November 10, 2019

This week will feature the first public testimony in the impeachment investigation, as diplomat William Taylor and Deputy Assistant Secretary George Kent are scheduled to appear before the House Intelligence Committee on Wednesday and former Ukraine Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch will testify on Friday. All three of these witnesses had explosive testimony behind closed doors, now public thanks to the release of the transcripts. With that public spectacle looming, the contours of the White House defense are becoming clear.

First off, what is most striking to me is that no one in the White House or among Trump's supporters is really trying to argue that he did not, in fact, pressure Ukrainian leaders to announce they were opening an investigation into the company on whose board Hunter Biden sat and, by extension, into Hunter Biden. That right there gives away the game. As the head of the Federal Elections Commission puts it: "It is absolutely illegal for anyone to solicit, accept or receive anything of value from a foreign national in connection with any election in the United States." The best the president's supporters can offer to say that he did not, in fact, extort Ukraine is that Ukraine did get the money eventually. There are a bunch of problems with this argument, but it doesn't address the elephant in the room: the president tried to rig an election.

His supporters are trying to say that it is okay, even standard operating procedure, for a president to demand personal favors from foreign countries, personal favors that will affect a United States election.

It. Is. Not.

A bipartisan majority of the United States Congress agreed that protecting Ukraine by providing funding to enable it to fight off Russia was imperative for our national security. Indeed, this was standard policy for the Republican Party, which was why it was such a shock at the 2016 Republican National Convention when the committee writing the platform suddenly weakened its stand on supporting Ukraine (apparently at Trump's request). By withholding almost $400 million, the president weakened Ukraine, strengthened Russia, and hurt America's national security. All to help him steal an election.

This is not okay, it is not normal, it is not business as usual. So if there were any possible way to say it didn't go down the way it sure looks right now, supporters would be saying it

Instead, some argued that what he did might have been inappropriate, but it is not an impeachable offense. Trump wanted no part of that defense, and has demanded that supports agree that the call was "perfect;" there was nothing wrong with it.

This is going to be a hard sell, so his supporters are trying to muddy the waters to make it look like the real wrongdoers in this scandal are Democrats or "Never Trumpers." Attorney General William Barr has abandoned any pretense of keeping his office nonpartisan, and is working with his own investigator, John Durham, to try to find evidence that the FBI was illegally spying on the Trump campaign in 2016 (remember, it was legally watching at least two people, Carter Page and Paul Manafort, who were both suspected of being foreign assets), and that, no matter what our intelligence agencies say, it was Ukraine and not Russia that attacked us in 2016. To make this case, Barr has gone around the Department of Justice Inspector General and appointed Durham, and has traveled with him to foreign countries to make introductions. Officials in the U.K. publicly admitted they were astonished at the request for a foreign government to undermine our own intelligence agencies.

Barr plans to release a report on whatever Durham finds, and has apparently been coordinating the rollout of that report with South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham. Since Barr was the one who summarized-- then later denied it was a summary-- the Mueller Report, saying it exonerated the president (it did not), it seems likely this report, too, will be designed simply to muddy the waters.

Certainly that's what Trump and Devin Nunes (R-CA), top Republican on the Intelligence Committee, are doing. On Friday, after weeks of Republicans demanding transparency, Trump blasted the idea of public hearings as unfair. Yesterday, Trump called for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Intelligence Committee chair Adam Schiff, former vice president Joe Biden, and the whistleblower all to testify in impeachment hearings. Nunes made a similar request to Schiff, adding: “Your failure to fulfill Minority witness requests shall constitute evidence of your denial of fundamental fairness and due process.”

These people are not actual witnesses; the plan is simply to try to distract people and make them forget the fundamental story, that the president tried to rig an election by extorting a foreign leader and threatened our national security in such a way that it helped Russia.

Meanwhile, the president and his people have made it very clear what it means to stand up to them. Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, Ukraine expert on the National Security Council staff, has been removed from his position (although he has not been fired; he has been transferred). Trump has suggested the whistleblower should be tried for treason, and a name that Trump supporters insist is that of the whistleblower has been repeated by everyone from Don Jr., who retweeted it, to a guest on a Fox News Channel show, who said it on air this morning. (A reminder: there are laws prohibiting retaliation against whistleblowers.)

At least some Republicans are toeing the Trump line. Today in an interview about her new book (someday I'm going to write about why all these people are writing books!), Nikki Haley, former South Carolina governor, said that Trump's actions were not impeachable. (He tweeted his thanks.)

Haley seems to be trying to make sure she retains Trump voters for her next run for office, but trying simply to outlast Trump and expect that national politics will revert to an earlier stage is a dangerous strategy. If a president can get away with soliciting foreign aid to get elected, we will no longer be a democracy. We will be a client state of whichever country is the highest bidder.