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Transcript: The Best Defense

The full episode transcript for Article II: Inside Impeachment, The Best Defense.
Image: Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, and Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., speak to the media at the Capitol on Oct. 31, 2019.
Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, and Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., speak to the media at the Capitol on Oct. 31, 2019.Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP


Article II: Inside Impeachment

The Best Defense

Steve Kornacki: From NBC News, this is Article II: Inside Impeachment. I'm Steve Kornacki. Today is Wednesday, November 6th, and here's what's happening. (MUSIC) It's week seven in the impeachment inquiry. Transcripts are being released. Public hearings are just a week away. But some Republicans seem to be trying to sit this phase out by avoiding questions about the inquiry entirely.

Senator Martha Mcsally: The House is doing what they're doing. In the meantime, the Senate is doing our work in order to do what matters.

Senator Susan Collins: As a juror, I think it's inappropriate for me to reach conclusions.

Archival Recording: The question is: Is it appropriate for a president to ask a foreign government to investigate?

Archival Recording: Look, I think we are going to have an investigation. And it's a nonpartisan investigation.

Archival Recording: But, Senator, it's a yes-or-no question.

Archival Recording: It's a nonpartisan investigation.

Kornacki: You might remember that things played out a little differently the last time the country went through all of this.

President Bill Clinton: Indeed, I did have a relationship with Miss Lewinsky that was not appropriate. In fact, it was wrong.

Kornacki: In August of 1998, President Clinton acknowledged a mistake.

Clinton: It constituted a critical lapse in judgment and a personal failure on my part for which I am solely and completely responsible.

Kornacki: And it basically gave Democrats the freedom to say, "Yeah, what the President did was wrong," but to also argue that impeachment would go too far.

Senator Joe Lieberman: These feelings have gone beyond my personal dismay to a larger, graver sense of loss for our country.

Archival Recording: It was wrong. It was indefensible. And as Senator Lieberman has said, the relationship was immoral.

Archival Recording: While the President's conduct was reprehensible, it did not threaten the nation. To misuse the impeachment power in this case will create a national harm.

Kornacki: But that strategy of getting the President and his party unified around a single message looks pretty much impossible for Republicans this time around, with President Trump insisting he did absolutely nothing wrong.

President Donald Trump: That call was perfect. It couldn't have been nicer. I have a perfect phone call. I made a perfect call. Not a good call; a perfect call.

Kornacki: But the unwillingness of many Republicans to back him up on that has been noticeable. So today on Article II we're asking the Kornacki: For Republicans who don't want to see the President removed from office, what's the best argument they can make to protect him? Jon Allen is a political reporter for NBC News Digital, and he joins us now from Washington. Jon, how you doin'?

Jon Allen: I'm doing great, Steve.

Kornacki: I want to go through the basic defenses that are being offered by Republicans. But before we do that, I thought we'd maybe start with a more basic question. And that is why Republicans feel they have to defend him right now. What is the political imperative that makes them, it seems, not want to go after him on this and want to defend him?

Allen: You've got to start with the electorate. You have to start with the Republican electorate. The President's approval rating with Republicans, whether you believe the lowest numbers for him or the highest numbers, is somewhere between 75% and 95%. And so for most of these members of Congress, they realize that folks back home who support them also support the President.

And in some cases support the President more than they support them. So I think you start with that. They understand that if they're not out there making a case on his behalf, they leave the field open to Democrats that the Democrats will have an opportunity to sway the public, particularly independents and maybe even some of those Republican voters.

Then the third thing is they're really being forced to explain why they're voting the way they are, at least in the case of House members. We saw for the first time a vote on the House floor last week where technically the House adopted rules for the remainder of its impeachment inquiry, but it was really the first test vote on impeachment. And so for all the Republicans, and they voted in unified fashion against it, they all have to come up with a reason, an explanation for why they were voting against continuing that inquiry.

Kornacki: Right. So that's the interesting part then. If the read of the average Republican member of Congress is basically, "Hey, this is where my voters are. It's where I need to be," then they are gonna be asked that question. As you say, they're gonna be asked the question, "Why?" So let's work through some of the whys that are being offered and kind of break them down, try to understand them a little bit. The first one is the most basic. It's the simplest. It's basically what the President is saying, that there was no quid pro quo.

Trump: But listen to this: There is no pro quo.

Kornacki: So you can call this the "nothing to see here" strategy I guess. How widespread among Republicans in Congress is this particular defense, that no quid pro quo, nothing wrong, perfect call?

Allen: Not terribly widespread. You know, you'll hear that from the most staunch defenders of President Trump, the sort of usual suspects, the ones who know they're not gonna pay a price back home. That'll be your Mark Meadows of North Carolina, Jim Jordan of Ohio, you know, certainly some folks on the Senate side who are very close to the President. They will say, "Nothing to see here. There's nothing wrong with this. There's no quid pro quo." And even if there was, as the President says, "Even if there was a quid pro quo, there would be nothing wrong with it."

Kornacki: This week of course also brought the news Ambassador Gordon Sondland, the envoy to the EU, he amended his original testimony. He said in this amended testimony that aid to Ukraine was tied to getting a commitment for that investigation. Obviously a lot of folks taking away from that that Sondland seems to be saying, "Well, there was some kind of a quid pro quo here." You mentioned Meadows. Let's listen to what Meadows said in light of that new testimony.

Archival Recording: Why is that not a quid pro quo?

Representative Mark Meadows: Well, my understanding is that that was his understanding. But any time there was direct conversations with the President, there was no linkage. So any linkage...

Kornacki: So I guess, Jon, the question that comes out of that is the ability or the desire to defend the President along the lines that the President's defending himself, does Sondland's revised testimony affect Republicans' ability to do that?

Allen: You would think that it would affect our ability to do it credibly. Here, you have somebody in Sondland who is a huge supporter of the president, who donated heavily to the president, who got an ambassadorship, who clearly came in to testify in the first place with the intent of making this look as good as possible for the President, who then had to go back and revise his testimony to avoid the possibility of having said something false to Congress.

You've heard Meadows talking to our own Leigh Ann Caldwell, saying that, "This quid pro quo doesn't exist because there is one witness, Kurt Volker, who has said that there wasn't a quid pro quo." And it's sort of one of these instances where you have four, or five, or six people who have come out and said that there was a quid pro quo and one witness who has said there wasn't. And you sorta wonder in a trial if there were five or six witnesses that said something happened and one who said there wasn't what a jury would make of that. But politics isn't exactly like the justice system.

Kornacki: Let's get to the second kind of main defense that Republicans have been offering. We could call this one maybe the "all's well that ends well" defense. I'm gonna play here Kellyanne Conway, White House counselor, counselor to the President. Here she is offering that defense.

Kellyanne Conway: They got their aid. And the president never...

Dana Bash: Now. I'm talking about then. Was there a time when military aid was held up because the President wanted Ukraine to look into the Bidens?

Conway: I don't know. But I know they got their aid.

Kornacki: So basically, Jon, you heard her there, Kellyanne Conway saying, "Look, the bottom line: September 11th, Ukraine got the aid without giving anything in return. So therefore this is all sort of immaterial."

Allen: Yeah. I mean, Ukraine got the aid under tremendous pressure from Congress. People in the administration were aware that others in the administration were concerned about what had happened on that July 25th phone call. The whistleblower complaint started to make its way through the administration.

So there was an alertness and awareness to the possibility that the withholding of aid was becoming an issue. And in addition to that, if you have planned to commit some sort of offense, you know, whether it be a crime or potentially an impeachable offense, your ability to execute it or make good on it does not necessarily matter.

Certainly it doesn't matter in the case of impeachment because impeachment's a political act, not a criminal prosecution. You know, with regard to Kellyanne, if you're on the Republican side, if you are a defender of President Trump, she deserves a medal for being the most consistent and loyal defender of the President, perhaps the most able in public. And, you know, she's quick with the arguments, but I'm not sure that that's one that's gonna end up holding a lot of water.

Kornacki: So let's try the third defense that we hear some Republicans offering. For some context maybe, it's kind of related to that press conference that Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, had a few weeks ago.

Archival Recording: Let's be clear. What you just described is a quid pro quo. It is, "Funding will now flow unless the investigation into the Democratic server happened as well."

Mick Mulvaney: We do that all the time with foreign policy. And I have news for everybody: Get over it.

Kornacki: Jon, of course, Mulvaney after that press conference said the media had misconstrued what he was saying there. But there has been some reporting, there have been some comments from some Republican lawmakers, I think John Kennedy from Louisiana being one of them, who now basically seem to embracing that, at least in part, and saying, "There was perhaps some kind of a quid pro quo here, but it's not impeachable." Can you break down what the argument is there?

Allen: Sure. What Kennedy and Ted Cruz have said behind closed doors according to the Washington Post and others is, "There may have been a quid pro quo but that there was no corrupt intent on the part of the President." And this is a legal bar that they're talking about. Of course, again, impeachment doesn't require quite the same thing as a courtroom would.

But in theory in terms of a quid pro quo in a bribery case, and of course impeachment doesn't require bribery to have happened. But in theory in a bribery case, you would have to have had a corrupt quid pro quo. The exchange of one thing for another is not illegal, but the exchange of one thing for another that is corrupt is then illegal.

And so what they're saying is there's no corrupt intent on the part of the President. Interestingly, this argument is sort of at odds with what Kellyanne Conway is saying. Kellyanne Conway is saying, "There may have been a corrupt intent here, but they were unable to execute the corruption." And what Kennedy and Cruz are saying is, "They may have executed a trade corruptly, but there was no corrupt intent."

Kornacki: We had a listener question as well I wanted to run by you kind of related to this. Steve in Las Vegas. "Why is there so much focus on quid pro quo? Isn't it still impeachable if Trump asked Ukraine to investigate Biden with no quo?" He's just asking if it can be established if Trump simply made a request or brought up the topic of an investigation by Ukraine of the Bidens, would that by itself be impeachable?

Allen: Yeah, it's a great question. I think we talk about quid pro quo and, you know, not everybody took Latin in high school or college. And I got a D in Latin in high school. So I'm perfectly happy to talk about corrupt exchanges rather than quid pro quo, or quids pro quo, or squid pro quo. I mean, the short answer to that question is anything is potentially an impeachable offense if the House impeaches the President for it and the Senate votes to remove him.

But even more specifically to that, yeah, if one of the actions taken is seen by the House to be an abuse of power, or to break the law, or to satisfy the high crimes and misdemeanors prohibition in the Constitution, then you need not have an exchange of one act for another. Certainly I think the Democrats are looking at the effort to get an investigation of the Bidens as a high crime or misdemeanor in and of itself, even if they don't attempt to impeach the President over bribery for the larger scheme.

Kornacki: Well, so it's interesting, too, and I'm curious if this has been what you've picked up on. It seems to me watching this that, as you said, there are a few Republicans who are willing to go out there and say, "Hey, absolutely nothing the President did was wrong here."

But it seems to me that a lot of them seem very hesitant to offer a full-throated defense, even if they're not criticizing him, even if they're not condemning him. Am I right to pick that up, that Republicans, a lot of them do seem to want to say there was something wrong here?

Allen: Capitol Hill is an ostrich farm right now, at least on the Republican side. Most of them would prefer not to speak to the press at all because (and this is, you know, interpretation of what's going on, but I've seen a lot of scandals in my nearly 20 years up there) what you got going on is a President who's very popular in the party, they're scared of crossing him, and I don't think most of them are in a place where they would like to impeach or remove him from office even if they weren't afraid of crossing him.

But at the same time, none of them want to stand up and say that it's a good thing for the President of the United States to employ the trappings of his office and the power of his office to go investigate a political opponent overseas, or to invite a foreign government into, you know, U.S. domestic politics, or even to withhold congressionally appropriated foreign aid, or to issue a sort of blanket refusal to comply with congressional subpoenas.

I mean, the conduct of the President over the course of the last several months and even last couple of years is not something that they want to own in terms of what things look like in the future if there's a Democratic president. Clearly they wouldn't want a Democratic president seeking reelection to start investigating his political opponents using the powers of foreign governments to, say, wiretap conversations. This is not something they want to bless for the future.

Kornacki: We've gone through these three basic defenses that we're hearing from Republicans. Do you have a sense which one of those might emerge, is most likely to emerge as a sort of consensus defense by Republicans? Or if it might be something else altogether?

Allen: I suspect by the end of this you're gonna hear, "Not impeachable," and, "This is something that should be decided by the electorate," which is sort of something you're hearing a little bit of now that I think will emerge more as you get into the Senate trial phase. At that point you're already into the new year. You're into 2020, which is the election year.

