Things came to a head. On one side there’s what the Washington Post’s Robert Costa and Karoun Demirjian report here:
Much of the Republican Party is pressing ahead with debunked claims about Ukraine as they defend President Trump from possible impeachment, embracing Russian-fueled conspiracy theories that seek to cast blame on Kyiv rather than Moscow for interference in the 2016 U.S. election.
The increasingly aggressive GOP efforts continued Tuesday on Capitol Hill and were amplified throughout conservative media, one day after House Republicans released a 123-page document that insisted that Trump’s handling of Ukraine was founded on “genuine and reasonable” suspicions – despite mounting evidence rejecting that assertion and warning of its consequences.
So, the defense of Trump will be that Ukraine is evil and Russia is not, so Trump was right to withhold military aid to them unless they announced they were going after Joe Biden’s son and Joe Biden himself, to take them both down and take them both out. They didn’t have to do any of that, but they had to announce that they were. That would do. That would prove that they weren’t totally evil. Because they were, unless you believe people like this:
“I am not,” David Hale, the No. 3 official at the State Department, said Tuesday at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, when asked whether he was aware of any evidence of Ukrainian interference in the U.S. presidential election.
Hale’s statement’s echoed last month’s testimony by Fiona Hill, a former White House adviser on Russia, who dismissed claims of Ukrainian interference as “a fictional narrative” spun by Russian intelligence.
Anyone who knows anything at all about Ukraine – from amateurs to experts – knows they didn’t much like Trump saying that he was okay with Russia taking the whole of Crimea back from Ukraine, because “he’d heard” that the people there wanted that to happen, and they all spoke Russian there anyway. There were reminders. That’s what Hitler said about the Sudetenland in 1938 – all those people there spoke German, so they were ethnically German, so that part of Czechoslovakia should be part of German. And then it was all of Czechoslovakia. And it was the same with the German-speaking parts of Poland – what used to be Prussia. Hitler grabbed that the next year. This worried the Ukrainians. And some of them said so. That meant they were out to destroy Trump, all of them – and of course Russia, then, had done nothing much. Russia liked Trump. Good for them.
But this has upset a few Republicans:
Republicans’ promotion of Trump’s Ukraine conspiracy theory is the latest example of their capitulation to him and of the GOP’s rapid transformation on Russia – from a party that for decades celebrated its hawkish stance toward the Kremlin to one that is reluctant to take a hard line and risk Trump’s wrath…
For some seasoned Republican foreign policy voices, the GOP’s refusal to back away from Trump’s position on supposed interference by Ukraine risks erasing values forged in the Cold War and defined for a generation by President Ronald Reagan’s prescient call for the Berlin Wall to come down…
Lanhee Chen, a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University who has advised top Republicans on global affairs, said “it’s entirely a reflection of the political reality of where we are and the gravitational pull of President Trump and his singular hold over the Republican political establishment. … They don’t just ignore the Democrats but embrace alternative theories.”
But they have to do that now:
There is also a growing view inside the GOP that the party’s core voters will not revolt if the party takes a softer position on Russia – a calculation backed by polling during Trump’s presidency. Gallup’s surveys, for instance, show that an expanding group of Republicans – 40 percent in July 2018 – now says Russia is a U.S. ally or is friendly, up from 22 percent in 2014, while “25 percent of Democrats say the same, little changed from 2014.”
“The base supports the president, and every Republican knows that – and they don’t think that this issue will rise high on the list of issues that matter to voters when they go to the polls,” said Republican consultant Michael Steel, who worked for John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) when Boehner was House speaker. “Whether what some of them are saying on Ukraine is consciously intellectually dishonest or not, they think the election will turn on jobs and the economy, not on Russia.”
That’s a shrug. Jobs and the economy matter more than Russia, so let the base love Russia – Putin does hate gays – and let Trump be Trump:
Trump’s claims on Ukraine are part of the long list of incendiary conspiracy theories he has championed while paying little to no political cost within his own party, including questioning former president Barack Obama’s birthplace and patriotism, linking the father of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) to John F. Kennedy’s assassination and alleging that Trump Tower was wiretapped during the 2016 campaign.
