Whistleblower smears, conspiracies and 'no quid pro quo': The GOP impeachment theories, debunked

Some are laughably easy to disprove, some are disingenuous interpretations of facts and some are just conspiracy theories spun to give them a façade of respectability.
Image: Donald Trump
People wearing shirts with the words "Read the Transcript" arrive at a campaign rally in Lexington, Ky., on Nov. 4, 2019.Susan Walsh / AP
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By Mimi Rocah, former assistant U.S. attorney and NBC/MSNBC legal analyst and Matthew Miller, justice and security analyst for MSNBC

As a stream of transcripts from closed-door depositions are released and Congress prepares for public hearings on President Donald Trump’s dealings with Ukraine, defenders of the president are turning from “the process is unfair!” arguments to actual defenses of his conduct — sometimes lurching from one argument to another at a dizzying pace. As former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau put it, “This entire impeachment process is just gonna be all of us knocking down the most offensively stupid arguments from Trump supporters every minute of every day, isn’t it?”

Defenders of the president are turning from “the process is unfair!” arguments to actual defenses of his conduct — sometimes lurching from one argument to another at a dizzying pace.

Probably, yes. So far, Congress has taken testimony from at least 16 witnesses who paint a devastating portrait of the president’s conduct both before and after his July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. In the face of this testimony, the president’s defenses have had to evolve to account for new facts that come pouring out daily. Some of these theories are laughably easy to disprove, some are disingenuous interpretations of facts, and some are just conspiracy theories spun to give them a façade of respectability.

So, let’s take the main GOP responses one by one.

The whistleblower is a partisan Democrat and can’t be trusted

Arguably the most dangerous of these theories and defenses is the movement to unmask the whistleblower at the center of the Ukraine call. Republican lawmakers and the president himself are pushing to reveal the person's identity. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., has argued that the whistleblower is not protected by any laws and that, in fact, the Sixth Amendment means Trump has the right to face his accuser — a legal right that does not apply in this case.

They have also argued — without evidence — that he or she is a partisan Democrat. In fact, The New York Times has reported that the whistleblower is a career CIA official. But the whistleblower could be Hillary Clinton herself and it wouldn’t make any difference. Law enforcement relies on anonymous tipsters all the time — some have biases, some don’t. It’s irrelevant. Investigators do an independent investigation and see whether the tip is correct. Here, the House investigation has to date shown that virtually every piece of information in the whistleblower’s initial complaint has been verified.

No quid pro quo

Trump and his most ardent defenders have repeatedly claimed there was no quid pro quo, despite much evidence and testimony to the contrary. “No quid pro quo” has become the new “no collusion.” Quid pro quo means something in exchange for something. The call summary put out by Trump himself shows that this is what happened.

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But, of course, this isn’t just about one call. Four key witnesses — Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, Ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor, White House adviser Timothy Morrison and Ambassador to the E.U. Gordon Sondland — have all testified specifically that a condition for Ukraine to get congressionally approved military aid and a coveted White House meeting was to publicly announce the opening of an investigation into Joe and Hunter Biden and the 2016 election.

No quid pro quo” has become the new “no collusion.” Quid pro quo means something in exchange for something. The call summary put out by Trump himself shows that this is what happened.

Indeed, on Tuesday Sondland sent in a three-page declaration to the House committees leading the impeachment inquiry updating his previous testimony and making it even clearer that Ukraine knew exactly what was expected of it and was seeking advice on how to deal with the pressure. The fact that Zelenskiy may have recently said there was no pressure is a red herring. Extortion victims are just that — victims. They are going to do and say exactly what the person with power wants them to say.

In the face of this evidence, the newest Trump defense seems to be: just because Sondland and Taylor thought there was a quid pro quo doesn’t mean that there actually was one. Everything about this defense emphasizes words over actions. Saying “no quid pro quo” doesn’t make it true. Volker texted a quid pro quo to Andrey Yermak, an aide to Zelenskiy. Sondland then explicitly communicated a quid pro quo to the same aide. How do we know Trump was on board with all this? Because he reiterated it in his call with Zelenskiy (“we need a favor though”) and because, as almost every witness has testified, Trump repeatedly directed anyone involved in Ukraine policy to talk to Rudy Giulaini. Giulaini has been the most clear about how and what demands needed to be met by Ukraine.

