You knew it had to happen sometime. Boxed in by witness after witness acknowledging that Trump explicitly withheld Congressionally mandated aid to Ukraine in exchange for a public statement implicating the Bidens and fake information designed to exonerate Russia in the hacking of Democratic officials in the 2016 election, Trump’s defenders are in an increasingly precarious position.
They’ve gone from insisting that aid wasn’t improperly withheld, to claiming that pushing Ukraine for an investigation of Biden was related to general pursuit of corruption rather than political gain, to saying that Trump’s own aides and ambassadors insisted there was no quid pro pro. Each of these assertions has been shredded in turn: Trump did withhold the aid beyond what even his own State Department said was appropriate; he insisted on a public statement from Ukraine about Biden and dictated exactly what it should say; and his aides and ambassadors have given damning testimony that there was explicitly quid pro quo extortion involved. Now Republicans are attempting the ludicrous defense that Rudy Giuliani, Ambassador Sondland and others concocted the bribery and extortion scheme in exchange for corroboration of debunked conspiracy theories entirely on their own, without any direction from Trump.
None of this is going well, and it’s going to even worse as more witnesses come forward, including possibly former National Security Advisor John Bolton. The only thing left is to do what Trump has doubtless been itching for from the beginning. It’s the defense that White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney first promulgated before being forced to walk it back: Quid Pro Quo is presidential and awesome, and whaddaya gonna do about it? It was just a question of who would throw it out there first.
The person designated to throw out that trial balloon seems to have been noted libertarian (!) Senator Rand Paul, arguing the case on MSNBC in an interview with Chuck Todd:
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday that he thinks it’s a mistake for the White House to argue there was no quid pro quo with Ukraine to investigate President Trump’s political rivals, and that Trump has “every right” to condition military aid on fighting corruption.
“I think we’ve gotten lost in this whole idea of quid pro quo. … If you’re not allowed to give aid to people who are corrupt — there’s always contingencies on aid. … Presidents since the beginning of time have resisted Congress, and there’s been this sort of back and forth jockeying over what is sent. But also presidents have withheld aid before for corruption. I think it’s a mistake to say, ‘Oh, he withheld aid until he got what he wanted.’ Well, if it’s corruption and he believes there to be corruption, he has every right to withhold aid.”
— Rand Paul
Of course, it’s not about “corruption” at all. At worst Hunter Biden received the sort of sinecure that the children of the wealthy and privileged receive everywhere, and the Obama Administration and Joe Biden pressured Ukraine to get rid of the corrupt prosecutor who was treading too lightly against the firm that had employed Hunter. Presumably that firm had hoped that hiring Hunter Biden would protect them from such pressure, but they were wrong.
What Trump was doing in Ukraine was 1) trying to force a political statement from the Ukrainians in an effort to damage Biden, who has been crushing Trump in every head-to-head poll; and 2) pursuing a wild, false conspiracy theory designed to implicate the Democrats and the Ukraine in hacking their own servers and blaming it on Russia. Because with Trump, all roads seem to lead back to Moscow.
But what matters now is that Republicans have to choose: do they continue to argue that Trump didn’t do what he is accused of, or do they insist that what he is being accused of is just fine? It’s perilous either way. Trump so obviously did commit bribery and extortion against Ukraine on behalf of both his campaign and a foreign adversary that the first position is untenable. But it’s not at all clear that most of the Republican Party will be willing to accept the consequences of saying that any future Democratic president should be able to abuse the power of the Executive Branch like this.
Rand Paul is seeing what happens when they try to go through door number two. It’s up to all of us to make it clear how unacceptable that is.
Update: And here is Trump, just an hour ago, going in the same direction: