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Unlike the Trump-Russia probe, the president’s enablers don’t have an attorney general who can whitewash the Ukraine scandal the way Barr did with the Mueller report. That has left congressional Republicans scrambling on their own.
All of the process issues that have been raised about the impeachment inquiry will soon be undermined as the deposition phase gives way to public testimony. Even before that happens, the facts of the case demonstrate that not only did Trump pressure a foreign government to damage his political opponents, military aid to that country was upheld as a quid pro quo.
Knowing that it will be their responsibility to conduct a trial following House impeachment, Senate Republicans are scrambling for a new defense. The one they’ve come up with is a perfect example of everything that is dangerous about the Trump presidency.
A growing number of Senate Republicans are ready to acknowledge that President Trump used U.S. military aid as leverage to force Ukraine to investigate former vice president Joe Biden and his family as the president repeatedly denies a quid pro quo.
In this shift in strategy to defend Trump, these Republicans are insisting that the president’s action was not illegal and does not rise to the level of an impeachable offense as the Democratic-led House moves forward with the open phase of its probe.
These Senate Republicans are planning to say, “Yes, he did it. So what?” There are two components to their argument.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who ran against Trump in 2016, said a quid pro quo is not illegal unless there is “corrupt intent” and echoed [Senator John Neely] Kennedy’s argument that such conditions are a tool of foreign policy.
“To me, this entire issue is gonna come down to, why did the president ask for an investigation,” Kennedy, who worked as a lawyer, said in an interview. “To me, it all turns on intent, motive. … Did the president have a culpable state of mind? … Based on the evidence that I see, that I’ve been allowed to see, the president does not have a culpable state of mind.”
That is the argument picked up by Bryan York, who suggests that Trump’s release of the memo about his call with Ukrainian President Zelensky demonstrates that the president had no “consciousness of guilt.” What they are proposing is that Trump used the withholding of military aid to pressure a foreign government to investigate his opponents, but in doing so, he didn’t have a “culpable state of mine.” That would amount to a pretty classic case of sociopathy.
The other way Senate Republicans plan to use this new argument is to suggest that there is nothing wrong with using a quid pro quo in this situation.
“We’ve done quid pro quos a lot of times,” [Senator Kevin Cramer] said. “… The question isn’t whether it was quid pro quo; the question is: Was it corruption?”
“[Trump] honestly believes that there may have been corruption in Ukraine, and before he turns over $400 million of American taxpayer money, he’s entitled to ask,” Kennedy said, later adding, “The issue to be litigated … is going to be: Did the president have a good-faith reason to believe that Hunter Biden may have been involved in corruption? And if I’m correct in my analysis, then there will be a lot of time spent on what Mr. Biden did for the money.”
That is the argument Steve Bannon made during an interview with Anderson Cooper. As Senator Kennedy explained, it would accomplish what Trump was attempting to do with his extortion of Ukraine by putting the Bidens on trial in the Senate, rather than the president.
Cooper provided the rational response to that by suggesting that, of all the corruption in Ukraine, the only two incidents that Trump zeroed in on for his quid pro quo just happened to involve his political opponents here in the United States. But Kennedy and Bannon don’t care about rational arguments. Their goal is to muddy the waters and get everyone talking about the Bidens.
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In the end, the focus of these arguments is not to counter the facts of Trump’s corruption and abuse of power, but to normalize it. David Frum explained why that is so dangerous.
The new defense is an eyes-open defense of extortion, an eyes-open defense of the president using the nation’s money, the nation’s weapons, the nation’s alliances as his own private property for his own selfish purposes. That’s the definition of corruption…It says, “OK I’m not going to deny evident facts. I’m just going to make my peace with those facts. It’s all true, but it doesn’t bother me enough to do anything about it.”…The “Yeah, so what?” line of defense will be harder to retreat from – and harder for the country to recover from.
The idea that Republicans would embrace that position shouldn’t surprise us. They basically did the same thing with the Mueller report, as Representative Adam Schiff pointed out in his speech that launched the “YouMightThinkItsOK” hashtag.
Schiff called on our country’s moral conscience and said, “I do not think that conduct, criminal or not, is OK. And the day we do think that’s OK is the day we will look back and say, ‘that is the day America lost its way.’”
Given that they can no longer rely on facts and evidence, the arguments being floated by Republicans to defend Trump are an attempt to muddy the waters—once again suggesting that what he did is OK. Are any of them willing to pull back from the brink of being complicit in normalizing corruption, abuse of power, and obstruction of justice? That is the question that every Senate Republican will soon face.
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Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.
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