Ahead of the first public hearings in the impeachment inquiry, Republican lawmakers have created a strategy to rebut the claim President Donald Trump did something wrong when pressuring Ukraine into investigating political rivals.
That strategy, outlined in a memo obtained by Axios, codifies defense strategies piloted by the president and his allies in recent weeks.
Characterizing the allegations of wrongdoing the president faces as “hyperbole and hysteria,” the memo claims “four key pieces of evidence are fatal to the Democrats’ allegations,” and that this evidence is “indisputable.”
In fact, none of the four points are actually indisputable, and during the hearings on Wednesday and Friday, Democrats are likely to take issue with how Republicans have framed this “evidence.”
Some, like the fact Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said he felt no pressure from the Trump administration to meddle in US politics, are shallow assessments of a nuanced situation. And others, like the claim a White House memo of a July 25 call between Trump and Zelensky exonerates the president, are at odds with the facts as currently known.
The four points of evidence Republicans claim exonerate Donald Trump
1. Trump’s call with Zelensky clears him of wrongdoing
Much hinges on a July 25 call Trump had with Zelensky. Closed-door testimony has revealed that call was of concern to White House officials, and also of concern to the whistleblower whose complaint helped launch the impeachment inquiry.
In it, Trump asked Zelensky to investigate a Democratic National Committee server he seems to believe is hidden in Ukraine, and to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter.
Our knowledge of that call stems from a memo released by the White House that, according to the sworn testimony of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a national security official who was on the call, is a partial transcript with at least one direct Trump request for an investigation into the Bidens cut out.
In their memo, Republicans argue — as the president has incessantly done in recent weeks — that this reconstruction of the call “shows no conditionality or evidence of pressure.”
This is not the case, however.
When Zelensky brings up the purchase of weapons, the White House memo says Trump responds, “I would like you to do us a favor, though,” and goes on to say, “I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say Crowdstrike … The server, they say Ukraine has it.”
Here, as Vox’s Alex Ward has explained, Trump was asking Zelensky to investigate a debunked conspiracy theory that, rather than Russia meddling in the 2016 election to help Trump’s campaign, Ukraine meddled to help his Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, and that a server with evidence of this was hidden in Ukraine by security firm CrowdStrike.
Democrats have argued that this exchange is evidence of wrongdoing.
As Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier (who serves on the House Intelligence Committee, which is taking the lead in the inquiry) said Sunday on ABC’s This Week, “The president broke the law. He went on a telephone call with the president of Ukraine and said ‘I have a favor, though,’ and then proceeded to ask for an investigation of his rival. And this is a very strong case of bribery.”
The Republican memo argues Democrats have misplaced their focus on this aspect of the call; it states, “The full sentence shows that President Trump was not asking President Zelensky to investigate his political rivals, but asking him to assist in ‘get[ting] to the bottom” of foreign interference in the 2016 election.”
The full sentence from the White House memo reads like this:
The Republican claim about this passage does not make sense. The full sentence shows the opposite of what they argue. Broadly asking Zelensky to investigate Trump’s political rivals is exactly what the president does in this exchange. Here, he does not ask for an investigation into the Bidens (the record shows he did so later on the call), but into the Democratic Party.
Where the Republican strategy on the call is correct is in the second part of the party’s planned defense: “President Trump never conditioned a face-to-face meeting on any action by President Zelensky” (he says on the call, “Whenever you would like to come to the White House, feel free to call.”); “President Trump never mentioned U.S. security assistance to Ukraine” (he pivots when it is mentioned to his request for a favor); and “President Zelensky never verbalized any disagreement, discomfort, or concern about any facet of the U.S.-Ukrainian relationship or President Trump’s comments.”
This last point relates to Republican’s next major piece of evidence — and while both this last point and the second piece of evidence are technically true, they dismiss an important nuance: that Zelensky badly needed something from Trump and was not in a position to cross him.
2. There was no pressure for Ukrainian investigations into Trump’s political rivals
As information about the July 25 call and the whistleblower’s complaint became public, Trump and Zelensky met on the sidelines of the United Nations. They held a joint press conference, and the Ukrainian president was asked if he felt pressured by his US counterpart during the call.
“Sure, we had — I think good phone call,” Zelensky said. “It was normal. We spoke about many things, and I — so I think and you read it that nobody pushed me.”
Trump cut in, “In other words, no pressure.”
The line has become a mantra for the president and his allies, and the Republican memo details other interviews Zelensky has given saying he didn’t feel pressured.
But witness testimony and reporting argue that the Ukrainians did, in fact, feel pressure, and were very concerned about finding a course of action that simultaneously appeased Trump, got them what they sought, and did not anger Democrats (thus destroying the bipartisan support in Congress Ukraine has long enjoyed).
The testimony of the top US diplomat in Ukraine, Bill Taylor, is peppered with examples of Ukrainian officials reaching out to him about their fears, from Ukrainian national security adviser Alexander Danyliuk expressing “concern about the possible loss of US support for Ukraine” and telling him “President Zelensky did not want to be used as a pawn in a US reelection campaign” to Zelensky aide Andrey Yermak telling him he “was very concerned, asking about the withheld security assistance.”
