President Trump and his supporters have tried out a variety of talking points defending his attempts to press the Ukrainian government to open investigations that would benefit him politically.
As the public phase of the House’s impeachment inquiry begins on Wednesday, here are some of the most common rationales Republicans are putting forward to argue Mr. Trump’s actions are not impeachable, and how they stack up against the facts.
Attacking the whistle-blower and witnesses
Mr. Trump himself is the most vocal proponent of this shoot-the-messenger defense.
He has falsely claimed at least two dozen times that the whistle-blower complaint that spurred the impeachment inquiry was “inaccurate,” “false” or “a lie.” In fact, the White House released a reconstructed transcript of the president’s phone call with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine that corroborated much of what the whistle-blower reported. Witness testimony has also backed up and fleshed out the whistle-blower’s main points.
Mr. Trump has also accused Mark Zaid, a lawyer for the whistle-blower, of planning to “overthrow” the president, pointing to a 2017 Twitter post as proof. In the tweet, Mr. Zaid said a “coup” had started and impeachment would follow, in reaction to Mr. Trump firing Sally Q. Yates as acting attorney general. (Mr. Zaid told The Times last week that his tweet was taken out of context and that he had also represented the Republican National Committee.)
The whistle-blower cannot be trusted, according to Mr. Trump, because he or she is a “strong Democrat.” While Michael Atkinson, the inspector general for the intelligence community, has said the whistle-blower showed “arguable political bias” in favor of a rival candidate, that did not alter Mr. Atkinson’s conclusion that the complaint was credible.
Mr. Trump has also branded several officials who have testified before Congress as “Never Trumpers.” Speaking about Gordon D. Sondland, the United States ambassador to the European Union, who donated $1 million to the president’s inauguration committee, Mr. Trump said this month that “I hardly know the gentleman” — despite having calling Mr. Sondland “a really good man and great American” and “highly respected” last month.
Claiming ‘no quid pro quo’
For weeks, Mr. Trump and his allies have aimed to hammer home this simple defense: there was no quid pro quo linking American military aid to Ukraine with investigations the president sought into the son of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., a leading Democratic presidential candidate, and the conspiracy theory that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that hacked the Democratic National Committee in 2016.
This talking point was undercut by Mick Mulvaney, Mr. Trump’s acting chief of staff, when he acknowledged a tie between the aid and the investigations in an October news conference and then retracted his statement the same day. Democrats have also seized upon four words uttered by Mr. Trump in the White House’s reconstructed transcript of the call — “do us a favor” — to argue that an exchange of benefits was clearly established.
As an addendum, Mr. Trump has repeatedly cited Mr. Zelensky’s denial that he felt pressured as evidence of their “perfect call.” William B. Taylor Jr., the top American diplomat in Ukraine, suggested otherwise when he testified to Congress that a national security adviser to Mr. Zelensky told him that the Ukrainian president “did not want to be used as a pawn in a U.S. re-election campaign.”
Claiming ‘no quo’
This argument — that Ukraine had been unaware that military aid had been withheld so it was impossible that Mr. Trump had conditioned its release on Ukraine opening certain investigations — has been employed by several Republican lawmakers as well as Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son, with varying degrees of accuracy.
“First of all, because nothing was withheld. The other guy on the other side actually said, ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about.’ No one knew any aid was even being withheld,” the younger Mr. Trump said on ABC’s “The View” last week.
“The president was pressuring for investigation but there was no quo. The Ukrainian leader did nothing different to actually get the aid,” Representative Don Bacon of Nebraska said in late October.
Representative John Ratcliffe of Texas focused on the timing of the president’s call with Mr. Zelensky.
“Neither Zelensky or any Ukrainian was aware there was a hold on military aid on July 25,” Mr. Ratcliffe said last month, adding that “it doesn’t matter” that the Ukrainians learned about it later.
First, it’s not true that “nothing was withheld.” The White House disclosed on July 18 in a secure call with national security officials that it was freezing the aid, and did not release it until Sept. 11, after coming under bipartisan pressure from Congress.
Mr. Zelensky may have been unaware that of the aid freeze during the July 25 call, but his top aides had learned that Mr. Trump was seeking the investigations before the phone conversation.
Mr. Taylor and two others — Fiona Hill, Mr. Trump’s former top Russia adviser, and Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman, the top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council — have all testified that in a July 10 meeting with top Ukrainian officials, Mr. Sondland said that securing an Oval Office meeting between the two presidents would require a commitment from Ukraine to pursue the investigations.
