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Trump’s Defense Is Not Ready for Prime Time

The president and his allies' case for acquittal would get laughed out of court.

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty

How do you defend the indefensible? The task proved difficult even for President Donald Trump’s staunchest supporters over the weekend, as the media pressed them to explain why Trump pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in July to investigate Joe Biden and his son.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy tried to claim on CBS’ 60 Minutes that Trump didn’t actually ask Zelenskiy for a “favor,” only for host Scott Pelley to read the portion of the memo where Trump does just that. Minority Whip Steve Scalise claimed on NBC’s Meet the Press that Trump’s request for a favor proved his commitment to learning the whole truth about foreign interference in the 2016 election. Stephen Miller, Trump’s top domestic policy adviser, offered only conspiracy theories when pressed for straight answers by Fox News anchor Chris Wallace.

There’s nothing new about Trump’s surrogates on TV struggling to defend his conduct, of course. But their flailing performance this weekend highlights a deeper problem for the president. If the House impeaches him, and the Senate holds a trial, Trump will have to make an affirmative case for acquittal to 100 senators, many of whom hold public or private concerns about his fitness to be president. So far, Trump’s defenders haven’t even come close to making a convincing argument in his favor.

The biggest weakness in Trump’s defense is that—as the White House’s own summary transcript of the Zelenskiy call proves—he actually did what Democrats allege: abuse his power by urging a foreign government to undermine his domestic political rivals. McCarthy tried first to deny that anything had happened, and then insisted that it didn’t have to be defended at all. “What do you make of this exchange?” Pelley asked McCarthy. “President Zelenskiy says, ‘We are almost ready to buy more Javelins from the United States for defense purposes.’ And President Trump replies, ‘I would like you to do us a favor though.’” McCarthy’s first response was denial. “You just added another word,” he replied.

Pelley had not added another word. “No, it’s in the transcript,” he said. “He said, ‘I’d like you to do a favor though’?” McCarthy asked. “Yes, it’s in the White House transcript,” Pelley confirmed. McCarthy then brushed off the exchange by faulting Barack Obama for not selling anti-tank weapons to Ukraine in the first place. His answers only grew more inscrutable. “Why would we move forward with impeachment?” McCarthy argued. “There’s not something that you have to defend here.” Michigan Representative Justin Amash, who left the GOP in July, tweeted that McCarthy’s interview “again displays his unique brand of incompetence and dishonesty.”

Other Trump allies tried to deflect and obfuscate rather than deny. But Miller demonstrated the limits of that tactic on Fox News. “The president has the State Department,” Wallace asked him. “He’s got the CIA. He’s got the Pentagon. He’s got a number of other agencies. Why did he use three private lawyers to get information on Biden from the Ukrainian government rather than go through all of the agencies of this government?” Miller instead tried to veer off. “Two different points: Number one,” he began, before Wallace cut him off. “How about answering my question?” he asked.

But Miller, like a Terminator sent back from the future to distribute White House talking points, was relentless. Wallace restated the question a few times before giving up. “You have your non-answer at this point,” he said. What Miller really wanted to talk about was the “deep state,” and how Trump’s impeachment woes were all their fault. “They leak this president’s phone calls,” he complained. “They publish hit pieces. They publish fake stories.” In reality, it was the White House that released the damning Zelenskiy transcript, not some shadowy cabal of intelligence operatives. And Trump’s own acting director of national intelligence has defended the whistleblower whose complaint led to the disclosure, telling Congress last week that they used the proper legal channels and did so in good faith.

Attempts by Trump surrogates to turn the scandal against Biden also backfired. On CNN’s State of the Union, Ohio Representative Jim Jordan, an inveterate ally of the White House, took the opportunity to float corruption allegations against the former vice president. Host Jake Tapper went for the jugular. “I would think somebody who has been accused of things in the last year or two would be more sensitive about throwing out wild allegations against people,” he said, referencing allegations that Jordan turned a blind eye to reports of sexual abuse when he was a men’s wrestling coach at Ohio State University.

South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham adopted a largely legalistic defense of the president’s conduct over the weekend. He dismissed the Ukraine scandal as the product of “hearsay” by the unnamed whistleblower, who admitted in their complaint that they didn’t personally witness the fateful Zelenskiy call or some of the other events they describe. “This seems to me like a political setup,” he claimed on CBS’ Face the Nation. “It’s all hearsay. You can’t get a parking ticket conviction based on hearsay. The whistleblower didn’t hear the phone call.” Again, this argument would carry more water if the White House hadn’t released the memo showing Trump soliciting Ukrainian help against the Biden family.

And then there’s Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal legal fixer and a man who apparently can’t turn down a media request. He helped push House members toward an impeachment inquiry earlier this month by telling CNN’s Chris Cuomo that he had personally urged Ukrainian officials to investigate Biden’s family (and he admitted this only seconds after denying it). Those missteps don’t seem to have deterred him from giving other bizarre interviews to reporters. “It is impossible that the whistle-blower is a hero and I’m not,” he fumed at The Atlantic’s Elaina Plott in a phone call last week. “And I will be the hero! These morons—when this is over, I will be the hero.”

There’s a counterintuitive school of thought that, on some subconscious level, Trump actually wants to be impeached—or at least that he stands to politically gain from it. His behavior over the weekend fatally undercut that argument. Trump’s Twitter feed glowed with an incandescent rage that only his deep sense of personal victimhood can sustain. He lashed out at Fox News correspondent Ed Henry on Sunday morning for questioning whether it was okay for Trump to ask the Ukrainian government for dirt on Biden. He questioned whether California Representative Adam Schiff, the Democrat leading the House impeachment efforts, should be arrested for “treason.” And he approvingly quoted a supporter who warned that impeaching Trump could lead to “civil war.”

It goes without saying that these rants don’t amount to an affirmative case for the Senate to acquit him if they get the chance. Trump’s complaints about the whistleblower ring hollow when the White House’s own memo proved the central accusation right. What’s more, his implicit threats of violence against his opponents seem to be alienating more supporters than they might rally. “I have visited nations ravaged by civil war,” Illinois Representative Adam Kinzinger, who represents a staunchly Republican district, wrote on Twitter on Sunday night. “I have never imagined such a quote to be repeated by a President. This is beyond repugnant.”

There are echoes here of Trumpworld’s response to the Russia investigation: obfuscate and deny the president’s wrongdoing, shift the blame onto Democrats and the investigators, and claim Trump is being set up by some nefarious shadow group that seeks to overturn the 2016 election. That playbook has its limits for the Ukraine scandal, though. The Russia investigation was, at its core, a search for the truth. How extensive were Moscow’s efforts to interfere in the Russian election? Did the president conspire with the Russian government to sabotage Clinton? Special counsel Robert Mueller did not find a smoking gun on the collusion question, though he documented multiple efforts by Trump’s associates to stop him from looking for one.

With Ukraine, Americans already have the smoking gun: a memo documenting Trump’s efforts to pressure Zelenskiy into investigating the Bidens on spurious grounds. That memo wasn’t leaked to The Washington Post or The New York Times by the deep state; it was released by the White House itself in a baffling attempt at damage control. And far from disproving the whistleblower’s complaint, it only confirms that they got the central allegations correct. The question this time isn’t “What happened?” but “What are we going to do about it?” Only the Democrats have a clear answer to that question.