Emerging GOP defense on Ukraine: What Trump did was bad -- but not impeachable

Emerging GOP defense on Ukraine: What Trump did was bad -- but not impeachable

There are two ways Mitch and the gang might get Trump off the hook at a Senate trial. One, of course, is to acquit him on the facts. Democrats haven’t proven their case. Not guilty. And that’s that. The problem with that approach as a political matter is that no one’s sure yet what facts might still come to light. If Democrats make a convincing case, a rubber-stamped “not guilty” verdict in the Senate might hurt Republicans. And of course some Trump critics would tell you that there are already facts in the record that warrant removal from office, namely, Trump asking Ukraine’s president to look into whether the Democratic frontrunner for president and his son did anything shady there. That’s in the transcript the White House itself produced.

So dispensing with impeachment on the facts is risky. What’s less risky is dispensing with impeachment on the law. If the GOP argues right out of the chute that the president’s been accused of something that doesn’t amount to a high crime or misdemeanor then it doesn’t matter what evidence Democrats produce. If the abuse of power doesn’t rise to the level of something that warrants removal from office then Republicans don’t need to bother with the facts. We don’t send people to prison for traffic tickets. We don’t remove presidents from office for, uh, attempting to influence the coming election by blowing up the other party’s candidate on the launchpad with a foreign corruption investigation.

And the beauty of this argument is that it allows Republicans to soothe angry voters by acknowledging that what Trump did was wrong. “You’re right, it was terrible. You have every right to be disgusted. We share your contempt. But no, this isn’t impeachment-worthy.” Trump gets to stay in office and voters end up kinda sorta mollified by Trump being lightly shamed by his own party. Everyone wins!

The first prominent proponent of the “bad but not impeachable” view that I’m aware of was Tucker Carlson, who co-wrote a piece last week with Neil Patel for the Daily Caller that got some attention online. “Even Tucker admits that what Trump did was wrong!” Yes, but. Don’t miss the fine print: Not impeachable.

The key question with Trump’s Ukraine call, though, is whether the president’s actions, advisable or not, rise to the level of an impeachable offense. It’s hard to argue they do. The president did not, as was first reported, offer a quid pro quo to the Ukrainians. He did not condition any U.S. support on a Biden investigation. The Justice Department has already looked at the totality of the call and determined that Trump did not break the law.

If all the GOP needs to do to be rid of its impeachment mess is admit that the guy on the “Access Hollywood” tape is of dubious character, a fact everyone outside his own base has long since accepted, then they’re off practically scot-free. “Bad but not impeachable” places Ukraine in the overflowing pot of things the president has done that are embarrassing but essentially just part of the price of going full MAGA. If you like the sweet stuff, like a roaring economy and Justice Gorsuch, occasionally you have to stomach the bitter stuff. Like him leaning on a foreign head of state to help torpedo a would-be election opponent.

All of this is background to today’s news: The “Bad but not impeachable” argument now has a Republican advocate in the U.S. Senate. And it’s not someone whom you’d expect to see on Carlson’s primetime Fox show.

“The president should not have raised the Biden issue on that call, period. It’s not appropriate for a president to engage a foreign government in an investigation of a political opponent,” [Rob] Portman said after attending the 4th Annual Ohio Defense Forum, hosted by The Dayton Development Coalition in Columbus’ Westin Great Southern Hotel.

“I don’t view it as an impeachable offense. I think the House frankly rushed to impeachment assuming certain things” that haven’t panned out yet…

While impeachment is not merited, Portman said a bipartisan group such as the Senate Intelligence Committee could investigate the whistleblowers’ allegations surrounding Trump. “Everything should be looked at,” Portman said, including accusations that the FBI was politicized in 2016.

Interestingly, Portman also acknowledged that the Ukrainian prosecutor who was targeted by Biden in 2016 and also by a group of U.S. senators (including Portman himself) was in their crosshairs not because he was too aggressive in going after Burisma but because he wasn’t aggressive enough in fighting corruption. Trump has tried to claim that the prosecutor was removed because he was too much of a threat to Hunter Biden; not really, Portman’s admitting here. He also admitted that he asked administration officials repeatedly this summer why the $250 million in military aid to Ukraine had been held up by Trump. Neither Mike Pence, SecDef Mark Esper, nor anyone else had an explanation, in case you’re wondering if the “quid pro quo” possibility is still alive.

Anyway, will Trump tolerate the Carlson/Portman defense that he’s guilty of misconduct but not impeachable misconduct? He’s transactional by nature; if adopting this position gets him through the impeachment wars with his job intact, one would think he’d agree to the transaction. But he’s also deeply narcissistic and resents being called out for bad behavior. He’s described his phone call with Zelensky repeatedly as “perfect.” What will it do to his legacy to skate on a “corrupt, but not corrupt enough” defense? Because he is worried about his legacy, you know:

In a phone call with House Republicans on Friday, Trump articulated why he really doesn’t want this. Impeachment, Trump said, is a “bad thing to have on your resume,” according to a source on the call. Two other sources on the call confirmed the substance of the comment, but one said they recalled Trump phrasing it as “you don’t want it [impeachment] on your resume.”

[S]ources who have discussed impeachment candidly with the president say these comments perfectly encapsulate how Trump feels about it: He believes it could help him get re-elected and win back the House. But he doesn’t want the history books recording Donald Trump as an impeached president.

He almost certainly will end up being impeached no matter what Republicans do or say. The question is whether at that point he’ll accept any ol’ justification in the name of winning in the Senate, in which “bad but not impeachable” is fine, or whether he’ll insist that Senate Republicans grit their teeth and vouch for the propriety of his call with Zelensky in the name of vindicating him for the historical record. Call that approach “good and unjustly impeached” if you like. If I were him I’d make Senate Republicans as comfortable as possible in finding reasons to acquit him, knowing that winning reelection next fall will operate as a verdict for posterity by voters that he was wrongly impeached. But Trump craves loyalty and it’ll bug him to watch McConnell’s crew, who are normally so obsequious, badmouthing him during the impeachment process even with the assurance that they’ll vote his way in the end. He might make this more contentious than it needs to be. I mean, he usually does.

Exit question: “Bad but not impeachable” is a better defense at least than “lol the president’s a troll don’t take him seriously,” no?

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