In the wake of Wednesday’s release of a rough transcript of a July conversation between the presidents of the United States and Ukraine that showed Donald Trump exerting pressure on Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate debunked corruption allegations involving Joe Biden, Republicans have rallied around the President with a very strange – and weak – defense.
That defense goes like this: Donald Trump never said to Zelensky, “I won’t do X unless you give me Y.” He never said the phrase “quid pro quo.” Therefore, nothing to see here!
“Wow. Impeachment over this?,” tweeted South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham after reading the Ukraine call transcript. “What a nothing (non-quid pro quo) burger.”
Asked by the Boston Globe’s Jess Bidgood what he would consider a quid pro quo from Trump to Zelensky, Graham replied:
“‘Uh, hey pal, you know, you need to like, go after the Bidens or I ain’t gonna give you any money,’ [He’d] be really, like, thuggish about it.”
Jay Sekulow, one of Trump’s lawyers, made a very similar argument in an interview with CNN’s Chris Cuomo on Wednesday night. “I think it’s important to understand what we don’t have, and what we don’t have is a quid pro quo,’” said Sekulow. “In other words, ‘I will do this, you do this.’ That is absent.”
So, that’s the bar? Really?
Take the logic of Graham and Sekulow out of this context and put it in an entirely different one. If someone comes up to you on the street, points a gun at you and says, “Give me all your money!” then, under Graham’s conceit, you aren’t being robbed. In order for it to be an actual robbery, the man pointing the gun has to say: “Give me all your money. This is a robbery.”
Makes zero sense, right? You know what’s happening even if the guy doesn’t declare that he is using the threat of possible violence to separate you from your money. Why? Because, well, you just know. The human brain is able to look at a series of related inputs – gun, demand for money, agitation – and connect the dots: I am being robbed.
Now, circle back to Trump’s conversation with Zelensky. To revisit that conversation:
1. Trump, after congratulating Zelensky on his win, very quickly establishes that the United States has been very, very good to Ukraine.
“I will say that we do a lot for Ukraine. We spend a lot of effort and a lot of time. Much more than the European countries are doing and they should be helping you more than they are.”
2. He then makes clear that the US does a lot more for Ukraine than Ukraine does for the US.
“I wouldn’t say that it’s reciprocal necessarily because things are happening that are not good but the United States has been very, very good to Ukraine.”
3. Trump directly asks Zelensky to investigate Joe Biden and his son, Hunter.
“There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it … It sounds horrible to me.”
4. He suggests that Zelensky should talk to his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and Attorney General Bill Barr.
“I will have Mr. Giuliani give you a call and I am also going to have Attorney General Barr call and we will get to the bottom of it.”
5. And then Trump reiterates that suggestion.
“I will tell Rudy and Attorney General Barr to call.”
Graham and Sekulow are technically correct that Trump didn’t directly tell Zelensky that if he wanted what the US had to offer (like hundreds of millions of military aid) that he had better look into the Bidens. (There is no evidence of wrongdoing by either Joe or Hunter Biden, by the way).
But come on, man! Put yourself in Zelensky’s shoes for a minute and ask whether it is at all possible that the message you would have received from that call was something along the lines of “We do a lot for you. If you want us to keep doing it, you need to do this one thing for me.”
Plus, there’s this: Impeachment – which the House embarked on formally this week with the beginnings of an inquiry – is a political process, not a legal one. Meaning that even if you buy Graham’s no-quid-pro-quo argument, which you shouldn’t, there is no requirement for proof that Trump said the words in order to impeach him.
Know who got this all exactly right? Lindsey Graham. In 1999 – when he said this: “A president doesn’t even have to be convicted of a crime to be impeached. Impeachment is about restoring honor and integrity to the office.”