The Ukraine scandal has been sitting in plain sight for months, and Donald Trump has made scarcely any effort to conceal his scheme. The president sent his personal attorney to urge Ukraine to investigate his political rival. That is a prima facie abuse of presidential authority. Trump has additionally told the news media that he withheld aid to Ukraine to force the country to address “corruption” and that by “corruption” he specifically means investigating the Biden family. There are probably other ancillary abuses of power as part of this scheme, and there may be some extremely serious ones, but it’s all icing on the cake.
In Trump’s defense, he and his allies were easily lured into admitting all their guilt because, for several months on end, nobody cared about it. Now that Democrats care enough to potentially impeach him, they are hastily constructing post hoc defenses.
Trump today told reporters that his real motive in holding up aid to Ukraine was to force other countries to give money to Ukraine also. Trump, you see, really loves Ukraine and wants it to have all the money. Sure, he withheld the aid, he admitted this morning, after newspapers had revealed that he’d personally orchestrated the plan, “but, very importantly, Germany, France, other countries should put up money, and that’s been my complaint from the beginning,” he said.
That was not his complaint from the beginning. It was not even his complaint as of yesterday, when he said he held up the aid because “it’s very important to talk about corruption [i.e., investigating Biden]. If you don’t talk about corruption, why would you give money to a country that you think is corrupt?”
Fox & Friends host Steve Doocy is trying out a slightly more subtle defense. Sure, he concedes, it would be wrong if Trump had literally told Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky himself that military aid was contingent on investigating Biden. But anything short of a quid pro quo in just those terms is okay:
It is highly unlikely Trump used that formulation. What he did was withhold the aid and repeatedly demand the investigation. In public, he has translated his demand into code — “corruption,” which he helpfully translated for the media yesterday. In early September, a reporter asked Mike Pence point-blank if he could “assure Ukraine that the holdup of that money has absolutely nothing to do with efforts, including by Rudy Giuliani, to try to dig up dirt on the Biden family.” Pence didn’t deny it. Instead, he reiterated the connection: “As President Trump had me make clear, we have great concerns about issues of corruption … To invest additional taxpayer [money] in Ukraine, the president wants to be assured that those resources are truly making their way to the kind of investments that will contribute to security and stability in Ukraine.”
The Doocy defense is that it’s not extortion unless you explicitly told the shopkeeper you’d break his legs unless he paid protection money. In the absence of an explicit statement between the two principals linking the payment to the threat, demanding protection money and threatening to break his legs are simply two disconnected negotiations.
The most creatively inspired defense comes via Byron York. The Washington Examiner columnist and self-appointed amateur Trump defense attorney argues, “The public does not know everything it needs to know about the Ukraine situation.” This is true, of course, and the reason the public doesn’t know everything is that Trump has suppressed the whistle-blower report that his own appointee deemed urgent and credible.
Democrats see the threat of impeachment as a lever to compel Trump to relinquish the information he has suppressed. York sees it as evidence that Democrats and the media are rushing to judgment: “The media is filled with the notion that the public already knows what happened” and are “act[ing] before finding out what happened.”
The rather glaring flaw in this reasoning is that, even though we don’t know the full extent of Trump’s abuses of power, we already know he has definitely committed some. There’s no world in which sending your personal attorney to demand a foreign investigation into a political rival is a legitimate exercise in presidential power. A full investigation may well produce even more evidence of misconduct. York is asking, How can you impeach the guy if he might have committed other crimes we don’t know about? And by the way, we don’t know about them because he’s hiding the evidence.
No doubt the finest minds in the conservative movement are hard at work devising more creative rationales for Trump’s behavior. Maybe he was engaged in a clever sting operation, pretending to offer Ukraine an unethical deal just to see if officials were corrupt enough to take it so he could bust them. Maybe the whole thing was just a dream. But it’s hard to defend your scandalous behavior when you spent several months on end happily boasting about what you were up to in the belief that there would be no consequences.
More on the Trump-Ukraine Scandal
- Trump’s Impeachment Trial and the Verdict of History
- Trump Fires Impeachment Witnesses Alexander Vindman and Gordon Sondland
- Trump Impeachment Hearing Schedule: What’s Next?