The notion that Donald Trump did not engage in a quid pro quo with Ukraine was always going to be a tough sell. Now, it may be an impossible one.
Revelations which have emerged in recent weeks have undermined the White House’s favorite talking points on the subject (that Ukraine didn’t even know the aid was being withheld, that there was no probe into the Bidens, and that the aid was ultimately restored).
None of those arguments hold up.
One month ago, Trump defenders latched on to reports that Ukraine wasn’t aware the $391 million in military aid was being withheld during the July 25 call—and that the president of Ukraine had said that he didn’t feel bullied--and they haven’t let up. “The Ukrainian president says he has no idea the aid was withheld, and he, quote, ‘felt no pressure,’” White House counselor Kellyanne Conway averred this past weekend, on Fox News Sunday.
The only problem? It turns out that Ukraine learned by early August of the aid freeze. That means, according to The New York Times, that the “Ukrainian government was aware of the freeze during most of the period in August when Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani and two American diplomats were pressing President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine to make a public commitment to the investigations.”
(And if that’s not enough for you, our top diplomat in Ukraine, William Taylor, testified that Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland told Taylor that he, Sondland, had made it clear to Ukrainian officials that the aid "was dependent on a public announcement of the investigations.")
Granted, it’s not as tidy as if Trump had said on tape, “I am not going to send you the $391 million unless you investigate the Bidens.” Still, we know that QUID: the aid was withheld, PRO: that Ukraine was well aware it was being withheld, QUO: that they were expected to investigate the Bidens if they wanted it delivered.
A recent Wall Street Journal op-ed boiled down the other Trumpist talking points in one mind-numbingly misleading sentence: “Democrats want to impeach Mr. Trump for asking a foreign government to investigate his political rival for corruption, though the probe never happened, and for withholding aid to Ukraine that in the end wasn’t withheld.”
Regarding the Journal’s assertion that “the probe never happened,” the second big revelation is that, according to NBC News, “Far from keeping their heads down, those working in common cause with the president's and Giuliani's campaign to get Ukraine to investigate Trump's political opponents are moving ahead unabated, interviews in Kyiv and Washington with several of those involved reveal.”
It may be a stretch to call this a “probe”—although that may still happen—but just as clouds swirling around Hillary Clinton served to offset criticism of Trump, all Trump needs is the clouds swirling around Biden now for him to say, yet again, “you’re the puppet.”
This brings us to the third, and final argument, which is that the aid was eventually restored.
It’s hard to accuse someone of withholding funding if the funding isn’t withheld.
Interestingly, though—and most people don’t seem to have realized this, yet— the funding was released only after the Inspector General informed the House about the whistleblower.
“The aid was held up all summer, and it was finally released [on] September 11,” noted Fox News’ Chris Wallace during his interview with Conway. “Here’s the timing: Two days before, the inspector general informed the House Intelligence Committee about the whistleblower complaint. Kellyanne, the president didn’t release the aid until the story was out.”
After trying to persuade an incredulous Wallace that correlation shouldn’t be confused with causation, Conway finally settled on her safe place: “They got their aid,” she said, “and that’s what’s important.”
As people pointed out after Fox News’ Brit Hume tweeted that aforementioned Wall Street Journal quote about how the probe never happened and the funding wasn’t held up, attempted murder is still a big deal. People go to jail (for life) for it. Should witnesses stand by and allow a crime to take place, just so they don’t mess up the chance of having a body to use as evidence?
I don't think it’s sunk in how damning these revelations are, partly because information is coming at us so quickly that it’s hard to fully digest it.
A smart Trump apologist can still out-debate a lot of people by citing these outdated (or debunked) talking points. As was evidenced, however, by Chris Wallace’s interrogation of Conway, the “no quid pro quo” argument is getting harder and harder to defend against a well-prepared interlocutor.
This is why a lot of Trump allies are urging him to concede the no quid pro quo argument. Ben Shapiro (an erstwhile Trump critic), says “The White House should stop saying there was no quid pro quo. There was a quid pro quo. The question is whether it was a corrupt quid pro quo.” (It’s hard for me to imagine how this quid pro quo was anything but corrupt, but the point here is that he concedes the larger point.) Likewise, Andrew McCarthy at National Review urges Trump, “Stop insisting there was no quid pro quo and cut to the chase.”
So how does Trump respond to the realization that his favorite talking points are no longer sustainable? By doubling down, of course: “False stories are being reported that a few Republican Senators are saying that President Trump may have done a quid pro quo, but it doesn’t matter, there is nothing wrong with that, it is not an impeachable event. Perhaps so, but read the transcript, there is no quid pro quo!”
Some people you just can’t help.