Impeachment, Ukraine

All The President’s Defenses

Trump's defenses keep crumbling. And his apologists keep making up new ones.
November 19, 2019
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(Hannah Yoest / Photo: GettyImages)

Over the last several weeks Donald Trump’s impeachment defense has shifted numerous times. When he and his Republican defenders can no longer maintain an old position, they shift to a new one, without any recognition that something they once insisted on as true has been demonstrated to be false.

Let’s look at ten of these “defenses.”

(1) Nothing wrong with the July 25 phone call.

Dead.

The official White House summary of Trump’s July 25 telephone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky—not to mention subsequent statements by Trump himself—put an end to this argument. There is no longer any dispute that Trump asked a foreign country to investigate his likely opponent in 2020.

In fact, it’s worse than that. Trump’s real demand wasn’t so much about Ukraine investigating Biden as it was about Ukraine making a public statement, on U.S. television, that it was going to do so. Trump wanted a political advertisement from Ukraine. Whether or not there was a real investigation was secondary.


(2) Yes, Trump asked Ukraine to investigate Biden, but this request wasn’t tied to aid.

Dead.

The testimony of Trumper E.U. Ambassador Gordon Sondland (first revision of at least one more to come) killed this line. Sondland testified that he told a top Zelensky aide that “resumption of U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anti-corruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks.” There’s more here, but that one statement is enough.


(3) Yes, the investigations were tied to aid, but Trump was trying to fight corruption, not seeking political gain.

Dead.

Of all of Trump’s defenses, this is probably the most ludicrous.

There isn’t a hint of anti-corruption in Trump’s foreign policy. The word “corruption” wasn’t even mentioned in the July 25 phone call. Indeed, the testimony to date is far more consistent with attempts by Trump and his inner circle to attack corruption fighters, not corruption. Rudy Giuliani, in league with some of the most corrupt individuals in Ukraine, went after Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch precisely because he viewed her as an obstacle to obtaining a corrupt quid pro quo.

Moreover, the whole idea of leveraging foreign governments to clean up corruption is actively contrary to Trump’s hostility toward anti-corruption efforts in U.S. foreign policy. Trump has positively made excuses for the governments of Russia, China, and Saudi Arabia when they’ve been accused of corruption. When did Trump ever engage in an anti-corruption campaign or threaten to stop aid to Afghanistan, the Philippines, or even Ukraine (prior to tumbling on the Biden angle)?


(4) Trump only froze aid to Ukraine because he’s paranoid and vindictive—using the withheld aid to extort Ukraine only dawned on him later.

This is probably Trump’s most convincing argument, but it’s not really a defense, is it?

We have credible testimony that Trump hated Ukraine and believed that mid-level Ukrainian officials were out to get him.

But is there really such a thing as mid-level Ukrainians being “out to get” the president of the United States? Exactly how were they going to “get” him? Hasn’t the United States always been the party with the leverage in this relationship? Doesn’t some government official criticize leaders of other countries every day? So what?

So yes, this line of thinking is silly.

On the other hand, it’s perfectly plausible as a brain wave from the American president.

But the fact that Trump might have tumbled onto the aid-for-dirt extortion scheme only at some point after he had already decided to withhold aid out of spite doesn’t sound like a defense to me.

Saying that you only did something corrupt after you did something stupid doesn’t sound like any kind of defense.


(5) Yes, he fired Yovanovitch, but he replaced her with somebody equally honorable, William Taylor.

Dead.

The GOP members of the House Intelligence Committee tried to argue that Trump simply replaced Maria Yovanovitch with William Taylor, who was just as honorable.

The problem here is the timing. There was a full month between Yovanovitch leaving and the appointment of Taylor, during which time the control of Ukraine policy was wrested away from career professionals and placed in the hands of individuals more willing to do Trump’s bidding, the so-called three amigos: Rick Perry, Gordon Sondland and Kurt Volker.

There isn’t a scrap of evidence that Trump had Taylor in mind when he fired Yovanovitch. To the contrary, Trump is now faulting Secretary of State Pompeo for having hired Taylor and other State Department officials who have supplied damaging testimony against him.


(6) No harm, no foul because Trump ultimately released the aid.

Almost dead.

Trump only released the aid after the whistleblower’s report became known. If you kidnap someone, and then release them before the ransom gets paid, you still committed a kidnapping.


(7) There couldn’t be a quid pro quo, because Ukraine didn’t know the aid was being withheld.

Dead.

In fact, “word of the aid freeze had gotten to high-level Ukrainian officials by the first week of August,” just days after Trump’s July 25 phone call with President Zelensky. And the Ukrainians knew, at least as early as September 1 that lifting the freeze was linked to a public announcement of a Biden investigation shortly thereafter.


(8) There couldn’t be a quid pro quo, because Zelensky hadn’t done anything when the aid was released.

Dead.

