With public hearings in the Giuliani/Ukraine matter scheduled to begin on Wednesday, the Republican staff for the committees that handled the depositions has issued a memorandum that members can use as a counterargument to impeachment. This includes four primary bullet points and then their supporting evidence. The television news outlets immediately provided their audiences with the bullet points, but didn’t really get into what undergirds their logical structure.
As you can readily see, some of their argument is preposterous on its face, like their contention that the White House’s selective release of the transcript of the call between Trump and Ukrainian president Zelensky doesn’t show any “pressure” or “conditionality.” Likewise, crediting Zelensky’s denials that he felt pressure is ludicrous given that he was being denied the javelin missiles he was requesting unless and until he agreed to smear Joe Biden and accuse his own country of having been responsible for the Russian hack of Democratic Party computer systems. The assertion that Ukraine was unaware of the hold on security assistance is contentious at best and irrelevant in any case. Trump directly denied Zelensky the javelin missiles on the call, and Zelensky was aware at the time of the call that he would not be getting a meeting with Trump until he met his demands for investigations. Moreover, the Ukrainians appear to have realized that Mick Mulvaney had placed a hold on assistance almost immediately and before even many of the main American witnesses in the case understood what was going on. Lastly, you can’t get credit for not mugging someone just because the police arrive in the nick of time to prevent the robbery.
These talking points are not convincing, but some of their supporting evidence has more to recommend it.
Chief among these is the argument that Donald Trump had a justifiable animus for Ukraine that formed a reasonable rationale for not wanting to meet with them or provide them with aid. Trump’s ill will for Ukraine is longstanding and well-documented, and based in large part on his anger over how Paul Manafort’s corrupt business practices there were exposed during the 2016 campaign. The Republican staff has dug up every negative comment about Trump they could find from a prominent Ukrainian during the 2016 campaign, and given Trump’s pro-Russia stance during that time and his dismissive attitude toward Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty, there is no shortage of such comments to choose from. Just as Russia was attracted to the positions Trump adopted and decided to help him, the Ukrainians were alarmed and obviously had a preference for the candidate who was committed to protecting them. The difference is that there is scant evidence that the Ukrainian government lifted a finger, as a matter of policy, to help Clinton’s campaign. There is absolutely no evidence that they hacked anyone, and certainly not the Democrats as Trump would have us believe. That theory doesn’t even make sense.
Nothing compels Trump to see Ukraine as an ally or Russia as a foe, but that is his official foreign policy which is supported by Congress and by his whole national security staff, as well as by the Pentagon and the State Department. In a way, it’s wrong to see the refusal to meet with Zelensky or the hold on military aid as the problem. The problem is that Trump does not agree with his own policy and doesn’t have the guts to change it. He could, for example, say that he recognizes Crimea as part of Russia and that Russia should also annex the ethnically-Russian parts of Eastern Ukraine. He could say that he’d like Russia to control Syria and for Turkey to drop their NATO commitments and ally with Russia while ethnically cleansing our Kurdish allies. He could say that the U.S. will drop out of NATO and stop cooperating with the European Union which would be better as a bloc of powerless statelets dependent on Russian energy and subject to Russian military pressure. He could outright drop any American commitment to defend the Baltic states or even Poland. But he doesn’t do these things and in fact allows our Pentagon and State Department to continue to operate as if our official policies are real.
This is why he needed Rudy Giuliani and Mick Mulvaney to be his point men on Ukraine. His own cabinet would have resigned en masse if he’d ever been up front about his true agenda. Congress would have revolted, too, including much of his party. Hurt feelings over 2016 have something to do with Trump’s hostility for Ukraine but that alone cannot explain his consistent anti-Western position on everything. He does Russia’s bidding at every turn and the only real question is why he does this.
The Republican staff also emphasizes that Trump’s concern about Ukrainian corruption is based on an accurate appraisal of the country which is shared by all the experts who have given depositions. This is true and accurate. Yet, Ukrainian corruption is merely a pretext for treating them with contempt and denying them the benefits of our alliance. The Pentagon, for example, certified that all their anti-corruption benchmarks for the year had been satisfied and that aid could be released. Trump did not ask his own government to condition the release the aid on any higher standard. He didn’t explain his decision at all.
In the end, the reason the national security apparatus rose up to report Trump’s anti-Ukrainian activities was not solely because he wanted to smear Joe Biden. It was also because, in doing so, he was screwing over Ukraine and helping Russia. This is because if Ukraine acquiesced and helped Trump win reelection, it would threaten the Democrats’ support for Ukraine and Trump would still be pro-Russian and hostile. It’s because denying a meeting to Ukraine’s newly inaugurated president and withholding military aid weakened Ukraine’s position in peace negotiations with Russia. It’s because delayed military aid weakened them on the battlefield. It’s because evidence of a bad relationship with the president in Washington, DC, weakened Zelensky politically with his own people. It’s because asking Ukraine to commit corrupt acts undermined official American policy aimed at getting Ukraine to reduce corruption. Trump’s pet conspiracy theories are a sideshow in this larger context.
The Republicans are going to argue that Trump is the president and he sets the policy and that if he wants to be anti-Ukrainian, that’s his prerogative. To a large extent, this is true. But he isn’t being impeached because he asked the foreign policy establishment to change our policy. In a real way, he is being impeached because he did not do this.
In an alternative universe, he could have been completely up front about his desire to ditch our Western alliance and hand as much power as possible to Vladimir Putin. I imagine that would have created a different kind of political firestorm, possibly leading his own party to seek his removal from office. But that’s not how Trump went about this. He instead let the American system operate as if everything is business as usual, with special forces operating in concert with the Kurds and military assistance going to Kyiv until, all of a sudden, he pulled the rug out.
Trump being Trump, he didn’t limit himself to doing Putin’s bidding but also sought some advantage for himself. Sliming Biden was like a two-fer in this respect. He made Russia happy while doing himself a favor in the process.
The House Republicans will argue a president can do what he pleases even if it’s based on bad information, contrary to the national interests and politically self-serving. The real question is, can the House Republicans accept a traitor in the White House who has attempted bribery in plain sight?
All signs indicate that they’re fine with this.