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Opinion

Column: Trump’s best option for avoiding impeachment is to do something he loathes — apologize

Donald Trump is shown during a 2005 “Access Hollywood” taping with actress Arianne Zucker and the show’s co-host, Billy Bush.
Donald Trump is shown during a 2005 “Access Hollywood” taping with actress Arianne Zucker and the show’s co-host, Billy Bush. Trump later apologized for comments he made to Bush about groping women.
(The Washington Post / Getty Images )

In l’affaire Ukraine, the president is guilty as charged. And the best strategy for him to avoid impeachment by the House and, even perhaps, removal by the Senate is to admit it, apologize and let voters make their own judgment. It’s also the best way to fend off a disastrous loss for the GOP’s precarious Senate majority.

The president is being accused — politically, not criminally — of trying to force the Ukrainian president to tar former Vice President Joe Biden with an investigation into his alleged “corruption” in exchange for the release of military aid and a meeting in the Oval Office. I believe a plain reading of the rough transcript of a phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky supports the charge. So does testimony from the still-serving acting ambassador to Ukraine, William Taylor, as well as several other Trump appointees and aides. Their collective testimony is not gospel, and it contains inconsistencies. But the notion that all of these players are committing perjury to frame the president is absurd.

Common sense also works against the president. If Trump was sincerely concerned about Ukrainian corruption, why has he never expressed similar concerns about corruption anywhere else? And, why, if the issue is Ukrainian corruption generally, did the Trump administration focus almost exclusively on the alleged corruption of a single Ukrainian firm, Burisma, where Biden’s son sat on the board?

The most plausible explanation is twofold. First, the corruption issue was a pretext; under the law, corruption concerns are the only justification for blocking congressionally approved aid. Second, Trump’s real goal was to bruise Biden. Indeed, according to Taylor, the White House said it would settle for a mere statement about Biden’s potential corruption — meaning Trump cared more about political gain than about an actual investigation.

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Trump and his most vocal defenders are still pounding on outdated, unpersuasive or irrelevant talking points. They rail about the identity and motives of the whistleblower who first aired these allegations, even though the whistleblower’s report has since been largely corroborated by others. They claim the process of the Democratic inquiry in the House is unconstitutional, which is ridiculous. They insist that hearings, where Republicans can cross-examine witnesses, are a “star chamber” or reminiscent of secret Soviet trials. Also ridiculous.

Republican complaints about the heavy-handed tactics of the Democrats have some merit, but they’ll be rendered moot when the Democrats move to public hearings or to a Senate trial. And when that happens, claims that the call was “perfect” and there was no “quid pro quo” will evaporate in the face of the facts.

This is why the smartest Trump defenders are counseling the president to simply admit the obvious: There was a quid pro quo, and the president’s phone call fell short of perfection, but nothing he did rises to an impeachable offense.

As former federal prosecutor (and my old National Review colleague) Andrew McCarthy argues, by insisting there was no quid pro quo, the president made things much easier for the Democrats. The implicit concession in Trump’s position is that if the charges were true, it would be impeachable. That is a burden of proof that no doubt warms the cockles of Democratic Rep. Adam B. Schiff’s heart. The smarter course is to admit it happened, but as McCarthy writes, “no harm no foul.”

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I would go one step further. Rather than take the Mick Mulvaney line and shout “get over it” — now a Trump campaign T-shirt — I think the president should apologize. Trump’s refusal to admit any wrongdoing imperils GOP senators who are already reluctant to defend him on the merits. Once the process complaints evaporate, they’ll be left with no defense at all. Bill Clinton fended off removal in the Senate in no small part because he admitted wrongdoing and asked the country for forgiveness. Once he did that, he and his supporters were liberated to say the country should “move on.” It’s worth recalling that the first existential crisis of Trump’s 2016 campaign — his talk about groping women on the Access Hollywood tape — was averted by the first, and last, meaningful apology anyone can remember from him.

I disagree with those who say that the allegations against Trump are not impeachable but, politically, apologizing could forestall impeachment by giving politicians and voters a safe harbor: “It was wrong, but he said he’s sorry. Move on.” The longer the president defends a lie, the more Americans will resent being lied to.

Of course, contrition doesn’t come easy for Trump and would be embarrassing for him and his media cheerleaders. But it would also give Republican candidates a rationale for opposing impeachment that they could sell.

President Trump is fond of demanding ever more loyalty from Republicans. But loyalty is a two-way street. If he thinks they should defend him, he should give them something defensible to work with.

Twitter: @JonahDispatch


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