President Trump’s position in this whole scandal isn’t simply that the facts genuinely show that he didn’t do anything wrong.
It’s much worse than that. At the core of his running argument, inescapably, is the more insidious declaration that Trump actually does possess the legitimate authority to use his office to systematically obliterate or badly weaken numerous mechanisms of accountability that are supposed to constrain him.
At the hearings, the Republican strategy will be to try to persuade the middle of the country that Trump didn’t act corruptly, while spreading lies about Joe Biden — and conspiracy theories about the 2016 election — to get news organizations to treat that disinformation respectfully.
To do this, Republicans will advance several arguments. All lead back, inevitably, to the proposition that Trump was perfectly within his legitimate authority to do much of what he stands accurately accused of doing.
Trump keeps confessing in public
In a new op-ed, Trump lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani previews the GOP defense, arguing that Trump’s July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in which he pushed for an “investigation” of 2020 rival Joe Biden, was “innocent.”
Giuliani claims Trump didn’t “pressure” Zelensky; and that his “request” was subsumed into a broader request that Ukraine investigate legitimate “corruption.” A House GOP memo outlines that latter point.
That Trump cared about corruption is verifiable nonsense. But that’s beside the point. What they’re actually arguing here is that there was nothing wrong with asking Zelensky to investigate Biden.
After all, even if that “request” were subsumed into a broader demand to investigate corruption — which, again, is nonsense — it would still constitute an outrageously corrupt act. Trump is asking a foreign leader for help in rigging the election on his behalf, based on an entirely fabricated narrative about the Bidens that was expressly designed to give that “request” a fake gloss of legitimacy.
Yet Trump’s explicit position is that this was perfectly within his legitimate authority. He keeps telling us to “read the transcript” of his “perfect” call.
Indeed, Trump said right in reporters’ faces on Oct. 3 that Ukraine should “investigate the Bidens,” because they’re corrupt. Giuliani’s op-ed and the House GOP memo both defend Trump while also promoting his lies about the Bidens’ supposed corruption. The lies to justify the offense are a crucial part of the offense itself, but Republicans continue claiming the lies are true.
You’ll also hear efforts to limit the conduct in question to just the call. But the plot to get Ukraine to investigate Biden stretched over months. And as part of that, Trump and his henchmen did pressure Zelensky, and did use withheld military aid to extort the investigations Trump wanted.
All this makes the whole saga even more corrupt. But even the conduct depicted on the call is arguably impeachable. In defending this, what Republicans will really be defending is that it’s legitimate for Trump to use his office to forestall facing accountability in a free and fair election.
Republicans are defending Trump’s effort to rewrite 2016
Another thing you’ll hear is the idea that Trump’s claims about 2016 are actually true. Giuliani’s op-ed and the House GOP memo both traffic in the conspiracy theory that the “real” collusion in 2016 was between Ukraine and Democrats.
It’s important to note that the real purpose of this is to downplay Russia’s crime of sabotaging the 2016 election on Trump’s behalf — and to override the special counsel’s conclusions about Trump’s willingness to profit from that crime, and his efforts to obstruct that investigation into it. Indeed, help in validating the alt-narrative of 2016 is another thing Trump tried to extort from Ukraine.
With extraordinary new details emerging about how hard Trump and his advisers worked to reap gains from Russian interference, pressure on Ukraine to make all this disappear constitutes yet another way Trump continues using the power of his office to dodge accountability for already documented, extraordinarily corrupt conduct. This is what Republicans are defending.
Trump has closed down multiple firsthand witnesses
You will hear claims that the evidence against Trump is hearsay. This isn’t true — the evidence is right in the call summary; Giuliani has publicly advertised the whole scheme; Ambassador Gordon Sondland admitted to conveying the extortion message to Ukraine.
Beyond that, even as Republicans make this claim, Trump has corruptly prevented many with direct involvement in the plot from testifying, such as acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, who froze the military aid at Trump’s direction. Giuliani is defying a subpoena.
The larger context here is that Trump’s legal team has argued that he can close down investigations into himself and that he can’t be investigated. Trump skirted prosecution for obstruction of justice due to regulations against indicting a sitting president.
“Every serious scholar who adheres to the view that a sitting president cannot be indicted combines that view with the belief that the impeachment process is the way to deal with a lawless president,” points out Neal Katyal. “Otherwise a president could engage in extreme wrongdoing, and the American people would have no remedy.”
But Trump and Republicans are arguing that impeachment is an illegitimate coup, and using that to justify efforts to close down Congress’ exercise of its legitimate impeachment authority.
In short, they are arguing that there is no remedy. Trump is free to use his office to rig the next election to avoid accountability at the hands of voters, and to close down efforts to constrain him from doing that — and hold him accountable for it.
This is what’s at stake right now.