Republicans have gotten used to defending President Trump’s statements or tweets by saying he meant something else. He was speaking in a form of verbal shorthand. There’s an important backstory. If you saw the big picture, you’d get it.
Trump’s now-infamous July 25 call with new Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has presented the ultimate challenge, because Trump’s words are damning on their face. After telling Zelensky how reliant Ukraine (which is under assault by Russian-backed rebels) is on help from the United States, and knowing that he’d put U.S. aid to Ukraine quietly on hold, Trump asks Zelensky to conduct two politically charged investigations: one into Trump’s top political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, and one into a bizarre theory that Russia did not actually hack into Democratic Party emails during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Undaunted, congressional Republicans have put forward a backstory designed to turn these seemingly venal demands into a noble defense of taxpayer dollars. According to this argument, Trump had a longstanding concern about corruption in Ukraine. He wanted to make sure Ukraine wouldn’t use U.S. security aid to line the pockets of oligarchs and apparatchiks. He needed to be persuaded that Zelensky, who had won an overwhelming victory as a new-generation reformer, was in fact cleaning up the Ukrainian, err, swamp.
This narrative is built on a weak foundation — not only has Trump shown no concern about corruption, but he has also made nice with some of the world’s most corrupt strongmen — but Republicans have shored it up with cripple walls of fact. Ukraine does indeed have a well-documented problem with corruption, despite the best efforts of voters there to throw the bums out. Evidence gathered by the House Intelligence Committee showed that Trump had been counseled by his personal lawyer (and Biden antagonist) Rudy Giuliani, Giuliani’s associates and others that Ukraine was irredeemably corrupt. Evidence also showed that several Ukrainian officials had opposed Trump’s election, largely because they thought he wouldn’t push back hard enough on Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. (Hmmm ....) And, between the time Trump had his “perfect” call with Zelensky and the day in September when the security aid was finally released, the Ukrainian government took at least two significant steps to strengthen its judiciary’s ability to punish corrupt officials.
Their explanation, however, has at least one fatal flaw: If Republicans are right, that means Trump was pushing a foreign government he was convinced was corrupt to investigate one of his political rivals. Doesn’t that put his requests of Zelensky in an even worse light?
This is, after all, a president who prides himself on bringing home U.S. citizens held by foreign powers — witness the lengths Trump went to get Sweden to release arrested rapper ASAP Rocky at the same time he was holding up aid to Ukraine. Here, he was pushing a foreign power to criminally investigate a U.S. citizen who was also a potential opponent in the 2020 election. And he was doing so while believing in his heart of hearts that said power was run by people with no respect for the rule of law.
Other witnesses at the Intelligence Committee hearings testified that, like all former Soviet republics, Ukraine had to build a system of justice that promoted the rule of law rather than imposing the dictates of the party in power. And Ukraine has struggled to do so, thanks in large part to prosecutors who refused to crack down on allegedly corrupt officials and oligarchs. That’s why Biden and multiple European and U.S. officials pressed to remove a succession of Ukrainian prosecutors who had stymied investigations into the oligarch who controlled Burisma, the energy company that hired Biden’s son Hunter in a transparent effort to make itself look more respectable.
In Giuliani’s through-the-looking-glass mind-set, which appears to have infected Trump and many congressional Republicans, Joe Biden is the corrupt one here. But even if there were reasonable suspicions about that, Trump should have sought an investigation by U.S. authorities, not those of a foreign government he considered untrustworthy.
Unless, of course, Trump was counting on Zelensky to be an unreformed Soviet-style leader, the kind of person who thought nothing of siccing the prosecutor’s office and the courts on a political opponent. In fact, the Republicans’ rationalizations seem to lead to that inescapable conclusion.
So maybe Trump should stick with the simpler explanation, which makes him look bad but not that bad.