Many Senate Republicans who spoke with reporters around their weekly lunch Tuesday argued that the way Ukrainian officials spoke about the 2016 presidential campaign constituted interference on par with Russian interference – a position that is directly at odds with the conclusion of U.S. intelligence officials.
They voiced their worries, the Russians hacked away and flooded Facebook and Twitter with fake accounts full of anecdotes to enrage the right bring down Hillary Clinton, but somehow one is just like the other, or worse, so this was inevitable:
Conservative media figures, including Fox News host Tucker Carlson, have been at the forefront of right-wing claims that Russian interference has been overstated by U.S. officials and the national political establishment, fueling the congressional Republican push to shrug off talk about Russian hostility.
“It never happened. There was no collusion. Russia didn’t hack our democracy,” Carlson wrote on Fox News’s website Tuesday. “The whole thing was a talking point, a ludicrous talking point, invented by the Hillary Clinton campaign on or about November 9th, 2016 to explain their unexpected defeat in the last presidential election.”
That column by Carlson came hours after he said on his Monday broadcast that “I think we should probably take the side of Russia, if we have to choose between Russia and Ukraine.”
When the Russian tanks roll in we send in a tank battalion or two too, to destroy those evil Ukrainians once and for all. Tucker Carlson may be loony, but he chats with the president daily, letting him know what’s best to do and what America, as Carlson sees it, wants the president to do. Trump listens, and of course Attorney General Barr has been traveling the world – to Italy and Australia and Britain – to ask each country to help him prove that the CIA and NSA and all our intelligence services hate Trump and commit treason every single day trying to bring him down. The Brits were stunned, but this is about defending Trump. That must be done. Tax cuts! Judges!
But there was one surprise:
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham on Tuesday said he is “1,000% confident” that Russia, not Ukraine, meddled in the 2016 US presidential election, breaking from President Donald Trump and others in his party who have pushed the discredited conspiracy theory.
“It was the Russians. I’m 1,000% confident that the hack of the DNC was by Russian operatives, no one else,” the South Carolina senator told reporters on Capitol Hill.
He reiterated his stance to CNN saying, “I’ve got no doubt that it was the Russians who stole the DNC emails. It wasn’t Ukraine. Russia was behind the stolen DNC emails and (John) Podesta and all that good stuff.”
That’s odd. His one best friend for fifty or more years was John McCain. Trump told him to renounce McCain as a fool and coward and no hero at all. Trump told him to spit on McCain’s grave. He did. And it was the same with Joe Biden, a close friend for just about as long – a man Graham called on of the best men he had ever met – and Graham just opened a Senate inquiry to show that Biden and Biden’s son were thieves or worse. Biden finds this sad, and a bit pathetic, but this makes Graham a hero on the right. He betrayed two lifelong good fiends because Donald Trump told him to. That’s real patriotism. Wouldn’t you betray your best friends for Donald Trump? Ah, but letting Russia off the hook was another matter. Graham just couldn’t do that.
But forget Graham. The defense is set, and this is the offense:
House Democrats accused President Trump on Tuesday of systematically abusing the powers of his office by pressuring Ukraine to launch politically motivated investigations, as their inquiry shifts to a new phase that will almost certainly lead to a vote this month on whether to impeach the president.
A blistering, 300-page report produced by the Democratic-led House Intelligence Committee concluded that Trump had “compromised national security to advance his personal political interests” and then engaged in an “unprecedented campaign” to prevent Congress from uncovering the truth.
“The President’s actions have damaged our national security, undermined the integrity of the next election, and violated his oath of office,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), Oversight and Reform Committee Chairwoman Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), whose panels have overseen the inquiry, said in a statement. “They have also challenged the very core of our constitutional system of checks and balances, separation of powers, and rule of law.”
While the report does not outline the specific articles of impeachment the president could face in the House, it signals that Democrats are at least preparing to accuse of him of obstructing Congress, finding that a dozen witnesses “followed President Trump’s orders, defying voluntary requests and lawful subpoenas, and refusing to testify.”
