Kellyanne Conway: "I don't know" if Trump held back Ukraine's military aid to pressure them on Biden

I mean, her boss has spent the six weeks tweeting almost daily that he didn’t. No quid pro quo! This shouldn’t be a subject on which one of his senior advisors is undecided.

But Conway’s thinking strategically here, just as Republicans in the Senate are. Do you really want to go out on a limb and continue to insist that there was no quid pro quo when witness after witness keeps telling House committees that there was? What do you do if Gordon Sondland, the one key witness who’s denied that the military aid was part of the quid pro quo (but has reportedly admitted that there was a different kind of quid pro quo in the works involving Burisma and the Bidens), suddenly turns around and says yes, okay, the aid was part of it? Remember, he’s been accused by other witnesses of having said that to them privately. If he changes his story now, that limb that Trump and his allies are on would be completely sawed off.

It’s time for them to maneuver. In the Senate, that means admitting the quid pro quo but shrugging it off. Sure, there was a deal with Zelensky, but Trump had a legitimate public purpose in mind when offering it, namely, exposing corruption by the previous administration. Conway’s going a different route: Even if there was a quid pro quo in the works, at the end of the day it didn’t happen. Ukraine got their aid before it did anything about the Bidens.

Her point brings up a lingering mystery in the Ukraine saga — if POTUS was so hellbent on getting something on Burisma from Zelensky in return for the military aid, why’d he cough up the money before he had anything in hand? That’s not a quid pro quo, it’s a quid pro nothing! But the mystery isn’t hard to solve: Pressure, including pressure from allies in Congress, was mounting on him in September as all sorts of people in government began noticing that Ukraine still hadn’t received the aid Congress had appropriated yet. The NYT traced the timeline in a story on September 23:

A handful of Republican and Democratic senators who belong to a bipartisan Ukraine caucus wrote a letter to Mr. Mulvaney early this month expressing “deep concerns” over the delay in releasing the funding. The funding is “vital to the long term viability of the Ukrainian military,” helping it “fend off the Kremlin’s continued onslaughts within its territory,” the senators wrote.

Pressure on the White House from Republican senators intensified. Senator Rob Portman of Ohio spoke to Mr. Trump about the funds, and Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina informed the White House that he planned to support an amendment by Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, that would block Pentagon spending to ensure that the Ukraine funds were released. On Sept. 11, the administration told lawmakers it would release the funds.

This was about to become a Category Five political sh*tstorm for the president, replete with defense funds being held up with bipartisan support if he didn’t explain the delay. What was he supposed to say if he continued to block it, particularly having allegedly discovered during the first week of September that a whistleblower complaint was floating around claiming that he’d leaned on Zelensky about Burisma? It wasn’t just the pressure from Durbin and Graham either that was weighing on him, as you may remember if you read this post. The Pentagon and State Department were asking questions about the aid too. WaPo had accused Trump of orchestrating an election-related quid pro quo with Ukraine in an editorial a week earlier. OMB personnel were reportedly nervous that they’d be breaking the law if they held back funds for Ukraine that had been duly appropriated by Congress past the end of the quarter on September 30. The missing aid was becoming more and more politically radioactive, so Trump finally handed it off on September 11. Conway seems to think he should be given credit for that because others managed to finally force it out of his hands.

There are new impeachment polls circulating today but I don’t know how much they matter since this issue is probably destined to settle at 50/50 or so, and that certainly won’t be enough to get the Senate to consider removal. NBC has national support for impeaching and removing Trump at 49/46, up from 43/49 a month ago. (Support for removal is still underwater among independents, though, at 43/46.) Meanwhile, the Texas Tribune finds impeachment and removal at 43/44 — in Texas, which is probably stronger evidence of how purple the state has become than of how likely it is that the Senate might remove Trump. Democrats might look at those numbers and conclude that there’s room to grow. After all, the public hasn’t seen Taylor, Vindman, and Morrison testify with their own eyes yet. Imagine how support for removal will increase when the whole country is watching Trump’s trial!

But Republicans might conclude, plausibly, that support for impeachment is more likely to shrink. At trial, Trump’s lawyers will finally get a crack at cross-examining those witnesses, and of course they’ll get to call their own witnesses who’ll testify in his favor. (Assuming there are any.) More importantly, Republicans are just getting started with their new line of defense. Instead of denying that a quid pro quo took place, which has been undercut by the evidence, they’re shifting to the stronger argument that Trump had a legitimate reason to do it — or, even if he didn’t, that in any case it’s not a “high crime or misdemeanor.” Give them a few weeks of hammering that talking point in media and some of the right-leaning people who momentarily support removal will think better of it.

In lieu of an exit question, via Newsbusters, here’s Joe Scarborough on Friday wondering what would happen to Trump’s support if Fox News had a “Walter Cronkite moment” and started questioning Trump’s innocence. Answer: Nothing would happen to it. What would happen is that Fox’s ratings would tank. He’s making the same mistake here that critics of conservative talk radio make when they accuse Rush et al. of leading right-wingers around by the nose with their daily broadcasting. Righty media takes its cues from the audience much more frequently than vice versa. If Fox had a “Walter Cronkite moment,” the only political entity that would suffer is Fox as some of its viewers decamped for OANN.