President Donald Trump withheld hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid from the Ukrainian government, seemingly to push lawmakers to announce an investigation into the son of a potential political opponent and his work with a Ukrainian energy company. That much, at least, is clear. As is the fact that Trump has an 89 percent approval rating with Republican voters.
That’s why most Republican lawmakers aren’t going to change their minds on the impeachment of President Trump. While some in Congress might privately think that Trump’s efforts to pressure Ukrainian officials to “do him a favor” and investigate former Vice President Joe Biden were a bad idea, they won’t say so in public.
Because, quite simply, Trump is the president. He’s giving them what they want politically, the economy appears strong and, most critically, he is far more popular and powerful than they are.
But House Republicans and many Trump-supportive conservative and right-leaning writers and pundits have largely attempted to avoid saying as much.
Rather, together with constantly shifting responses to specific testimony, they appear to have developed three basic defenses for Trump as House impeachment hearings continued: He was “too inept” to have intended to do what he is being accused of doing; what he did was actually good; or his actions were bad, but not impeachable.
But some congressional Republicans and conservatives have begun voicing another, perhaps more telling, defense of Trump: Whatever he did, it doesn’t matter — not to “normal people” and not to the Republican Party.
1) “Impeachment for incompetence would disqualify most of the government”
The first basic defense of Trump regarding Ukraine is the simplest: Trump lacked the intent and the basic competence to get a quid pro quo deal with Ukraine done. And without intent (legally defined as a conscious decision to commit an illegal act), some argue that what Trump did may have been bad and dumb, but not criminal — and thus, not a “high crime or misdemeanor.”
As elucidated by the Wall Street Journal editorial board in October:
... it may turn out that while Mr. Trump wanted a quid-pro-quo policy ultimatum toward Ukraine, he was too inept to execute it. Impeachment for incompetence would disqualify most of the government, and most Presidents at some point or another in office.
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham seemingly agreed, telling CBS News earlier this month that the administration appeared “incapable” of forming a quid pro quo, thus rendering the entire impeachment discussion null and void.
Conservative pundit Ben Shapiro made similar arguments on his podcast, saying on October 7 that Trump would make a fantastic client for a defense attorney because “Trump doesn’t have requisite intent for anything. The man has the attention span of a gnat ... if you are his defense lawyer, his best defense to ‘he had a plan in Ukraine to go after Joe Biden’ is ‘dude doesn’t have plans.’” And on November 11, Shapiro argued, “I don’t think he’s had the level of intent necessary to eat a hamburger.” I reached out to Shapiro, but he was unable to comment on Wednesday.
And after all, military aid to Ukraine was eventually restored. So according to this argument, the actions for which Trump is facing impeachment (withholding aid for selfish reasons) never actually happened. Per National Review’s Rich Lowry, “The best defense Republicans can muster is that nothing came of it. An ally was discomfited and yanked around for a couple of months before, ultimately, getting its defense funding.”
And his magazine’s editorial board argued earlier this month, “It has to matter that, at the end of the day, the harm of this episode was minimal or nonexistent. The Ukrainians got their defense aid without making any statement committing themselves to the investigations.”
It’s true that intent matters — in criminal proceedings. I spoke with Ken White, a criminal defense attorney and former US attorney, who told me, “Intent is very important in court, and for many of these crimes, from witness intimidation to bribery, prosecutors must prove corrupt intent. If we were in federal court, litigating criminal charges against the president, I think the “Trump is just Trump” defense would be colorable and tricky to overcome.
“With normal humans, when they act like Trump you can infer corrupt intent; the defense is that you can’t make that inference with Trump because he acts that way all the time, reflexively.”
But White added two caveats. “First, that’s a matter of proof. A jury could still reject it and see corrupt intent. Second, this ain’t federal court.” Impeachment, after all, is a political process, not a legal one.
And as to the argument that funding to Ukraine was indeed restored, the Cato Institute’s Gene Healy pointed out in October that an unsuccessful or “incompetent” attempt to commit an impeachable act doesn’t make it less impeachable:
The Nixon crew botched most of the schemes it undertook, from the Watergate caper to the attempt to audit the president’s political enemies. That didn’t save Richard Nixon from being driven from office via the impeachment process.
