With the House voting to hold televised impeachment hearings, Donald Trump’s presidency is desperately fighting for survival.
So far, at least five government officials and diplomats have come forward to corroborate what an anonymous whistleblower first exposed this past August: The president sought a quid pro quo with Ukraine, threatening to withhold $391 million in military aid unless the country investigated his political rival Joe Biden.
But without a coherent defense from the White House, Trump’s supporters have been wildly pinballing across a range of unconvincing arguments.
The president’s defenders have alleged the impeachment investigation is a deep-state conspiracy, a violation of due process, a “lynching” and more. Trump has also sputtered in his defense, bringing back many of his talking points from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference ― tweeting on Thursday that he faced “The Greatest Witch Hunt In American History!”
But while the secrecy and slow pace of the Mueller report allowed for right-wing media to spin the investigation with little pushback, the Ukraine scandal has effectively been unfolding in public with more allegations of misconduct emerging on a near daily basis.
A Familiar Pattern
The White House has faced weeks of damaging testimony since the whistleblower complaint forced officials to release a summary of Trump’s July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
What Trump described as a “perfect” conversation showed that he asked Zelensky to investigate Biden and brought up a groundless conspiracy theory about a U.S. cybersecurity firm. Numerous reports about Trump’s effort to pressure Ukraine’s government have also directly contradicted the administration’s account of events, including Trump’s claim that Ukrainian officials didn’t know that the aid was being withheld.
Meanwhile, Trump’s defenders have followed a familiar pattern when it comes to explaining the president’s actions: denying that a misdeed ever took place, claiming that even if it did happen there was nothing wrong about it, and finally arguing that the wrongdoing is actually a perfectly good and fine thing for the president to have done.
Quid pro quo arrangements with foreign powers exist to further U.S. interests, not to target domestic political rivals.
In fact, most of the president’s defenders have entered the phase of reframing his misconduct as a virtue. Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney argued earlier this month that quid pro quo arrangements with foreign powers are a common and useful tool of U.S. foreign policy. Former acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker told Fox News last week that “abuse of power is not a crime.”
Neither argument makes any sense. Quid pro quo arrangements with foreign powers exist to further U.S. interests, not to target domestic political rivals for personal gain and damage a potential opponent in the next election. Whether abuse of power is a crime depends on the context and nature of the abuse, but impeachment doesn’t require a criminal act and can include wrongdoing that may not be strictly against the law.
Shoot The Messenger, Throw A Tantrum
Unable to explain away Trump’s call with Zelensky and Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani’s very public influence campaign, some of Trump’s defenders have taken the alternate approach of going after the still unnamed whistleblower.
Initially, this involved focusing on the fact that the whistleblower was not directly listening to Trump’s call with Zelensky and therefore had no firsthand knowledge to base the complaint on. But the release of the July 25 call summary showed that the whistleblower’s account was an accurate representation of the conversation. Conservative media outlets have now shifted to claiming that the whistleblower is politically motivated and linked to Biden.
Republican lawmakers have recently accelerated the focus on the whistleblower, with Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) on Thursday accusing the person of having “bias against the president” and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) tweeting a link to a right-wing outlet that purported to have found the whistleblower’s identity. A top aide to Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) is also allegedly leaking the whistleblower’s name and spreading misinformation about them, according to The Daily Beast.
Another Republican tactic has essentially been to throw a tantrum and try to block the impeachment inquiry from taking place. This was the case when Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) led a group of 30 Republican lawmakers on a mission last week to storm a secure room where the House Intelligence Committee’s impeachment inquiry was taking place, despite the fact that some of the group were authorized to sit in on the hearings. Gaetz and others violated House rules by bringing their phones into the secure area, and ordered pizzas as they carried out their protest.
Finally, some Republican lawmakers have simply resorted to name-calling. Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) derided the inquiry as “Soviet-style impeachment proceedings” ― a phrase that makes little historical or practical sense ― while Nunes accused Democrats and the media of being a “cult.”
But so far none of the conservative efforts to discredit the probe seem to have stuck or remained consistent, while Trump’s attacks on the inquiry have drawn more attention to proceedings and the evidence against him.
“READ THE TRANSCRIPT!” the president tweeted on Thursday morning.