Zelensky did do something to get the aid released. He agreed to announce an investigation of the Bidens on a U.S. television program.

Top Ukraine diplomat Bill Taylor testified that Trump wanted Zelensky in a “public box”:

“Trump through Ambassador Sondland was asking for Zelensky to very publicly commit to these investigations. It was not sufficient to do this in private, that this needed to be a very public statement.”

Although Zelensky thought that kind of interference in a U.S. election was a very bad idea, according to Fareed Zakaria, he “ultimately decided he would have to give in.” So he agreed to announce the investigations on television in the United States in an interview with Zakaria. He only called off the interview after Trump was forced by the whistleblower’s revelations to release the aid.


(9) It wasn’t Trump.

This one is in critical condition, though not yet on life support.

The degree of separation, if any, between Trump and the aid-for-dirt extortion scheme hasn’t been fully established.

There is no dispute that Trump asked Zelensky to investigate the Bidens. (That’s in the summary of the July 25 phone call, and Trump has admitted it.) And there’s no dispute that Trump ordered the withholding of aid to Ukraine.

But so far there is little first-hand evidence of Trump, himself, linking the aid to the investigation in an explicit quid pro quo.

Which is to say: Nobody has quoted Trump as saying to them, “Go tell Zelensky that if he wants military aid, he has to announce that he’s investigating the Bidens.” Of course, one of the hallmarks of Trump’s administration is that he conducts himself not like a normally corrupt politician, but like a gangster. He has demonstrated, time and again, that he is keenly interested in creating a wall of separation between himself and crimes committed on his behalf.

But that wall is starting to crack. David Holmes, a career U.S, foreign service officer stationed in Ukraine, testified last week that he overheard a July 26 conversation between Gordon Sondland and President Trump in which Trump specifically asked Sondland if Ukraine had agreed to investigate the Bidens. Sondland assured Trump that he had.

Holmes’ testimony is crucial in a number of ways. For one, it shows that Trump did, in fact, believe that he had obtained something from Zelensky that was vitally important to Trump: an agreement to investigate the Bidens. (This testimony is also another nail in the coffin of argument #8, that Zelensky hadn’t actually done anything in the aid-for-dirt scheme.)

But it doesn’t go all the way to linking Trump directly, through first-hand testimony, to the linkage between unfreezing the aid and announcing the investigations. Unless there’s more to Holmes’ testimony than is previewed in his opening statement, the “it wasn’t me” defense is only mostly dead.

Who can kill it?

Gordon Sondland for sure.

Sondland has admitted his personal involvement in both sides of the quid pro quo. He has testified that he told a top Zelensky aide that Ukraine “would likely not” get resumption of aid until Zelensky publicly announced, on U.S. television, that Ukraine was investigating the Bidens.

Tim Morrison, a senior NSC aide, has tied this to Trump, but not directly. Morrison testified that Sondland told him that he was frequently in touch with Trump, and was acting on Trump’s orders. This is damning testimony, but it is second-hand—Morrison heard it from Sondland, not Trump.

Sondland can supply the missing link connecting everything to Trump. If Sondland confirms that he was acting on Trump’s orders when he delivered the quid pro quo to Zelensky’s aide, the “it wasn’t me” will be all dead. At that point, Trump’s only defense is a he-said, she-said where he would claim that Sondland is lying to protect himself and that the only person telling the whole truth in this entire affair is Donald J. Trump.

If Donald J. Trump’s defense boils down to “I’m the only guy telling the complete truth,” he is in trouble.

Right now, it’s hard to imagine that Sondland won’t supply the missing link when (if) he testifies this week. Having already admitted to delivering the quid pro quo himself, it seems unlikely that he will fall on his sword for Trump, claiming that he did it entirely of his own accord, and then lied about this to Morrison.

Unlikely, but not impossible.

Not in Trump World.

Not in a gangster government.


(10) Impeachable shmim-peachable.

If you assume that Gordon Sondland (or somebody else close to Trump) will supply the missing link that fatally wounds the “it wasn’t me” defense, “not impeachable” will be Trump’s last stand.

The defense will go something like this:

“Okay, maybe it wasn’t right that Trump withheld aid in an attempt to get Ukraine to investigate the Bidens. But a ‘high crime or misdemeanor?’ Gimme a break. That’s just Trump being Trump, and no reason to overturn the 2016 election. This is a political issue that should be decided at the polls in 2020.”

The virtue of this defense is that it can’t be disproven. There are no facts involved, only opinions.

The vice of this defense is that it normalizes bribery, extortion, and self-dealing by a president of the United States.

Some defense.

Philip Rotner

Philip Rotner is a columnist whose articles appear in national publications and on his website, philiprotner.com. Philip is an attorney who has practiced for over 40 years, both in private practice and as the general counsel of a global professional services firm.  Philip’s views are his own, and do not reflect the views of any organization with which he has been associated.