There was a quid pro quo — but the U.S. does this all the time

It is true, as the president’s defenders claim, that the United States frequently withholds foreign aid as leverage to induce behavior favorable to our national interests, including encouraging countries to fight corruption. But if that was really Trump’s goal here, why did he use his personal lawyer, shut out career State Department officials and bypass the normal channels at the Justice Department, which are explicitly designed to engage with foreign countries on these kinds of topics?

Not to mention the fact that there have been no other “corruption” investigations into nonpolitical opponents. This was never about rooting out corruption, which is a real problem in Ukraine and arguably also in America as well. If it was, we’d see other investigations.

The quid pro quo didn’t work — so what’s the big deal?

“I look at it this way: The aid is there and the investigations didn’t happen,” Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., told “Meet the Press” recently. “So if there was a quid pro quo, it certainly wasn’t a very effective one.”

Of all the ridiculous arguments, this — it was a failed attempt at extortion — is at the top. First, attempting to commit a crime is, still, a crime. People who failed to successfully complete a murder do not get a pass. But the fact that Trump never received any dirt doesn’t matter — he is still guilty of using the power of the presidency — which belongs to U.S. citizens, not Trump — to seek dirt. Watergate was a failure in the sense that the burglars never completed their mission, but not even Trump's defenders have gone so far (yet) as to argue that Nixon did nothing wrong.

Finally, Trump only released the aid when the facts about the hold started to become public. The White House released the aid on Sept. 11 — just two days after the congressional intelligence committees were formally notified of the whistleblower complaint.

The witnesses are all lying

One consistent argument from Trump and his supporters is that the witnesses and the whistleblower are all liars from the “deep state” who are out to get the president. It’s a lazy argument and a lazy attempt to smear reputable Americans. The testimony that is being given right now comes from career public servants, who have worked for presidents of both parties, and who came forward not eagerly, but because they witnessed unacceptable misconduct.

For example, Vindman and Fiona Hill, another White House adviser, testified that they were so alarmed by what they heard between Trump and Ukraine that they took their concerns to a National Security Council lawyer. At least six witnesses (Sondland, Taylor, Hill, Marie Yavonovich, George Kent and Christopher Anderson) describe an ongoing pressure campaign directed by Rudy Giuliani.

So, in order to believe that Vindman — a decorated war hero with absolutely nothing to gain and everything to lose by coming forward — is lying, we would also have to believe that he and the other witnesses who corroborate him are lying. We would have to believe that Taylor, Hill, Volker, Vindman and even Sondland somehow got another person — the whistleblower — to file a formal complaint as part of the conspiracy. We would have to believe acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and Giuliani’s admissions of guilt were also either impossible coincidences or somehow part of the plot. This makes no sense.

None of this is a crime

The president and some defenders argue his conduct isn’t impeachable because it doesn’t constitute a violation of the criminal statutes. Who cares? Impeachment as contemplated by the Founding Fathers and as written in the Constitution does not require a crime. An abuse of power is sufficient. Even so, there are criminal cases that could be made here as well, namely, solicitation of illegal campaign contributions, conspiracy to defraud the United States, bribery and extortion. It is very difficult to apply criminal statues to presidential behavior, but that doesn’t mean the behavior was legal.

Get over it already

This last argument, made first by Mulvaney at his ill-fated Oct. 17 news conference, seems likely to become the ultimate summation of Trump’s implausible, contradictory and ever-changing attempt to evade responsibility for his actions. The president’s supporters haven’t made credible arguments because there aren’t any available to them. They know their defenses don’t hold water, but they also know that if Republicans in Congress hang together, they have the raw political power to just tell the country to get over it.

This argument has sadly worked for the president before — to credible accusations of sexual misconduct, to detailed evidence of obstruction of justice, to widespread accounts of corruption throughout his administration. But the American people deserve better from their elected representatives than “get over it.” They deserve answers and accountability.