And reporting by the New York Times and others has painted a picture of a Zelensky administration feeling increasingly trapped by the Trump administration’s demands that he publicly announce the launch of investigations — particularly once it became clear that $391 million in military aid badly needed in an ongoing conflict with Russian-backed forces was tied to this announcement.
It has been noted that Zelensky was not in a position to cross Trump. The Republican memo speaks to this, and argues it is not a factor: “Democrats will assert that due to the power imbalance between the United States and Ukraine, Ukraine’s ongoing war with Russia, and Ukraine’s need for U.S. support to repel the Russian threat, President Zelensky would not dare state any issue or concern he may have has with President Trump’s remarks. However, there is no evidence that President Zelensky ordered the opening of an investigation.”
There is, however, evidence that Zelensky, desperate for the military aid, was prepared to open the investigation, regardless of how doing so might look to Democrats. With a deadline for the aid’s release fast approaching, Zelensky scheduled an interview with CNN during which he planned to announce the investigations.
The interview was never conducted, however, because the Trump administration finally released the aid two days before it was to be recorded.
3. Trump did nothing wrong because Ukraine didn’t know why the aid was withheld
The military aid was approved by Congress in the 2019 federal budget; the Trump administration told lawmakers it was releasing the aid to Ukraine on February 28. It repeated that assertion to Congress again on May 23 but failed to explain — both publicly and to the lawmakers who approved the aid — exactly why the funds were withheld.
Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell couldn’t get a straight answer from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper over the summer on why the aid hadn’t been dispersed yet.
But then on September 11, the Trump administration suddenly disbursed the money.
According to Taylor’s sworn testimony, Ukrainian officials weren’t sure why the aid was being withheld until August.
The Republican memo argues this uncertainty means nothing was wrong with withholding the money: “U.S. officials did not convey to Ukraine that security assistance was delayed, much less the notion that the delay was due to President Trump seeking political investigations.”
This argument does not make much sense.
The fact that Ukrainian leaders initially didn’t know why the aid was being withheld doesn’t mean it wasn’t being withheld. Trump himself has said it was held back and has cited corruption as the reason. It’s also clear he privately and publicly called for Ukraine to investigate the Bidens.
And the Ukrainians did eventually come to understand why they hadn’t gotten their money when, as Taylor testified, “Ambassador [to the EU Gordon] Sondland told [Zelensky aide] Mr. Yermak that the security assistance money would not come until President Zelenskyy committed to pursue the Burisma investigation,” Burisma being the company connected to Hunter Biden.
It isn’t clear how this “evidence” clears Trump of any wrongdoing, other than to suggest he was not very good at communicating the terms of his quid pro quo. But just because one doesn’t make clear the terms of a deal doesn’t mean the deal doesn’t exist, or that the deal isn’t inappropriate.
4. The inquiry is unnecessary because Ukrainians eventually got their money
The final Republican piece of evidence is that everything worked out in the end. No investigations were launched, and the military aid was released.
The issue with this line of defense is that the impeachment inquiry does not seek to investigate whether Ukraine got its aid, but whether Trump tried to improperly use the power of his office to pressure a foreign power to meddle in a US election.
Witness testimony, the whistleblower’s complaint, and the White House call memo suggest this is what happened.
Your guide to the Donald Trump impeachment saga
Understand the impeachment process, from its history to what comes next. Explore the full guide here.
And it would appear investigations have been launched. In October, Ukraine’s top prosecutor announced his office would look into a number of closed corruption cases, including 15 related to Burisma.
So, similar to the third piece of evidence, it isn’t clear what Republicans hope to accomplish by promoting this idea. At best, it is beside the point, and at worst is factually incorrect.
Overall, these four pieces of evidence would seem to reflect the Republican desire to reframe Trump’s actions as noble, but ultimately of little consequence.
The memo goes on to frame Trump as a US president concerned — as his top diplomats have testified they were — about Ukraine’s history of corruption. The testimony of many of these diplomats argued that voters’ overwhelming support for President Zelensky proved that Ukrainians were tired of this corruption and hoped to turn over a new leaf.
These officials hoped that Zelensky would provide a fresh start, but according to the memo, Trump had a “deep-seated, genuine, and reasonable skepticism about Ukraine due to its history of pervasive corruption” that led to his being cautious about providing a large sum of money. And the memo works to make the claim that Trump was correct about Ukraine’s involvement in the 2016 election, despite having been told by his national security officials numerous times that no meddling took place.
The issue with all of this evidence and this new frame is that both fly in the face of what is known. As the impeachment inquiry hearings unfold, Republicans will work to make the case that this isn’t true. Their ability to change the narrative — and the facts — will rely on eliciting answers from witnesses that muddles or occludes what the public knows so far.
And so they will pursue lines of questioning that turn on these four pieces of evidence, in hopes of drawing out new lines like Zelensky’s “nobody pushed me” that can be shared in tweets and played on television to make the case to the American public that Trump did nothing wrong and that Democrats are simply out to get him.
Listen to Today, Explained
The House of Representatives released transcripts from closed-door impeachment testimonies. Vox’s Andrew Prokop pored through them for revelations.
Subscribe to Today, Explained wherever you get your podcasts, including: Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, and ART19.