., the top envoy to Ukraine, testified to the House Intelligence Committee that it was his understanding that “security assistance would not come until [Zelensky] committed to pursue the investigation.” Representative Adam Schiff, the committee chairman, asked Mr. Taylor, “So if they don’t do this, they are not going to get that, was your understanding?” Mr. Taylor replied, “Yes, sir.” Mr. Schiff then asked him whether he was aware that a quid pro quo literally means “this for that,” and Mr. Taylor replied, “I am.”

How could it have been a quid pro quo if the Ukrainians didn’t know about it?

John Ratcliffe, a congressman from Texas, tried this line on Fox News last month, which the president tweeted. No witness, Mr. Ratcliffe said, “has provided testimony that the Ukrainians were aware that military aid was being withheld. You can’t have a quid pro quo with no quo.’”

Except the Ukrainians did know. The Times reported that “the Ukrainian government was aware of the freeze during most of the period in August when Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer Rudolph Giuliani and two American diplomats were pressing President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine to make a public commitment to the investigations.”

This week, Gordon Sondland, ambassador to the European Union, testified that he explicitly told a top Ukrainian official that release of the aid was contingent on a public announcement of an investigation.

It’s all just hearsay. And the whistle-blower is a partisan Democrat.

Not just hearsay, but “triple hearsay.” This argument first appeared in October, as the outlines of the whistle-blower’s complaint came into focus. “Today was just more triple hearsay and selective leaks from the Democrats’ politically motivated, closed-door, secretive hearings,” said the White House Press secretary, Stephanie Grisham.

What about the anonymous whistle-blower? The president’s allies and conservative media outlets have been speculating about the person’s identity and motivations. But the truth is that the whistle-blower could have been Joe Biden himself at this point. What matters isn’t the motivation but the substance of the complaint. Virtually every element has been corroborated by multiple people.

It was a quid pro quo. But so what? This happens all the time.

“Did he also mention to me in passing the corruption related to the D.N.C. server?” Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, offered this during an October news conference. “Absolutely. No question about that,” he said. “That’s why we held up the money.”

For good measure, he added, “Get over it.”

To their credit, not even Mr. Trump’s most steadfast allies have signed on to this particular defense, at least not yet. Mr. Mulvaney, realizing the depth of the hole he had dug, later claimed he had not said what he said. Still, his claim did serve one important function, which was to pivot the administration’s basic case away from “no quid pro quo” to “yes, quid pro quo, but so what?”

It was a quid pro quo, but President Trump was only interested in rooting out corruption in Ukraine.

It’s difficult to imagine Mr. Trump — who just agreed to a $2 million settlement for using his own charity as the family A.T.M. — as an anti-corruption crusader. It’s that much harder to buy given that he has not expressed a similar concern with corruption in any other country, including the United States. Also, Mr. Trump appears to have cared less about an actual investigation than a televised announcement of one.

No one outside the president’s party appears to believe that anti-corruption was the objective. In closed-door testimony before Congress on Thursday, George Kent, the State Department’s top Ukraine official, said there was no doubt what was going on: Mr. Trump “wanted nothing less than President Zelensky to go to microphone and say investigations, Biden and Clinton.” This was wrong, Mr. Kent said. “As a general principle, I do not believe the U.S. should ask other countries to engage in politically associated investigations and prosecutions.”

It was a quid pro quo, but Mr. Trump had nothing to do with it.

“When I get to ask questions, and when you see all of the transcripts, you will understand that there is no direct linkage to the president of the United States,” said Mark Meadows, a Republican congressman from North Carolina.

Mr. Meadows was quick to point the finger at Mr. Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer. “There are a whole lot of things that he does that he doesn’t apprise anybody of.”

It’s true that Mr. Giuliani has been openly talking about efforts to get Ukraine to investigate the Bidens since earlier this year. But Mr. Taylor also testified that Mr. Giuliani, who is under criminal investigation by federal prosecutors, was acting on behalf of Mr. Trump.

The same day Mr. Taylor’s testimony was released, Mr. Giuliani wrote on Twitter that he was acting “solely as a defense attorney to defend my client against false charges.” In September, he told The Washington Post, “I don’t do anything that involves my client without speaking with my client.” Of course, Mr. Giuliani can’t withhold military aid to a foreign power. As Mr. Taylor testified, “The directive had come from the president.”

Fine. It was a quid pro quo. Trump ordered it. He did so for his own political benefit. The Ukrainians knew about it. That’s bad, but it’s not an impeachable offense.

Seriously? As described so far by several witnesses, President Trump’s behavior, consorting with a foreign government for his own personal benefit, is literally what the framers had in mind when they established the power to impeach a president for high crimes and misdemeanors. Whether that warrants removal from office is another matter.

It wasn’t a real quid pro quo because the Trump administration is too disorganized to pull off such a scheme.

Senator Lindsey Graham said this last Wednesday. “What I can tell you about the Trump policy toward the Ukraine, it was incoherent, it depends on who you talk to. They seem to be incapable of forming a quid pro quo. So no, I find the whole process to be a sham and I’m not going to legitimize it.”

“I hardly know the gentleman.”

This is Mr. Trump’s go-to excuse when, as so often seems to happen, the people he surrounds himself with implicate him in wrongdoing or get accused of malfeasance themselves. On Friday, Mr. Trump made this assertion about Mr. Sondland, his ambassador and a million-dollar donor to Mr. Trump’s inaugural committee.

That’s the same Gordon Sondland whom Mr. Trump called “a really good man and great American” only one month ago. That was just before Mr. Sondland’s original testimony to Congress, during which he claimed he was not aware of any quid pro quo involving military aid. After multiple witnesses called this account into question, Mr. Sondland suddenly remembered that, yes, in fact, there had been a quid pro quo, and that he had personally delivered that message.

This is a coup by the Deep State! A decorated American soldier is a Ukrainian agent! The witnesses who have testified are “Never Trumpers”!

The barrage of allegations and finger-pointing is so frenzied that it is disorienting for anyone trying to keep up. That’s the point. Let’s hope the hearings this week help sort truth from all the many lies.

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