Republicans have been complaining loudly over the lack of a “war room” in the White House to coordinate the party’s impeachment message. The basis for their concern is growing increasingly obvious. Like army squads trapped behind enemy lines, Trump’s soldiers are operating on their own, improvising tactics without centralized coordination.
I have surveyed the heroic efforts of the finest minds the conservative movement has to offer to mount defenses of their leader. The campaign is not going well.
The Wall Street Journal editorial page seizes on Trump’s inability to fully carry off his extortion scheme as reason to let him off. “Many people in the Administration opposed the Giuliani effort, including some in senior positions at the White House,” it argues. “This matters because it may turn out that while Mr. Trump wanted a quid-pro-quo policy ultimatum toward Ukraine, he was too inept to execute it. Impeachment for incompetence would disqualify most of the government, and most Presidents at some point or another in office.”
Some Republican officials have echoed this defense. “Name me one thing that Ukraine did to release the money. Nothing,” said Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, “To have a quid pro quo, you have to exchange, both sides, for another thing.” Representative John Ratcliffe says, “You can’t have a quid pro quo with no quo.”
This is the defense originally made famous by Sideshow Bob: “Attempted murder,” now honestly, what is that? Do they give a Nobel Prize for “attempted chemistry”?
There are two problems here. First, Trump used not one but two points of diplomatic leverage: He withheld both military aid and a White House meeting with Ukrainian President Zelensky, which the latter hoped would serve as a signal of support to Russia. The meeting still has not taken place.
It is true that, after Trump’s extortion scheme was exposed, despite his attempt to cover it up, he had to release the aid. But contrary to Sideshow Bob, attempting to commit a crime — whether murder, bribery, or other things — is still very much a crime.
Quid pro quos have always been a feature of U.S. foreign policy — from the long-ago Louisiana Purchase to more recently President Barack Obama’s sending the Iranian regime $1.7 billion in cash, which was central to the controversial U.S.-Iran nuclear “deal.” Quid pro quos are sometimes excellent and obvious, sometimes controversial, sometimes illegal.
The rather obvious difference is that this deal, unlike the other ones, was made not in an attempt to promote the national interest, but specifically to help Trump’s political agenda. Later in the same column, Hewitt stumbles across this crucial distinction between normal diplomatic deals and corrupt ones. “There is an ocean of innuendo about Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, whose conduct on TV is often intemperate,” he writes, “but there are no credible allegations of wrongdoing against the man who made private inquiries in Ukraine on the president’s behalf.”
No credible allegation of wrongdoing? The allegation is that he made private inquiries in Ukraine on the president’s behalf. It’s right there in the sentence you just wrote, Hugh! If Trump was pursuing a legitimate foreign-policy goal, it would have been handled by the foreign-policy bureaucracy, not the president’s personal lawyer representing his interests. There’s a reason diplomacy is supposed to be conducted by foreign-policy officials who are vetted and paid by the U.S. government, not by Russian gangsters.
Ben Shapiro suggests that Trump can “argue plausibly that Burisma was part-and-parcel of his general anti-corruption concern.” The problem here is that Trump does not have a “general anti-corruption concern.” Quite the opposite. His long-standing view about corruption is that it’s simply how business gets done. He has called for eliminating the federal law prohibiting American businesspeople from bribing foreign officials, sought to cut funding for anti-corruption programs oversees, collected payments from interested foreign and domestic parties, refused to disclose his financial interests, and allied himself with the most corrupt figures in Ukraine. To the extent he has any colorable claim of opposing corruption, it would be in the fact that Joe Biden’s son traded on his father’s name, except Trump’s kids are doing the same thing right now.
Trump’s use of “corruption” is not “part and parcel” of anything. It is in its entirety a pretext to discredit his domestic rivals.
Trump famously declared he wouldn’t lose any support if he shot somebody on Fifth Avenue. The crucial dynamic here is that if he did try this, while conservatives might initially experience some dismay, they would quickly recover and produce the same counterarguments. The Journal would be pointing out that the person he shot is in critical but stable condition and might well survive, thereby clearing Trump of murder. Hewitt would be noting that Andrew Jackson in the War of 1812, U.S. Grant in the Civil War, and Teddy Roosevelt at San Juan Hill are all examples of other presidents who have shot people. Shapiro would suggest Trump was perhaps just pursuing his long-standing interest in fighting urban crime.
With such innovative minds at work on his behalf, why does Trump even need a war room?