As Trump's impeachment looms, Republicans struggle to find a coherent defense

Nov 6, 2019 at 1:00 am
About 90 percent of Republicans oppose impeaching President Donald Trump.
About 90 percent of Republicans oppose impeaching President Donald Trump. Lev Radin/

In a mostly party-line vote Thursday, the House of Representatives passed a resolution establishing ground rules for the ongoing impeachment inquiry, allowing the release of deposition transcripts, providing opportunities for the president's lawyers to present evidence, and setting up televised public hearings just in time for Thanksgiving.

This, of course, didn't stop House minority whip Steve Scalise from complaining about "Soviet-style impeachment proceedings." Other Republicans argued that Democrats were "abusing the process" or that, because no Republicans voted for the inquiry, it's no more than a partisan sideshow.

Even so, now that the impeachment inquiry is officially official, we should be getting a sense of how the White House and its allies plan to defend Donald Trump against mounting evidence that he withheld military aid as leverage to get Ukraine to dig up dirt on his political rivals. What we're actually seeing, however, is not one defense, but a scattershot of defenses, some contradictory, some conspiratorial, some that seem culled from a Reddit thread, all led by a president who refuses to admit the possibility that he did anything inappropriate, let alone illegal.

As best I can tell, there are four at play: (1) No quid pro quo. (2) Sure, a quid pro quo, but it wasn't illegal. (3) An attempted quid pro quo, but that doesn't count. (4) Hell yeah, a quid pro quo, but it was a good thing, because The Truth Is Out There, man.

The first defense belongs to Donald Trump, and increasingly, to Donald Trump alone. In his mind, and on his Twitter feed, the July phone call with Ukraine's president — in which, according to the White House's edited account of the conversation, he conditioned aid on an investigation into a conspiracy theory that the Ukrainians framed Russia for the 2016 DNC hack and urged an investigation into the Bidens — was "perfect." There was nothing inappropriate about it, no quid pro quo.

Since Trump did no wrong, everyone who says he did must be part of a conspiracy. The whistleblower, Trump tweeted Monday, "must be brought forward to testify." The top Ukrainian expert on the National Security Council who testified that he was told Trump would only meet with Ukraine's president if Ukraine opened the investigations Trump demanded is a "Never Trumper," Trump has asserted, as if that has any bearing on the substance of his testimony.

The no-quid-pro-quo line has become a bridge too far for even some loyalists. After all, even the best news the White House got last week — that a Trump appointee to the NSC said he didn't think there was anything illegal about the call with the Ukrainian president — also came with the confirmation that Trump froze military aid to pressure Ukraine to investigate his enemies.

That brings us to defense no. 2: The quid pro quo happened, but it wasn't criminal (or impeachable). The Washington Post reported that, during a private Senate GOP lunch last week, some senators pitched this line of attack — "the U.S. government often attaches conditions to foreign aid and that nothing was amiss in Trump's doing so in the case of aid to Ukraine." As Sen. John Kennedy (R-Louisiana) told the Post, "To me, this entire issue is gonna come down to, why did the president ask for an investigation. To me, it all turns on intent, motive."

This defense would work better if Trump didn't stomp on it. On Sunday, Trump tweeted that the story was "false." Perhaps a quid pro quo wasn't impeachable, he said, but it doesn't matter because there wasn't one.

Then there's defense No. 3, that Trump's conspiracy failed, so no harm, no foul. Per The Wall Street Journal's editorial page: "Democrats want to impeach Mr. Trump for asking a foreign government to investigate his political rival for corruption, though the probe never happened, and for withholding aid to Ukraine that in the end wasn't withheld."

It's true that Trump released the money just before the scandal broke, but the fact that he got caught before his extortion scheme bore fruit hardly speaks to a presidential temperament. Besides, his efforts to stoke an investigation in Ukraine continue. Just last week, NBC News reported, Rudy Giuliani was in Ukraine meeting with a former diplomat who alleges that Ukraine's government conspired with the DNC to hurt Trump in 2016. At the same time, a group of Russia-friendly Ukrainian parliamentarians are seeking an investigation into whether their country set up Trump's former campaign manager Paul Manafort, now a resident of a federal prison.

Giuliani tweeted last week that "frenzied" Democrats are "covering up because it's bigger than you think."

And herein lies the last line of defense, that there is a grand conspiracy yet to be unraveled, connecting the Deep State and the Obama administration and Joe Biden and the DNC and Ukraine and Russia and George Soros and probably Cigarette Smoking Man from The X-Files.

Trump's die-hards are pinning their hopes on John Durham, the prosecutor Attorney General William Barr tapped to investigate the investigators who first looked into the Trump campaign's ties to Russia, an effort — like Giuliani in Ukraine — to discredit the Intelligence Community's conclusion that Russia interfered in the 2016 election on Trump's behalf. Over the weekend, The Independent reported that, based on Barr's requests to British intelligence services, officials there believe "they are basically asking, in quite robust terms, for help in doing a hatchet job on their own intelligence services."

As incoherent as they seem, these defenses are all aimed at a singular audience.

Over the weekend, NBC and Fox News released polls showing that 49 percent of voters believe Trump should be impeached and removed from office. But both polls also showed that about 90 percent of Republicans oppose impeachment. And as long as that's the case, the White House's bet is that there's no way the Republican-led Senate will convict Trump, so long as there's a thin reed to cling to.

Anything will do, really.