Ambassador William Taylor’s testimony on the Ukraine scandal is the most devastating account to emerge so far from the affair — and maybe even the entire Trump presidency. Taylor, a top US diplomat in Ukraine, lays out a detailed timeline of the scandal, one that makes it clear that President Trump suspended military aid to Ukraine to pressure its president, Volodymyr Zelensky, into opening up an investigation into Hunter Biden and the Ukrainian natural gas company Burisma.
Trump’s defense prior to this largely consisted of the catchphrase “no quid pro quo” — the argument that there was never any attempt to trade favors from the US, like military aid or a White House invitation, for a Burisma investigation from Ukraine. This was always deeply implausible, as the White House’s own summary of Trump’s July call with Zelensky is strong evidence that this is what Trump was seeking. Taylor’s testimony pretty much seals the deal.
Now the president and his defenders are left flailing, trying to salvage the wreckage of their position through a combination of lies and tortured logic. Take Trump’s tweet on Wednesday morning, largely a quote from a Fox News appearance by Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-TX):
Neither he (Taylor) or any other witness has provided testimony that the Ukrainians were aware that military aid was being withheld. You can’t have a quid pro quo with no quo.” Congressman John Ratcliffe @foxandfriends Where is the Whistleblower? The Do Nothing Dems case is DEAD!
This is not what Taylor said.
The ambassador testifies that Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the European Union, met with a senior adviser to Zelensky on September 1 and informed him that “the security assistance money would not come until President Zelensky committed to pursue the Burisma investigation.”
According to Taylor’s testimony, Sondland and Trump made this clear to the Ukrainians at the highest level while insisting, in one of the testimony’s most darkly comedic passages, that this was “not a quid-pro-quo,” as if you get immunity from murder by yelling “I’m not committing a crime” while stabbing someone:
President Trump did insist that President Zelensky go to a microphone and say he is opening investigations of Biden and 2016 election interference … that President Zelensky, himself, had to “clear things up and do it in public.” President Trump said it was not a “quid pro quo.” Ambassador Sondland said that he had talked to President Zelensky and [his aide] Mr. Yermak and told them that, although this was not a quid pro quo, if President Zelensky did not “clear things up” in public, we would be at a “stalemate.” I understood a “stalemate” to mean that Ukraine would not receive the much-needed military assistance.
So the Trump-Ratcliffe line is simply false. The Ukrainians were clearly aware that they were being extorted and that vital military aid was being held up until they opened an investigation that would damage Trump’s domestic political opponents.
Some of Trump’s allies, meanwhile, have adopted a different approach. Matt Whitaker, Trump’s former acting attorney general, went on Fox News to argue that what Trump did isn’t grounds for impeachment — because “abuse of power is not a crime.” I cannot stress it enough: This is something Whitaker actually said.
There are good reasons to believe Trump did actually break the law. The constitutional requirement for impeachment is that the president committed “high crimes and misdemeanors,” but the term does not necessarily refer to criminal conduct; it can also convey a more vague sense of a violation of the public trust, such as hijacking US foreign policy in service of your reelection campaign.
More fundamentally, though, Whitaker is admitting that he doesn’t care if Trump abused his power — that the truest and most honest defense of Trump is the president can do pretty much whatever he wants as long as he doesn’t violate any criminal statutes.
Trump’s defenders in the media aren’t doing any better than his more formal allies. Hugh Hewitt, a conservative radio host and NBC contributor, argued that this a quid pro quo with Ukraine isn’t so bad because other US presidents have made deals. He did so, oddly, in the form of an incorrectly constructed Jeopardy question referencing the Pittsburgh Steelers:
“I’ll take Quid Pro Quos for $1,000 Alex”
“U.S. acquired approximately 827,000 square miles of land west of Mississippi river for $15 million.”
“What is Seward’s Folly?”
“Sorry @Steelers fans, it is ‘What is the Louisiana Purchase, the Louisiana Purchase.'” #QuidProQuoJeopardy
— Hugh Hewitt (@hughhewitt) October 23, 2019
This is so obviously absurd that explaining why it’s absurd feels like an insult.
Previous presidents have made deals with foreign countries — including the Louisiana Purchase, bought from France, and the purchase of Alaska from Russia (called “Seward’s Folly” after the secretary of state who inked the deal). But inking a quid pro quo agreement with a foreign country on behalf of the public interest — like acquiring a lot of land — is obviously different from using the powers of the presidency in service of your private political interest. One is something every president does; the other is something no president is supposed to do. This is really basic stuff.
The weakness of the arguments from Trump and his defenders lays bare what’s really going on here. The president’s conduct is indefensible, precisely the sort of invitation to foreign interference in US politics that the founders feared when they drafted the impeachment power. No disinterested, rational person could find the Trump arguments on the Ukraine scandal compelling.
And that’s what makes the next few months so worrying. Unless things change in some dramatic fashion, we are about to see the bulk of one of the US’s two major political parties parrot absolute nonsense, over and over and over again, even more brazenly than they have for the past several years. Whatever you’re expecting, there are decent odds it’ll be worse.