2) “Donald Trump and Rudy Giuliani deserve praise”
Some of Trump’s defenders are taking an entirely different approach and stating that Trump’s actions were not only defensible, but good. In the words of Rep. Scott Perry (R-PA) (who criticized Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman for having “opinions counter” to the president), “it’s perfectly within the purview of the president’s authority” to base military aid on the assurance of an investigation into corruption (or more accurately, the announcement of an investigation).
They argue that the government of Ukraine was corrupt and Trump was elected to fight corruption — ergo, of course he would resist sending aid to Ukraine. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) put it this way: “Corruption is not just prevalent in Ukraine. It’s the system. Our president said time out, time out, let’s check out this new guy.”
.@RealDonaldTrump and @RudyGiuliani deserve praise for pushing for accountability because these officials seem to have zero concern about Ukraine's collusion w/Obama admin targeting America's election in 2016 -- and the Biden cover-up...— Tom Fitton (@TomFitton) November 20, 2019
As Washington Examiner writer Byron York wrote in a piece titled “What if Trump was right about Ukraine?”, supporters of this line of logic argue that while perhaps Trump’s actions weren’t the best, he had real and genuine concerns about Ukraine’s government and its alleged efforts to collude with the Clinton campaign and influence the 2016 election.
Those efforts are based on allegations that Ukrainian officials, concerned about former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort’s work for a pro-Russian political party, attempted to assist the Clinton campaign and harm the Trump campaign. Right-leaning media outlets have focused serious attention on those allegations since 2017.
For example, the Federalist’s Mollie Hemingway argued on Fox News in October of this year, “You have people who have already admitted that people affiliated with the Ukrainian government worked with the Democratic National Committee’s contractors to help Hillary Clinton in the 2016 campaign,” arguing that Ukraine and the DNC took part in actual collusion, unlike Russia and Trump’s campaign.
York writes that if the allegations were true, Trump’s actions make sense. “If [those concerns] were even mostly legitimate, then Trump defenders could say: “Look, he had a point. Even if one thinks he handled the issue inappropriately, the fact is, what was going on in Ukraine was worrisome enough for a United States president to take notice.” Quoting former US Special Representative to Ukraine Kurt Volker, York concluded, “The president said Ukraine ‘tried to take me down.’ He wasn’t wrong.” (It’s worth noting that other conservatives disagree.)
This was the argument that Victor Davis Hanson, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and a writer at National Review who published “The Case for Trump” earlier this year, made to me, saying that it made sense for Trump to be suspicious of Ukraine. He asked that I quote him in full.
“Trump is a businessman and he does not want to give much military aid in general, and naturally not to corrupt governments who have in the past, according to Politico, tried to interfere in the 2016 election.”
“Trump naturally takes the past Ukrainian efforts, again according to the 2017 Politico report, to harm his election effort, as a personal affront given they reportedly sought to stop Trump from becoming president and yet wanted him to reverse the Obama policy of no military aid once he was elected (which he did).”
“Once more, we are left with a supposed thought crime of considering delaying aid in exchange for Ukrainian promises of investigating 2016 interference in an American election—which never happened, but was actually reified by earlier suspension of actual Ukrainian investigations in 2016 (and possibly of Hunter Biden) and refusal to arm the Ukrainians.”
But this argument has problems of its own. Fiona Hill and Vindman, both of whom served on Trump’s National Security Council, testified earlier this month that they had seen no evidence that the government of Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election. Hill added in testimony Thursday, “I refuse to be part of an effort to legitimize an alternate narrative that the Ukrainian government is a US adversary, and that Ukraine — not Russia — attacked us in 2016.”
The Politico piece to which Hanson referred during our conversation notes that while some Ukrainian officials supported Clinton, their efforts were “far less concerted or centrally directed than Russia’s alleged hacking and dissemination of Democratic emails,” which was a “top-down” effort. And according to documents obtained by BuzzFeed News through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, one of the main sources for allegations that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election — including allegations that they, not Russia, hacked the DNC — was Manafort himself.
