WASHINGTON ― A key Republican defense of President Donald Trump is that the cadre of diplomatic witnesses are simply mistaken that he tried to extort Ukraine into announcing a sham investigation of former Vice President Joe Biden. Their truth is that Trump was just fighting corruption.
“President Trump had good reason to be wary of Ukrainian election meddling against his campaign and of widespread corruption in that country,” Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) said at Thursday’s impeachment hearing.
But ask Republican lawmakers if they’ve ever heard Trump express an interest in rooting out corruption in other countries, or even mention corruption in Ukraine before Biden got into the 2020 Democratic presidential race this April, and their minds go blank.
“If the subject was Ukraine, he’s expressed his concern about corruption in Ukraine, which everybody understood was endemic ― including [Ukrainian] President [Volodymyr] Zelensky, who won. So I haven’t talked to the president about other countries where that might have come up,” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who serves as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Europe and Regional Security Cooperation and as vice chair of the Senate Ukraine Caucus.
“You mean other than what I’ve heard over the news? We’ve never had that discussion,” said Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.), another fierce ally of the president.
In 2016, Trump campaigned on “draining the swamp” in Washington, shorthand for cleaning up the government and chasing away lobbyists. But he’s been one of the swampiest presidents of all time, refusing even to take the most basic step of divesting from his private business. When foreign dignitaries travel to Washington, they line Trump’s pockets by staying at his hotel.
And he’s shown an affinity for autocratic leaders of nations where corruption is rampant, like Russia, North Korea, China, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, turning a blind eye to the way they run their governments.
After Biden jumped into the Democratic primary in April, however, Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani suddenly began planning a trip to Kyiv, seeking to push the Ukrainian government to pursue investigations helpful to Trump ahead of his reelection campaign in 2020. It was those investigations that Trump urged Zelensky to advance in their July 25 phone call ― the call that is now the subject of the House impeachment inquiry.
Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas), a senior member of the House Intelligence Committee who has voiced deep skepticism of the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry this week, argues that Republicans don’t have to prove that Trump actually cares about corruption.
“Corruption within any country should be rooted out and having two heads of state agree on that seems to be, on its face, fine. So we don’t have to prove anything else,” Conaway said.
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who is one of the president’s biggest defenders in Congress, said no when asked if he could point to other examples of Trump fighting corruption.
“The focus has been on what happened in Ukraine,” Jordan said, adding that the president is skeptical of foreign aid, that Ukraine is deeply corrupt and that Ukraine’s new president had pledged to clean house. “So you couple all that together.”
Other Republicans highlighted instances of foreign or domestic policy changes ― such as the reorganization of the Department of Agriculture ― that were not primarily about corruption. Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah), another Intelligence Committee member, pointed to the president’s March announcement that he would cut foreign aid to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador to try to stop migrants from coming to the U.S.
“You’ve got nearly failed states and the reason is corruption,” Stewart said.
Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), the second-ranking Republican in the House, said the president held up the aid not just because of corruption, but because he wanted to signal to other countries that they needed to help Ukraine as well.
“Germany was an example where he was saying, look, the United States is helping but other countries need to step up too and help Ukraine,” Scalise said. “It wasn’t only about corruption. It was also about having other countries do more of their fair share.”
It turns out that other countries have together helped Ukraine more than the U.S. has, and the Trump administration knows it. On Thursday, David Holmes, a political counselor to the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, told the Intelligence Committee that the embassy researched the burden-sharing question in August. They told the White House that since 2014, the U.S. has provided Ukraine about $3 billion in aid, while European Union nations have provided a combined $12 billion.
“If the concern was that others were not spending what we were to support Ukraine, that showed a different story,” Holmes said.