WASHINGTON ― When Republicans headed home late last week for a two-week recess, they were armed with White House talking points to help them try to defend the bombshell revelation that President Donald Trump pressured a foreign government to interfere in the 2020 U.S. election to help him win.
“Let’s be clear, there was no quid pro quo for Ukraine to get US aid in exchange for looking into Biden or his son,” reads one of the talking points.
It’s a reference to what we all learned last week when the White House released a summary of a July phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky: that Trump pressed Zelensky to “do us a favor” and investigate potential 2020 rival Joe Biden and his son Hunter. More than that, Trump repeatedly made his request during a conversation about U.S. military aid to Ukraine after complaining that Ukraine has not reciprocated adequately in exchange for that aid.
Was this a quid pro quo? It certainly looks like it. Trump even used the words “do us a favor” as he dangled something in front of Zelensky that he desperately needs. If this wasn’t a quid pro quo ― which Republicans are being coached to say ― then what would have to be different about this phone conversation to make it so?
HuffPost posed this question to Senate Republicans as they were trying to get out of town on Thursday. Predictably, some insisted it was not a tit-for-tat conversation.
“Do I think it amounts to a quid pro quo? Absolutely not,” said Sen. John Cornyn (Texas).
“No,” said Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.). “I don’t.”
“I don’t think you can extrapolate to that,” added Sen. Pat Toomey (Pa.).
OK, what needs to be different about the call to constitute a quid pro quo?
“I’m not going to speculate on things like that,” Cornyn said.
“I don’t even think about it,” said Scott, slipping into a senators-only elevator.
“I’m not going to get into a bunch of hypotheticals about what the president could have said that he didn’t say,” Toomey said.
Legally, the answer doesn’t really matter; the mere fact that Trump tried to solicit a favor from Zelensky in connection with a U.S. election could be a federal crime. But if GOP lawmakers plan to use the no-quid-pro-quo talking point, they ought to at least be able to say why.
Sen. James Inhofe (Okla.) said he saw no quid pro quo, but seemed befuddled when asked what would need to be different about that phone conversation to qualify.
“What would it look like?” he asked. “That’s kind of a tough question.”
Some Republican senators avoided the question altogether.
“I’m not discussing it at all,” Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) said, walking briskly away from reporters. “Right now, I have more questions than I have answers.”
“I haven’t read it,” Sen. Mike Crapo (Idaho) said of the summary of the phone call, which had been released more than 24 hours earlier and was all the talk on the Hill. “I haven’t seen it.”
“I’m not commenting on any of that,” said Sen. Mike Enzi (Wyo.). Asked if he had read the phone call summary, he only repeated, “I’m not commenting on any of that.”
Others feigned ignorance.
“What I saw, he asked him to look into something but I ― I’m new,” said Sen. Rick Scott (Fla.), who has been a U.S. senator since January and was the governor of Florida from 2011 to 2019. “There’s got to be a process.”
Regardless of the talking points Republicans use to defend the president, the situation is clearly stressing out some of them. Sen. David Perdue (Ga.) snapped at reporters on Thursday as they asked for comment in response to the whistleblower complaint against Trump released earlier that day. It revealed even more damning details about the president’s conversations with Ukraine and White House efforts to cover them up.
“First of all, it’s not a whistleblower,” Perdue falsely claimed, walking quickly down a Senate hallway with reporters trailing him. “This is second or third or fourthhand information.”
“But in terms of the information...” began a reporter.
“Excuse me, you asked me a question,” Perdue interrupted. “Let me answer the goddamn question.”