President Donald Trump’s latest defense against the impeachment inquiry is that while congressionally approved military aid may have been withheld to pressure Ukrainian leaders to investigate Joe Biden and his son, withholding that money was not wrong, because Ukraine didn’t know it was happening. However, not only is that defense thin, it also not supported by sworn testimony or recent reporting.
The president endorsed this defense, made by Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-TX) on Fox & Friends Wednesday, in a tweet quoting the Congress member. “Neither [Bill Taylor] or any other witness has provided testimony that the Ukrainians were aware the military aid was being withheld,” Ratcliffe said on the show. “You can’t have a quid pro quo with no quo.”
This defense does not make much sense. The fact Ukrainian officials weren’t initially sure why the security assistance had been delayed does not mean it wasn’t withheld. Trump himself has said it was held back, and has cited corruption as the reason. Notably, he did not use his latest tweet to deny that he held up the aid, and it’s clear he privately and publicly called for Ukraine to investigate the Bidens.
On his phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Trump responded to a Ukrainian request for weapons by asking for a “favor” — an investigation into Democrats, and later on the call an investigation into the Bidens.
The testimony Ratcliff cites was delivered to Congress Tuesday by William Taylor, the top US diplomat in Ukraine. Taylor said he was told by US Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland, an ally of Trump’s, that “everything” the Ukrainians wanted from the US (including a White House visit and the military aid) depended on Ukraine announcing it was opening a corruption investigation that included an inquiry into Burisma, a company that employed Joe Biden’s son.
Taylor also testified that while Ukrainian officials initially did not understand why the money had not yet come though, they began to realize what they needed to do to get the money. This was especially the case, Taylor said, after “Ambassador Sondland told [Zelensky aide] Mr. Yermak that the security assistance money would not come until President Zelenskyy committed to pursue the Burisma investigation.”
Moreover, the New York Times reported Wednesday Ukrainian officials had hints about what was behind the hold up even before the call with Sondland recounted by Taylor. Ukrainian leaders asking after the money were told that there was a reason behind it being withheld, and that acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney could give them that reason.
Taylor told Congress that although he did not want to do so, Zelensky ultimately made plans to announce the desired investigation in a CNN interview in order to get the money released.
This is, contrary to Ratcliffe’s claim, a very clear quid pro quo. In exchange for the military funding, there had to be an investigation. Ratcliff suggested this was clear to the White House in his interview, and Taylor has said the Ukrainians came to understand it too.
Trump’s rebuttals to the impeachment inquiry have evolved, as some have been undercut
Increasingly, Trump and his administration have abandoned claims that they did not try to influence Ukraine to launch an investigation into a rival; instead, they argue there was nothing wrong with the way they did so.
Last week, Mick Mulvaney said Trump brought to him concerns (which stem from a conspiracy theory) that Ukraine is home to a Democratic National Committee server, and wanted an investigation into that. Pushing that investigation, Mulvaney told reporters, is “why we held up the money.”
When told that arrangement constituted quid pro quo, Mulvaney said, “Get over it. There’s going to be political influence in foreign policy.”
That response was widely viewed as problematic, and he later walked back the comments. (The Trump 2020 campaign embraced it at least, selling “Get over it” T-shirts.) Trump himself has been reportedly looking into replacing Mulvaney, although the White House denies this.
The administration has also cycled through a few other defenses: that witness testimony proved there was “no quid pro quo’s of any kind,” that Ukraine has said “President Trump applied no pressure and did absolutely nothing wrong,” and that the whistleblower who first brought the Ukraine matter to the public’s attention is an illegitimate “spy.”
None of these have really stuck, and some have been undermined by more recent statements from the executive branch; others have been put into question by witness testimony to Congress.
Mulvaney, for instance, made it clear there was a quid pro quo, and argued instead that it wasn’t a big deal. Ratcliff’s version of this argument — that the exchange offered by the White House technically wasn’t quid pro quo — now seems to have found favor with the president.
How long this defense lasts remains to be seen. Trump, however, did pair it with a talking point he has used since the early days of the Ukraine scandal: that not enough is known about the whistleblower who brought the issue to light.
“Where is the Whistleblower?” Trump tweeted along with the Ratcliff quote; he tweeted the same message an hour later:
The whistleblower, an intelligence professional, is presumably at work. Pointing out his absence from current proceedings is as weak a defense as Ratcliff’s; evidence supporting his allegations is now public, much of it released by the White House itself.
That evidence has also been supported by the testimony of witnesses, leaving Trump and his allies to use technicalities like Ukraine’s understanding of the offer on hand in the president’s defense. How effective that strategy will be remains to be seen.