The New York Times has reported that some Ukrainian officials had learned of the aid freeze by the first week of August, and the whistle-blower’s account said he had heard as of “early August” that some Ukrainian officials were aware the aid might be in jeopardy. Mr. Zelensky has said he raised the issue with Vice President Mike Pence in a Sept. 1 meeting. According to Mr. Taylor, Mr. Sondland told a top aide to Mr. Zelensky that the “security assistance money would not come” until Kiev committed to pursuing the investigation into Mr. Biden’s son. (This was also corroborated by Mr. Sondland.)
It’s also not true that Mr. Zelensky “did nothing different” in an attempt to release the aid. He had agreed to appear on CNN on Sept. 13 and announce the investigations Mr. Trump had sought; that ultimately did not happen, but only because the White House released the aid.
Denying that the president had personally directed a quid pro quo
Allies of Mr. Trump have brushed aside the testimonies of Mr. Taylor and Mr. Sondland as mere speculation, not proof. Their argument is that there is no justification for impeachment “based on somebody saying they presumed and someone else saying they interpreted,” Kellyanne Conway, the White House counselor, said last week.
“Bill Taylor’s presumption of the president’s involvement or whatever came from a media story,” Representative Doug Collins, Republican of Georgia, said last Wednesday on Fox News. “He pointed to Mr. Giuliani, he didn’t point to the president.”
That media story was a New York Times report in May that detailed efforts by Rudolph W. Giuliani, Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, to press Ukraine into investigating Mr. Biden’s son and the theory that origin of the special counsel inquiry into Russia’s interference in 2016. Mr. Giuliani told The Times’ Kenneth P. Vogel that Mr. Trump supported his actions and “basically knows what I’m doing, sure, as his lawyer” — contradicting the suggestion that Mr. Trump was unaware.
“Sondland’s actions were based on Sondland’s assumptions,” Representative Mike Johnson of Louisiana, said last Wednesday on CNN. “There are many assumptions about a lot of what he said and that was based on his ideas about what was happening, not necessarily about what the president said.”
Mr. Sondland, in his revised testimony, did say that he “presumed that the aid suspension had become linked to the proposed anti-corruption statement.” But he also noted that he believed the Ukrainian president needed to make a public pledge that he was beginning certain investigations before a White House visit would be granted — a condition, he said, that was communicated by Mr. Giuliani at Mr. Trump’s direction.
Claiming Democrats also engaged in quid pro quo
The most explicit example of this line of argument comes from Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky.
“Menendez tried it. Murphy tried it. Biden tried it. Trump’s tried it. They’re all doing it. They are all trying to manipulate Ukraine to get some kind of investigation, either to end an investigation or start an investigation,” Mr. Paul said on Sunday on NBC.
In May 2018, Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey and two other Democrats wrote a letter to Yuriy Lutsenko, then Ukraine’s prosecutor general, expressing concerns that Mr. Lutsenko’s office had frozen investigations related to the special counsel investigation led by Robert S. Mueller III because officials were wary of offending Mr. Trump. The letter made no explicit mention of aid.
Senator Christopher S. Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, met with Mr. Zelensky in September as part of a bipartisan delegation. The Times reported that Mr. Murphy “said he urged Mr. Zelensky not to heed the requests from Mr. Giuliani, warning that to do so could threaten bipartisan support for Ukraine in Washington.” Mr. Murphy later described his comments as a “common sense” caution against interfering in the 2020 election.
As vice president, Mr. Biden had called for the dismissal of Viktor Shokin, who became prosecutor general of Ukraine in 2015, and Mr. Biden threatened to withhold assistance from the United States until Mr. Shokin was pushed out. But Mr. Biden’s actions were in line with United States foreign policy as well as the stated positions of Senate Republicans, European Union leaders and the International Monetary Fund, all of whom were calling for Mr. Shokin’s ouster.
Arguing that quid pro quo is ‘not an impeachable offense’
Some Republicans have not gone so far as to completely absolve Mr. Trump, but argue that his actions do not rise to the level of an impeachable offense.
“I believe that it is inappropriate for a president to ask a foreign leader to investigate a political rival,” Representative Mac Thornberry of Texas said on Sunday. “ I do not believe it was impeachable.”
“I think if you’re trying to get information on a political rival to use in a political campaign is not something a president or any official should be doing,” Representative Will Hurd of Texas said on Fox News Sunday. “I believe that’s something that would make it — have to truly consider whether impeachment is the right tool or not.”
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