/The Best Trump Defense

The Best Trump Defense

Donald Trump

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Opinion

October 30, 2019

Rich Lowry is editor of National Review and a contributing editor with Politico Magazine.

Republicans have had trouble mounting an effective defense on Ukraine because they haven’t put down their stakes on the most defensible ground.

Complaints about House Democrats’ less than transparent impeachment process, though justified, were clearly perishable because eventually Democrats would have to have some sort of more regular proceedings in public. The contention that President Donald Trump’s phone call to the Ukrainian president was “perfect,” as Trump put it, was never going to withstand scrutiny, not when, obviously, a bunch of people were freaked out about it in real time. The line that there was “no quid pro quo” has become steadily less defensible as more testimony has emerged suggesting that Trump withheld security aid to Ukraine in the hopes that Ukraine would make a statement announcing an investigation into the 2016 election and the gas company Burisma and Joe and/or Hunter Biden.

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The best defense Republicans can muster is that nothing came of it. An ally was discomfited and yanked around for a couple of months before, ultimately, getting its defense funding. Just because a scheme isn’t carried out, it doesn’t make the scheme any better, but the gravity of the underlying offense must be weighed. Getting the Ukrainians to say publicly that they were going to investigate the energy company Burmisa was not — as is often loosely said — the same thing as digging up dirt on former Vice President Joe Biden.

All of this bears some resemblance to Trump’s alleged obstruction of justice during the Mueller investigation. How could Trump obstruct a probe that reached its natural conclusion under the auspices of his own Justice Department? He hated the investigation and wanted it to go away, and even plotted against it, but at the end of the day, Robert Mueller did his work. More specifically, the Ukraine mess is lot like Trump’s order, or purported order, to then-White House counsel Don McGahn to fire Mueller. After drama, confusion, internal contention and tragicomedy, nothing happened.

One of the hallmarks of the Ukraine maneuverings last summer is confusion about what U.S. policy was, and who was making it and how determined they were to get the Ukrainians to agree to investigations. This is a symptom of the back channel represented by Rudy Giuliani operating on a separate track from official channels, but also of a legitimate dispute about what the U.S. approach toward Ukraine was until the very end, when the defense funding was released this Sept. 11.

According to Ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor, security assistance didn’t come up in a meeting between then-national security adviser John Bolton and Ukrainian President Vlodymyr Zelensky on Aug. 27, about a month after Trump’s phone call and about two weeks before the funding was released.

When Vice President Mike Pence visited and met with Zelensky on Sept. 1, 10 days before the funding was released, Pence said “President Trump wanted the Europeans to do more to support Ukraine and that he wanted the Ukrainians to do more to fight corruption,” according to Taylor’s statement.

Also per Taylor, two U.S. senators who visited on Sept. 5, less than a week before the hold was dropped — Ron Johnson and Chris Murphy — told the Ukrainians to be careful about maintaining their bipartisan support in the United States. In Taylor’s telling, as late as early September, Ukrainian officials were asking why the funding was being withheld, and their U.S. counterparts couldn’t tell them. Meanwhile, the hold was widely opposed within the U.S. government. As Taylor put it, “At every meeting, the unanimous conclusion was that the security assistance should be resumed, the hold lifted.”

Indeed, officials at the center of Ukraine policy were scheming against the scheme to get Ukraine to commit to the investigations. In a Sept. 1 call, Taylor said, “I asked Ambassador [Gordon] Sondland [the U.S. ambassador to the European Union], to push back on President Trump’s demand. Ambassador Sondland pledged to try.”

Taylor also said that Bolton encouraged him to take his concerns to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Sondland said in his opening statement — which now has some big credibility problems — that he told him the same. At one point, special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker, helped the Ukrainians draft a statement that mentioned Burisma and the 2016 election, but then they backed off. According to Volker, “ I agreed – and further said that I believe it is essential that Ukraine do nothing that could be seen as interfering in 2020 elections.”

Now, Volker may be giving himself the best of it, but the Ukrainians never made a statement. The rejoinder to all this is that the secretive, ambiguous and confused nature of the interaction with the Ukrainians may well point to a cognizance of its impropriety. True enough, but the offense here shouldn’t be exaggerated. It’s not as though Trump was asking the Ukrainians to frame anyone, or give him bags of cash, or buy advertisements in swing states. It wasn’t attempted treason or taking a bribe.

The sought-after announcement of an investigation into Burisma, a company with a demonstrably shady past, wouldn’t have constituted an investigation into Joe Biden, or even an investigation into Hunter Biden. Trump surely would have used such an announcement to argue that Hunter Biden is corrupt, but you might have noticed that Trump is arguing that Hunter Biden is corrupt, regardless.

What Volker portrayed as his relatively relaxed attitude appears to have been vindicated, at the end of the day. He said in his opening statement, “I believed the decision would ultimately be reversed. Everything from the force of law to the unanimous position of the House, Senate, Pentagon, State Department, and NSC staff argued for going forward, and I knew it would just be a matter of time.”

He was right. You might say, with good reason, it never should have gotten to this point. What you can’t say is that the money was ultimately kept from the Ukrainians, or that they opened an investigation of the Bidens.

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