But we're in the period of sort of the chaos defense of Donald Trump where everybody sort of on his side is throwing things in the air. And it doesn't really matter for the moment whether or not there's a coherent defense because what he cares about for right now and what's important for him in the short term is to make sure that Republican lawmakers stay on board and that they feel like one of those arguments is something that each of those lawmakers can grab onto.

I think for the longer term it makes sense for him to have something that they can all coalesce around. And when I say the longer term, I mean for the 2020 election to defend himself against the idea that he's acted corruptly. But for the short term, he just needs the Republicans to stick together.

Kornacki: I wanted to bring up a bit of news that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made this week. Obviously if there are articles of impeachment introduced in the House, if they do pass the House, there is a trial in the Senate. McConnell talked about that this week. Here's what he said.

Senator Mitch Mcconnell: If it were today, I don't think there's any question it would not lead to a removal. So the question is: Just how long does the Senate want to take?

Kornacki: So McConnell expressing confidence there. At least right now, he says, the votes wouldn't be there. Trump wouldn't be removed. I'm curious because there was also a big piece of news in McConnell's home state, political news, Kentucky, where on Tuesday the Republican governor was defeated for reelection very narrowly, getting a lot of attention now.

Is there a connection do you think at all at least potentially between the election result in Kentucky? Also Virginia, the state legislature has flipped to the Democrats. They now completely control the state. Is there anything in there that you see changing the political dynamics of impeachment in Washington?

Allen: I think there's a version of the world in which Mitch McConnell is not up for reelection in 2020 as he actually is and Mitch McConnell is a much more aggressive defender of the president than he has been. But we haven't seen that. What we've seen is a circumspect McConnell, one who says that if there was a removal vote in the Senate today, that it would not carry.

Well, we haven't seen any of the public hearings in the House yet. There has not been a trial in the Senate yet. He seems to be leaving that door open in a way that is I think a little bit surprising for McConnell, who, you know, plays his cards very close to the vest. But when he wants to come out and make a statement about how powerful he is and how he can shut down the other side, he certainly does.

Remember that with Merrick Garland, the Obama Supreme Court justice pick back several years ago when McConnell simply said, "This guy's not getting a hearing." So to hear McConnell talk about potential Senate trial for the President and where it stands today versus where it might stand in the future seems to me to be an indication that he is leaving his options open, and leaving the options of the Senate open, and certainly leaving open the options of other senators who might need to break with the president for their own reelection opportunities. His priority is always gonna be keeping as many Republican senators in the Senate as possible and trying to maintain his majority.

Kornacki: Jon Allen, now that I know you're a former Latin student, I was trying to think of some kind of Latin expression I could use to sign off here, but I was also a terrible Latin student. So I'm drawin' a blank, too. But, Jon Allen, political reporter for NBC News Digital, thanks for joining us. Appreciate it.

Allen: Thanks, Steve. (MUSIC)

Kornacki: And get ready, America. Starting next week, the hearings will be televised. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff announced today that three people are scheduled for public testimony next week.

Representative Adam Schiff: Those open hearings will be an opportunity for the American people to evaluate the witnesses for themselves, to make their own determinations about the credibility of the witnesses, but also to learn firsthand about the facts of the President's misconduct.

Kornacki: And a big thanks to Steve in Las Vegas for tweeting us that great question about the significance of a quid pro quo. And if you have a question, you can be just like Steve and you can be a guest star on this show. Ask your question to us on Twitter using the hashtag #ArticleIIPodcast.

That's #Article-I-I. The letters I-I. Roman numerals there. A lotta Latin in this show today. #Article-I-I-Podcast. Tweet us your question there. Or you could do it directly to me @SteveKornacki. Or how about this? You can give us a call. Call us at this number: 646-397-5166. Leave a message with your question. The number again, 646-397-5166. It is our special Ask the Impeachment Question voicemail hotline. Give it a try. It's very old school. I like it. I can't wait to incorporate it into the show. Maybe you'll be the first voicemail that we use.

Article II: Inside Impeachment is produced by Isabel Angel, Max Jacobs, Claire Tighe, Allison Bailey, Adam Noboa, and Barbara Raab. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is the executive producer of audio. I'm Steve Kornacki. We'll be back on Friday.