Trump’s Defenses Are Worse Than No Defense At All

In our own ways, Nancy and I both covered the subject of the president’s crumbling excuses yesterday. It was an obvious take to explain why 30 House Republicans stormed a secure room in the Capitol to disrupt the testimony of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense.

Everywhere you care to look, people are repeating the old saw about lawyers pounding the table when both the facts and the law are against them, and the congressional sit-in on Wednesday fit the bill. I suppose the stunt energized the president’s defenders, but daily tactics don’t add up to a long-term strategy.

Some time after 2 p.m., Mr. [House Minority Whip, Steve] Scalise and several of his fellow protesters re-emerged to complain to the assembled media about the “Soviet-style tactics” of the inquiry.

The entire spectacle was a circus — which was the point. This was a publicity stunt aimed at delegitimizing the impeachment investigation that Mr. Trump and his defenders have portrayed as a partisan inquisition. If a few rules and national security precautions got violated along the way, so be it.

The biggest flaw with Trump’s strategy so far is that he’s been using messaging that has no staying power. At first, he focused on the anonymous CIA whistleblower and anybody who might have talked to him. But, almost immediately, the White House confirmed the substance of the whistleblower’s complaint by releasing a “transcript” of his call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky. That rendered the source of the tip irrelevant, and subsequent testimony before Congress from direct witnesses has completely eliminated any need to hear anything more from the original source.

Trump next explained that he didn’t want to release money or arms to Ukraine until he was assured that they were going to do more to address corruption. This was supposedly the key reason why aid was held up. But there is now plenty of testimony that corruption was not the focus of negotiations with the Ukrainians, and on Wednesday reporting from the Washington Post destroyed Trump’s claim by demonstrating how he wanted to severely cut all the anti-corruption money in the budget for Ukraine.

Then there’s the news the New York Times broke on Wednesday that debunked Trump’s insistence that the Ukrainians couldn’t have been extorted over military aid because they did not know the aid was being withheld. The problem here is that they actually did know.

Numerous news outlets, including The Hill, are reporting that Republican senators are getting a little nervous watching this spectacle. As a result, they’re falling back on the supposed lack of transparency argument that animated the House Republicans’ sit-in.

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said on Wednesday that it was difficult to draw “hard, fast conclusions” from a top U.S. diplomat’s closed-door testimony but that the “picture” from initial reports was “not a good one.”

“The picture coming out of it based on the reporting that we’ve seen is, yeah, I would say not a good one,” Thune told reporters when a reporter characterized William Taylor’s testimony as “troubling.”

“But I would say also that, again, until we have a process that allows for everybody to see this in full transparency, it’s pretty hard to draw any hard, fast conclusions,” Thune added.

But this argument, too, doesn’t have much of a future.

House Democrats are preparing to move their largely private impeachment inquiry onto a more public stage as soon as mid-November and are already grappling with how best to present the complex Ukraine saga to the American people…

…Among the witnesses Democrats hope to question in open session are the acting ambassador to Ukraine, William B. Taylor Jr., and his predecessor, former ambassador Marie Yovanovitch…

…Another top priority for many Democrats is John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser, who made known around the White House his visceral opposition to the campaign to pressure Zelensky, a campaign directed in part by Trump’s personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani.

Testimony from Bolton could be particularly devastating for the White House…

To review, among the defenses the White House and Republicans have erected, all are already in ruins or soon to be reduced to rubble.

  1. The whistleblower wasn’t a direct witness to anything.
  2. The call was mischaracterized.
  3. Aid was held up due to concerns about corruption.
  4. You can’t extort someone who doesn’t know they’re being extorted.
  5. The process isn’t fair because it’s being conducted behind closed doors.

None of these arguments will be germane or helpful at a Senate trial.

The one defense that will never go away is that Trump’s actions don’t merit removal from office. People will differ on that and, as strongly as anyone feels one way or the other, there is no definitive answer. The Constitution specifies treason and bribery as impeachable offenses. As for the rest, it doesn’t specify.

For this reason, given his guilt, Trump’s best defense was always that he doesn’t deserve removal. Bill Clinton used this defense successfully, and it would be the logical way for Trump to go, too, especially because it’s something Republicans could defend. They might argue for censure and say the stain of impeachment was punishment is enough.

The problem is that it’s getting harder to sustain that position precisely because Trump and the Republicans have been offering other excuses.

Think about it. By arguing that the whistleblower wasn’t a direct witness and had inaccurate information, they implied that it would be a serious problem if what he was saying was accurate. By saying that aid was held up due to concerns about corruption, they implied that it would be a serious problem if aid was actually help up to extort political favors. By saying that the Ukrainians didn’t know that aid was being held up, they implied that it would be a serious problem if they did know. And by saying that the main problem is the lack of transparency, they implied that the transparent hearings and trial to come are going to be satisfactory.

In the end, it would have been better never to erect these defenses in the first place because they all have or soon will be major liabilities for the president’s defense.

Trump really had two options. He could admit what he did and the reasons he did it and say that it was no different from what the Democrats did to him in 2016 and are intent on doing in 2020. This wouldn’t be true and the Senate might not go along, but the parameters would be clear and he’d have a decent shot at acquittal.

Or, he could admit what he did and apologize and ask for mercy, arguing that he went too far and understands his error and the voters should be the ones to pass a verdict. This is still an option, but one that becomes less viable with every passing day—and tweet.

I think he’s made a mistake to deny the substance of what he did and to force many Republicans to go out on a limb for him with throwaway defenses. He’s essentially admitted over and over again that if what people have accused him of were true, it would merit removal from office. And the charges are true.

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Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com