Quid Pro No: How Trump and the GOP Are Trying to Gaslight the Nation on the Ukraine Scandal

They did it before on “collusion.”

Evan Vucci/AP

Here we go again.

The memo released by the White House recounting the July 25 call between President Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is a bombshell. But Trump and his defenders in the GOP, FoxWorld, and conservative circles are trying to repeat the move he staged in the Russia scandal and claim this is no biggie because the memo does not depict Trump explicitly engaged in criminal activity. Don’t buy this baloney.

Throughout the Trump-Russia scandal, the president and his cultists have insisted that he did no wrong because there was no direct collusion between him and the Russian operatives who hacked his Democratic opponents and used WikiLeaks to disseminate the purloined documents. That was the standard that Trump set via his tweets and tantrums: no collusion, nothing to see. And he mostly succeeded with this tactic. When special counsel Robert Mueller’s final report concluded that Trump had not been part of the criminal conspiracy waged by Russia against the 2016 election (to help Trump), he declared vindication. And with that braying, Trump managed to sidestep being publicly branded as a scoundrel for having betrayed his nation by aiding and abetting the Russian attack. (During the campaign, Trump encouraged the Russian assault but publicly denied it was happening even as he sought to benefit from it, providing cover to a foreign adversary seeking to subvert an American election.) Trump made collusion the core issue—because he obviously did not directly plot with Moscow—and, consequently, his actual treachery, which was profound but not necessarily criminal, drew less attention.

That success is shaping how Trump is now confronting his latest scandal: the allegation that he leaned on Zelensky to produce dirt on Biden in exchange for US military aid. With this controversy pushing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to launch an impeachment inquiry, Trump and his gang have had to devise a strategy for containing this fire—which has been fueled by the revelations that a whistleblower filed a report with the intelligence community’s inspector general expressing concern about Trump’s interactions with Ukraine and that the acting director of national intelligence was ordered (probably by the White House) to violate the law and not share this report with Congress. The game plan for Trump and his gang, once again, is to distract from Trump’s clear-and-present wrongdoing by asserting he didn’t actually do something worse, such as break the law.

The memo the White House issued depicts Trump abusing his power, as he pressures Zelensky to investigate Biden, one of Trump’s key political rivals. It does not provide evidence of a quid pro quo. Trump does not outright say, “Hey, pal, if you want your $400 million in military aid, you will get me good shit on Biden and also stuff that clears Paul Manafort.” But this memo notes on the first page that it is not a “verbal transcript”—though it is structured as a transcript—and merely “records the notes and recollections” of officials who listened to the call. So there is no telling if a more damning phrase or sentence was uttered by Trump during the conversation. (And this one memo does not cover Trump’s other conversations about Ukraine, such as his chats with number-one henchman, Rudy Giuliani, who has been searching for oppo research in Ukraine.) But even without such a let’s-make-a-deal line, the memo is extraordinarily damning. 

In this account, Trump congratulates Zelensky, a former television comedian, on his election victory and points out that the United States has been “very very good to Ukraine.” And when Zelensky tells Trump that Ukraine wants to purchase more Javelin antitank missiles from the United States, Trump responds in a quid-pro-quo-ish manner by saying, “I would like you to do us a favor though.” He goes on to suggest to Zelensky that the server of the Democratic Party that was hacked by the Russians somehow ended up in Ukraine, perhaps with a Ukrainian oligarch. And he asks Zelensky “to find out what happened.” (There is no basis for believing the DNC server wound up in Ukraine—and it never disappeared in the first place.) Trump notes that Mueller’s investigation recently ended but that “a lot of it started with Ukraine.” And he requests that Zelensky “get to the bottom of it.” Trump adds, “It’s very important that you do it if that’s possible.” This appears to be an attempt to push Zelensky to produce information that will somehow discredit the Mueller probe and counter the Trump-Russia scandal. And it could be an effort on Trump’s part to obtain information—or disinformation—that could be used to undermine the prosecution and conviction of Paul Manafort, his campaign chair, who ended up in prison on charges related to his lucrative dealings in Ukraine.

Trump then presents another ask to Zelensky. He cites the fact-free conspiracy theory that Biden, when vice president, urged the firing of a Ukrainian prosecutor (who was widely seen as corrupt) to protect a Ukrainian company on whose board Biden’s son, Hunter, sat. (Biden did press for this prosecutor’s dismissal, representing the desire of many Western nations, and there is no evidence it had anything to do with his son’s connection to the Ukrainian firm.) Trump says, “There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that.” He requests that Zelensky talk to Attorney General Bill Barr about this matter (which has no merit). And he also tells Zelensky to be in contact with Giuliani, his personal lawyer, in this regard: “Rudy very much knows what’s happening.” And while discussing all this, Trump predicts that Ukraine’s economy will “get better and better.” Several times, Trump reiterates his desire that Zelensky talk to Barr and, especially, to Giuliani, who had previously acknowledged in public that he aimed to uncover dirt on Biden in Ukraine. (The Justice Department claims Barr never spoke to Zelensky.)

Whether this memo reveals all or not, one picture is clear: Trump used his office in an attempt to obtain disparaging information on a political foe and seek material to undercut an official US government investigation. The tenor of the conversation is undeniable: If Zelensky wants a decent relationship with the Trump administration and more Javelin missiles, he should do this “favor” for Trump. And at the time of the call, the Trump administration was withholding that previously authorized $400 million in military assistance—and providing no explanation for this move. Trump was not asking Zelensky to assist an authorized Justice Department investigation that was underway. This was what political pros call ratfucking. Trump was exploiting his presidential power to gain assistance from a foreign government for his reelection. It was collusion.

Trump, though, in his black-is-white fashion, is claiming this memo as absolution, proclaiming it contains no indication of a quid pro quo. 

 

Following Trump’s lead, on Capitol Hill, Republicans are squawking like parrots: “no quid pro quo.” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) sniffed in a tweet: “Wow. Impeachment over this? What a nothing (non-quid pro quo) burger.” And talking points sent out by the White House insist the Trump-Zelensky conversation was “entirely proper,” that Trump was only asking Zelensky to investigate Ukraine’s possible interference in the 2016 election, and that Trump was making a legitimate suggestion that Zelensky speak to Giuliani about the Biden. The talking points purport to shoot down the “myths” that Trump explicitly made a “mysterious” promise to Zelensky and offered him a “quid pro quo”—as if that is the only possible misconduct. The White House messaging does not address the incriminating remark: Trump, in response to Zelensky’s request for more missiles, asking for a “favor” and noting this was “important.” And, as to be expected, the talking points claim this new scandal is yet another “Deep State” attack on Trump, a conspiracy assisted by the media and congressional Democrats. 

All this noise from Trump and his minions is gaslighting. Trump is denying the reality of the memo. His handmaids within the GOP and the conservative media are marching in lockstep. They’re all on the same page: no direct quid pro quo in the conversation means no wrongdoing. It’s the same line as no collusion with Russia’s plot means no wrongdoing. Democrats and many reporters and media commentators got rolled by that spin during the Russia scandal. They and the citizenry of the United States should not fall for it again. Just as with the Russia affair, Trump has been caught red-handed. There is more to learn about the Ukraine scandal; it extends beyond this one phone call. But Trump himself has put his brazen misconduct on full public display. Now he is resorting to his familiar playbook: con the public. It has worked before. And as the House Democrats move ahead with impeachment, a critical question for the nation will be whether Trump and the Republicans can once again pull off this trickery.

This is a developing story. Read our liveblog here.

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