White House

The Wrong Defense

President Donald Trump speaks about the House impeachment investigation at the White House in Washington, D.C., October 7, 2019. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

President Trump’s impeachment defense isn’t working.

True to his smash-mouth style, honed in years of litigation and tabloid wars in New York City, Trump has insisted he did nothing wrong, in fact that his call with Ukrainian president Zelensky was “perfect.” His most loyal allies have taken up this line, and supporters wearing “read the transcript” T-shirts have been arrayed behind Trump at his rallies.

The problem with this defense on the merits is that the call wasn’t perfect. It was so clearly inappropriate that most of the professionals listening in real time were alarmed. The problem as a practical political matter is that maintaining the “perfect” line allows the president’s critics to score easy points every time another insider emerges to say he was disturbed by the call.

Meanwhile, Republicans have leaned heavily on the “no quid pro quo” argument that quickly emerged after the rough transcript of the call was released. The call doesn’t include an explicit quid pro quo, but it is suggestive of one, certainly combined with the unexplained withholding of defense aid to Ukraine. Here, too, more and more evidence has emerged — EU ambassador Gordon Sondland’s revised testimony is the latest example — that the aid package was conditioned on Ukraine’s committing to investigations that Trump wanted.

Overall, the White House and Republicans have been violating the first rule of a good defense counsel, which is not to deny things that are undeniable. It erodes your credibility and makes it harder to mount a better defense on other grounds.

It’s also important to distinguish between the things Trump was asking of the Ukrainians.

He was within his rights to urge the Ukrainians to cooperate with Attorney General Bill Barr’s probe into the origins of the Russian story (although the president was fixated by the outlandish theory that the Ukrainains, not the Russians, were behind the 2016 email hacking). What crossed a line was pushing them to look into the Bidens, and leveraging U.S. resources to do it. The focus on this front became Burisma, the energy company on whose board Hunter Biden sat. There’s no doubt that the company has a shady past. But the contention that the president was merely interested in pursuing Ukrainian corruption is clearly pretextual, since this concern hasn’t been evident elsewhere in his foreign policy.

The ultimate question regarding all this is whether the president’s conduct constitutes a high crime and misdemeanor justifying Trump’s impeachment and removal from office. This is where Republicans are on firmer ground: The answer is “no.” It has to matter that, at the end of the day, the harm of this episode was minimal or nonexistent. The Ukrainians got their defense aid without making any statement committing themselves to the investigations. Indeed, the administration’s effort to get them to do it was ambiguous, confused, internally contentious — and ultimately abandoned.

Many Republicans feel, for understandable reasons, that Ukraine is just the latest excuse for Democrats who never accepted Trump’s election to try to pry him from office before the end of his term. They’d do themselves a favor in resisting this push if they adopted a sound, truthful defense.


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