WASHINGTON — Over the past several days, the president’s legal team and his allies in the Senate mounted a feeble and fact-challenged defense as part of the third impeachment trial in history. They pushed the ahistorical and widely mocked view that Trump shouldn’t be convicted because he committed no actual crimes. They then insisted the first of the two impeachment articles, abuse of power, was bogus because there was no connection between Trump’s decision to freeze congressionally-approved military aid for Ukraine and his demand that Ukraine announce investigations into the Biden family.
That argument, of course, suffered a major setback when The New York Times reported that former National Security Advisor John Bolton wrote in a forthcoming book that Trump conditioned the aid money on Ukraine pledging to go after the Bidens. The Bolton revelation provided a dramatic twist in what had felt like a low-stakes drama destined to end with Trump’s acquittal. Before the Bolton news, it was likely the Senate would not call any new witnesses to testify as part of the trial; now, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has reportedly said it’s likely a majority of senators will vote to call new witnesses.
For President Trump’s most loyal backers in the Senate, Bolton’s assertion has sent them into an overdrive of denial, deflection, and spinning. Here are the most absurd, desperate, and nonsensical efforts by Senate Republicans to defend Trump and ensure the impeachment trial ends with an acquittal.
The president can do basically anything he wants to get reelected if it’s in the “public interest”
Alan Dershowitz, the legal scholar and cable-news talking head who once defended Jeffrey Epstein, pushed perhaps the most expansive view imaginable of executive power during an appearance at the impeachment trial on Wednesday.
According to Dershowitz, President Trump did nothing wrong by freezing military aid for Ukraine until it announced investigations into the Bidens because a president can do basically whatever he wants to get reelected if he deems those actions in the “public interest.” As Dershowitz put it, “If the president does something that he thinks will help him get elected, in the public interest, that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment.”
So even if Trump did withhold Ukraine’s money specifically until he got the Biden announcement, that’s his right and not an abuse of power, Dershowitz said. Under this logic, Richard Nixon could have argued that the Watergate break-in and ensuing cover-up were in the “public interest” because they would help him get reelected. A president could in theory arrest his opponents if he insisted that doing so was in the “public interest” because it would help his reelection. Taken to its extreme, Dershowitz’s argument would permit any number of corrupt, immoral, or abusive acts to help a sitting president win another four years simply because the president deems those acts in the “public interest.”
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the lead House member arguing in favor of convicting and removing Trump, summed up the insanity of Dershowitz’s argument. “If you say you can’t hold a president accountable in an election year where they’re trying to cheat in that election, then you are giving them carte blanche,” Schiff said.
Let’s wait to read Bolton’s book until after the trial is over
Perhaps the most bizarre and irresponsible response to the Bolton revelation came from Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.).
Rounds told reporters Monday he wasn’t opposed to reviewing Bolton’s book manuscript, but said senators should wait until after the impeachment trial is over to do so. “I personally wouldn’t mind reading it, but it doesn’t have to be during the impeachment process,” Rounds said. “So we’ll kind of wait and see when the book comes out, what Mr. Bolton’s got to say.”
Sen Rounds earlier on Bolton manuscript review idea:
"I personally wouldn't mind reading it but it doesn't have to be during the impeachment process. So we'll kind of wait and see when the book comes out, what Mr. Bolton's got to say."
— Erica Werner (@ericawerner) January 28, 2020
In other words, let’s look at possible evidence of impeachment conduct only after the impeachment trial is over. Because, sure, that’s how impartial trials work.
President Trump reeeeeeeally cares about rooting out corruption in Ukraine
In an interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity on Monday, Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.), another of the president’s stalwart backers, insisted Trump had every right to freeze that $391 million in military aid approved for Ukraine because he did so in the name of investigating corruption in Ukraine — specifically, corruption involving Joe and Hunter Biden. “He asked for an investigation of Vice President Biden because he was investigating corruption,” Kennedy said.
Where to begin with this canard?