There was no discussion of whether or not the Ukrainians were the enemies of Trump, and thus the enemies of America, because that was beside the point:
At the heart of Democrats’ case is their allegation that Trump tried to leverage a White House meeting and military aid, sought by Ukraine in the face of Russian military aggression, to pressure President Volodymyr Zelensky to launch investigations of former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter, as well as an unfounded theory that Kyiv conspired with Democrats to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.
This was about Trump, not Ukraine, and Trump was not happy:
Trump has repeatedly said he did nothing wrong and has derided the impeachment inquiry as a “hoax” and a “witch hunt.”
“I think it’s a disgrace. I think the Democrats should be ashamed of themselves,” Trump said during a bilateral meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in London, where he is attending a NATO meeting. “If you look at impeachment, the word ‘impeachment,’ here there was nothing wrong, nothing done wrong.”
That’s the secondary defense. Any inquiry into whether he did something wrong is absolutely invalid if he stipulates, as he sees it, that he did nothing wrong. He has so stipulated. This impeachment is therefore invalid. Case closed.
It’s not closed:
Democrats’ findings are primarily drawn from the testimony of witnesses who appeared before the Intelligence Committee last month, as well as the rough transcript of a July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelensky released by the White House, in which Trump asks the Ukrainian leader to “do us a favor though” with regard to the investigations.
But the report also includes records showing that Trump’s personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani, who orchestrated the pressure campaign against Ukraine, made phone calls to the White House and its budget office during key moments of the investigation.
The records show he called the White House repeatedly on April 24, the day then-U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch was summoned to Washington and removed from her post in Kyiv. Giuliani publicly alleged that she was anti-Trump, although Yovanovitch’s colleagues, including senior State Department officials, have defended her as an exemplary public servant.
Giuliani called the White House at least seven times on April 24 between 7:47 a.m. and 8:09 p.m. He also received a call from a White House number and spent more than eight minutes speaking to someone identified only as “-1” in the report.
The records do not provide any details about the nature of the calls or whether Giuliani spoke with Trump. On Twitter and in television appearances that day, Giuliani promoted the debunked theory, embraced by the president, about alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election.
But he was blowing smoke, because this was about destroying the Biden family using all available resources:
The report also details calls Giuliani made in August to people whose phone numbers are associated with the White House Office of Management and Budget, at a time when an Oval Office meeting for Zelensky was being sought and Trump had placed a hold on the military aid for Ukraine.
And the report reveals new contacts between the Intelligence Committee’s ranking Republican, Rep. Devin Nunes (Calif.), and Giuliani, as well as other newly disclosed phone records that suggest Giuliani may have talked to Trump and Fox News host Sean Hannity on April 25, the same day Joe Biden declared his presidential bid.
Trump was a guest on Hannity’s show that night and discussed a column by the conservative columnist John Solomon that described Biden’s efforts to oust a Ukrainian prosecutor while he was vice president and questioned whether Biden had acted to protect his son Hunter, who served on the board of a Ukrainian energy company. There is no evidence to back up that claim.
There’s all this evidence. But, but, but Ukraine is evil! Things have come to a head. How can anything be resolved when each side is talking about something else entirely?
But it was the same in London. Mark Landler, the New York Times’ London bureau chief, notes how things came to a head there:
President Trump has always relished throwing European leaders off balance, antagonizing allies, embracing insurgents and setting off a frantic contest for how best to deal with him. Now, as Europe undergoes dizzying political changes of its own, it is throwing Mr. Trump off balance.
In London for a NATO summit meeting, Mr. Trump was subjected to a rare tongue-lashing on trade and terrorism by President Emmanuel Macron of France, who dismissed his attempt to lighten the mood with a curt, “Let’s be serious.”
Earlier in the day, Mr. Trump held his own tongue about British politics, heeding Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s plea not to barge into Britain’s election at the 11th hour.
Trump asked Macron how he’d like some ISIS terrorists to return to France. His snide little jokes didn’t work. Macron told him to get serious – he had abandoned the Kurds who had fought ISIS alongside France too, with the NATO contingent over there, and now Turkey was going to wipe them out like they wiped out the Armenians in that 1915 genocide. Think, Donald, think! And why is a NATO nation, Turkey, buying advanced Russian weapon systems and siding with Russia all the time? This is no time for quips.