3) “Impeaching a president is the most extreme and anti-democratic remedy”
But other conservatives have argued that Trump’s actions, even if tied to an “understandable and justifiable” desire to investigate allegations of Ukrainian meddling in the 2016 election, were improper, inappropriate, or just plain bad.
As Townhall.com and Fox News commentator Guy Benson told me, those involved in the alleged quid pro quo “were up to something that stunk.” “They misused and abused their power,” he said. “It’s serious and it should be taken seriously.
But in his view, impeachment is a step too far. “My case against impeachment and removal is that it rises to a thermonuclear option that has never been detonated before. Doing so based on this, so close to an election, in a president’s first term, would do enormous damage.”
Rather, he favors censure, a “very rare tool” last used against President Andrew Jackson in 1834 that would, as he wrote in October, “represent a severe and formal condemnation from the people’s branch, and would constitute a stain on the president’s term in office.”
Daily Caller founders Tucker Carlson and Neil Patel have also argued that impeachment is too harsh a punishment for Trump. In an op-ed in October where they stipulated that “Donald Trump should not have been on the phone with a foreign head of state encouraging another country to investigate his political opponent,” they then wrote, “Impeaching a president is the most extreme and anti-democratic remedy we have in our system of government.”
And they added:
The facts are out there for the American people to weigh as they make their decision. How about we let them sort all this out? There’s no need to come up with thin excuses for a purely partisan impeachment process when we have an election right around the corner.
I spoke to Patel, who told me, “Nancy Pelosi was right for all those months when she repeatedly said that to undo that election without bipartisan support based on clear criminal behavior would tear the country apart. We are on the eve of a new election where the American people can once again vote on Trump and this time they can weigh for themselves Trump’s behavior in this Ukraine affair. That’s a much better solution.”
Thoughts after day one: Trump’s mention of Biden on his 7/25 call was inappropriate. I’ve said that all along. However, nothing I heard today leads me to change my mind : impeachment goes too far. Let the voters settle this. One party, partisan impeachment is not the answer.— Ari Fleischer (@AriFleischer) November 13, 2019
4) “No one cares”
But an even simpler defense of the president is one being made by Carlson on his Fox News show and by others within the conservative movement, and it actually doesn’t require defending the president at all.
Instead, Republicans are arguing that the entire process is a “distraction.” Moreover, they’re arguing that it doesn’t matter what Trump did or didn’t do because the Senate won’t vote to impeach the president and the average American doesn’t care.
As Townhall.com writer Kurt Schlichter wrote earlier this week, “We’re too busy working, too focused on our 401(k)s going through the roof and on [Trump] flipping circuit courts like a boss, to care about the latest outrage to end all outrages.” I reached out to Schlichter and will update if and when I hear back.
On the November 15 edition of Tucker Carlson Tonight, Carlson argued, “normal people” — “someone with kids and a job and a marriage you care about” — aren’t thinking about impeachment and would rather “the buffoons on TV would stop yapping about Trump 24/7 and talk about something relevant.”
It’s an argument being made by Republicans both inside and outside of the administration. For example, White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham tweeted that instead of impeachment (which was “boring” and a “waste of time”), “Congress should be working on passing USMCA, funding our govt & military, working on reduced drug pricing & so much more.”
With record low unemployment and record high wage growth, Democrats know they can't beat President Trump in 2020. Democrats need to #StopTheMadness and get back to work for the American people.— PA GOP (@PAGOP) November 20, 2019
This argument seems somewhat self-refuting — after all, tweeting or writing or saying on national television that no one cares about impeachment would imply that someone, somewhere, decidedly does.
But for the GOP, it is perhaps the most revealing. Not of the sentiment of the average American — 70 percent of whom believe Trump’s actions regarding Ukraine were “wrong” — but of the Republicans. Because they are well aware that within a slimmed-down Republican Party that has largely excised his enemies and detractors through retirements and election losses, Trump is the only available lodestar.
And so for them, it doesn’t actually matter what Trump did with regard to Ukrainian military aid: whether he intended to hurt Joe Biden’s presidential hopes, whether he was genuinely concerned about corruption, or whether he did something that constitutes an impeachable offense. Trump is all they’ve got.