First, if Trump cared so much about stamping out corruption in Ukraine, he would’ve empowered — not harassed and then recalled — Marie Yovanovitch, the U.S. ambassador to Kyiv until last year. Within the State Department and on the ground in Ukraine, Yovanovitch was widely seen as one of the most effective and tireless advocates for fighting corruption in that country. So what did Trump, the corruption crusader, do? He smeared her as “bad news” in his July 25th call with Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky. He tasked Rudy Giuliani, his personal lawyer, with engineering Yovanovitch’s removal, which happened last spring. There’s evidence to suggest Yovanovitch was surveilled by people close to Giuliani and Giuliani’s henchmen, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman. Yovanovitch testified in the House impeachment investigation that she felt threatened for her safety once she realized there was a campaign underway to get her removed as ambassador.
Next, Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, testified before the House last fall that Trump didn’t care if Ukraine actually investigated the Bidens. This is a crucial distinction that’s too often overlooked: According to Sondland, Trump wanted Ukrainian President Zelensky to publicly announce the investigations; whether the investigations happened seemed to be beside the point. Such an announcement, of course, could be used to attack Joe Biden, a leading opponent in the 2020 presidential election. “He had to announce the investigations,” Sondland said, referring to Zelensky, Ukraine’s new president. “He didn’t actually have to do them, as I understood it.”
Finally, the totality of Trump’s presidency suggests he couldn’t care less about the issue of corruption. Upon taking office, he refused to meaningfully divest from his personal business and to this day continues to profit from foreign governments and domestic interests staying at his properties. He’s said he wants to get rid of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, a key international anti-bribery law. He personally intervened in a plan to relocate the FBI’s headquarters because it could lead to a rival hotel moving into the FBI’s current location in downtown Washington, across the street from Trump’s Washington hotel. The list goes on and on.
Senator John Kennedy is willing to stipulate that John Bolton will testify that Trump froze aid to Ukraine to get an investigation into Biden and his response is “Your point is what? That doesn’t tell us anything” pic.twitter.com/ZFR9HrqSfo
— Acyn Torabi (@Acyn) January 29, 2020
The president can be as corrupt as he wants … if he’s rooting out “corruption”
Appearing on Hannity just before Sen. Kennedy, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said the president was well within his right to engage in a corrupt and unconstitutional quid pro quo scheme because, well, he’s the president.
“Quid pro quo doesn’t matter,” Cruz said. “It’s a red herring. It doesn’t matter if there was a quid pro quo or not. The reason is a president is always justified and, in fact, has a responsibility to investigate credible evidence of corruption.”
There used to be a time when Republicans vehemently insisted there was no quid pro quo. Trump himself insisted there was “no quid pro quo” with Ukraine. But now Republicans say it doesn’t matter if there was or wasn’t a quid pro quo — even if there was, as Cruz puts it, the president has every right to use quid pro quos to get what he wants.
Ted Cruz now says it doesn’t matter if the President engaged in a quid pro quo pic.twitter.com/EQLbkosG41
— Acyn Torabi (@Acyn) January 29, 2020
Since when did trials include evidence?!
Listening to certain senators talk, you’d think they’d never witnessed a real trial before. That, of course, is surely not the case, and when members such as Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) mock the idea of the Senate’s impeachment trial including witnesses, they’re acting not out of ignorance but bad faith. Here’s what Blackburn said on the subject:
If the evidence is “overwhelming” and “extensive,” why do we need witnesses? https://t.co/LUWxGLgaTm
— Sen. Marsha Blackburn (@MarshaBlackburn) January 28, 2020
President Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial featured witnesses via video deposition. The impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson featured witnesses. In fact, every single one of the 15 full impeachment trials conducted by the Senate — that includes the two presidential trials and the trials of a dozen judges — featured witnesses. The precedent is overwhelming.
The only good reason Blackburn and most Senate Republicans don’t want to hear from witnesses such as John Bolton is because they don’t want to hear what Bolton has to say.