This was a surprise:
For a president who prides himself on being the Great Disrupter, it was a startling turnabout, one that underscored how Europe’s shifting landscape – with an ambitious president in France, a lame-duck leader in Germany and a breakaway populist in Britain – has scrambled the calculus for Mr. Trump.
For now, at least, Mr. Macron has replaced Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany as Mr. Trump’s chief antagonist on the Continent. The French president’s recent assertion that NATO was exhausted and strategically adrift – or in a state of “brain death” as he put it in an interview with The Economist last month – angered both Mr. Trump and Ms. Merkel and has created an improbable, if perhaps fleeting, alignment between those two leaders who spent much of the last three years on opposite poles.
As for Mr. Johnson, his most natural ally, Mr. Trump bridled almost visibly as he tried to stay out of the British election on Dec. 12. “I don’t want to complicate it,” he said, in a grudging admission that he is so unpopular in Britain that a full-throated endorsement of the prime minister could backfire.
This was not the time for Trump to quip that a vote for Johnson was a vote for Trump, because Johnson will do what he says, because everyone does, because everyone loves him – their next real prime minister. But he held his tongue. Those folks over there have his number now:
Since Mr. Trump took office, Europeans have labored to adjust to his prejudices and preferences. They praised him for his success in calling on NATO members to increase their payments to the alliance, flattered him with invitations to military parades, as Mr. Macron once did, and stoically bore his attacks on their trade surpluses with the United States, like Ms. Merkel has.
But Europe is changing, too, with Britain seeking to leave, Ms. Merkel nearing the end of her tenure, and Mr. Macron staking his claim to European leadership with a vision of the future that depends less on the United States. His criticism of NATO is inevitably, if indirectly, a criticism of Mr. Trump and his “America First” policy.
As Europe changes, Mr. Trump is finding that he has to recalibrate his approach. With his own re-election campaign looming, he also wants credit for what he views as his foreign policy accomplishments, including NATO.
He caved on that and on more:
The president who once threatened to pull the United States out of NATO suddenly emerged as the alliance’s defender. The president who once exchanged a death-grip handshake with Mr. Macron sat by wordlessly while his much-younger counterpart lectured him on the need to fight the Islamic State. The president who championed Brexit and hectored Mr. Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, about her deal-making skills suddenly had nothing to say about it.
Asked about the British election, Mr. Trump resorted to talking about how his campaigning had helped Republican gubernatorial candidates in Kentucky and Louisiana – never mind that both men lost – before implicitly acknowledging that his involvement in Britain would probably not help.
“I love this country,” Mr. Trump said. “I love a lot of countries, but I’m representing the U.S. They may not like me because I’m representing us, and I represent us strong.”
And no one believed him.
On his last trip to London, Mr. Trump declared that “everything will be on the table” in a negotiation, including the National Health Service, before walking back his comments the following day. On Tuesday, Mr. Trump said he did not even know how those rumors got started.
“We have absolutely nothing to do with it, and we wouldn’t want to,” he said. “If you handed it to us on a silver platter, we’d want nothing to do with it.”
Even the ceremonial parts of Mr. Trump’s schedule attested to a changing of the guard. Before attending a reception given by Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace on Tuesday evening, the president and the first lady, Melania Trump, visited Prince Charles and his wife, the Duchess of Cornwall, at their residence, Clarence House.
Prince Charles has assumed a more central role in the royal family’s affairs in the aftermath of the scandal involving Prince Andrew’s ties with the disgraced financier, Jeffrey Epstein. Prince Andrew, who had withdrawn from public life, was conspicuously absent from the festivities on Tuesday.
“I don’t know Prince Andrew, but it’s a tough story,” said Mr. Trump, who was photographed with the prince during his state visit to London earlier this year and at Mar-a-Lago, his Palm Beach estate, nearly two decades ago.
He seemed a bit lost. But everything has come to a head now. And he probably senses none of this can end well. But it will end. It has to, now.