WASHINGTON ― It is one of the most stunning revelations about the Donald Trump presidency: Trump asked a foreign leader to investigate a political rival, and he even seemed to suggest that the reward for doing so would be $400 million in military assistance.
But according to congressional Republicans, the summary of the call that the White House released Wednesday contained no wrongdoing. No quid pro quo. No impeachable act.
“I’d even go further,” Rep. Jodey Arrington (R-Texas) told HuffPost. “I think it’s within his scope of responsibility as the chief executive in the fiduciary to make sure that, when we’re providing foreign aid to countries, that they are doing their part to root out graft and corruption.”
When we pressed Arrington on whether that meant he believed the foreign aid Trump had held up was tied to the “corruption” that Trump speaks about on the call ― namely, Joe Biden’s son’s involvement with a Ukrainian energy firm and the dismissal of a certain Ukrainian prosecutor ― Arrington said he didn’t know if Trump said anything connecting the money to a corruption investigation.
“I’m just saying it’s appropriate for him to make sure that the country that we’ve decided to support with foreign aid does everything in their power to put controls in place,” Arrington said.
And that was pretty much the reaction from House and Senate Republicans. Plenty of excuses, some praise for the president, some evasion.
I’m just saying it’s appropriate for him to make sure that the country that we’ve decided to support with foreign aid does everything in their power to put controls in place. Rep. Jodey Arrington (R-Texas)
Of the more than two dozen Republicans that HuffPost asked Wednesday afternoon whether they were troubled by anything in that phone call, a number of them reported they hadn’t read the White House readout of the conversation.
Reps. Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.), Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) and Doug LaMalfa (R-Calif.) all said they “haven’t had a chance to read” the memo.
“I don’t weigh in on things until I have all the facts, and I’m still reading it,” Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) added.
Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) also told reporters at a press conference Wednesday morning that he hadn’t read the memo, but it didn’t prevent him from lying about the contents of the call.
He rhetorically asked reporters who brought up Biden’s name during the phone call. “The president of Ukraine brought it up,” McCarthy answered, falsely.
Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, made a similar claim.
The first person to mention Biden’s name was Trump. Early in the conversation, according to the summary, Trump asks Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate any links between Ukraine and the special counsel investigation into Trump’s 2016 campaign.
Zelensky says one of his assistants had spoken with Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, who had been planning a trip to Ukraine to find political dirt on former Vice President Joe Biden. Trump says he hopes Zelensky connects with both Giuliani and U.S. Attorney General William Barr. He then switches gears to “the other thing.”
“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 so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great,” Trump said.
Biden and other world leaders had pushed Ukraine to fire a prosecutor in 2016 for failing to pursue corruption cases. At the time, Biden’s son Hunter Biden served on the board of a Ukrainian energy company.
HuffPost asked Collins if Zelensky bringing up Giuliani counted as bringing up Biden.
“They brought it up first, yeah,” Collins said.
It’s illegal for a U.S. presidential campaign to solicit or accept anything of value from a foreign government. In a joint statement, the Democratic chairs of four House committees said the summary showed “a clear breach of trust placed in the President to faithfully execute the laws and to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution,” and that the president “abused his office by directly and repeatedly asking a foreign country to investigate his political rival and open investigations meant to help the President politically.”
But that’s certainly not how Republicans see it. Republicans ― the ones who said they had read the notes of the call ― found ways to not only praise Trump, they also managed to slam Democrats.
Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (R-Tenn.) said he was “shocked” that the Democrats would pursue impeachment based on the phone call. “I think they owe the president a very strong apology,” he said.
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) tweeted Wednesday that “Nancy Pelosi should be embarrassed.” The transcript debunks the Democrats’ false claims against President Trump, Tillis claimed, and demonstrates that their call to impeach him is a “total farce.”
Trump promptly retweeted Tillis.
What Other Republicans Said: “Casual conversation with no pressure, no quid pro quo.” – Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) “The president should have the ability to talk to another president of another country freely and I don’t see anything inappropriate about it.” – Rep. Kenny Marchant (R-Texas) “He just brought up something to check into. And I would think anybody that was a citizen or a Democrat, if they had somebody that was doing that stuff as a vice president, I think they’d want to know about that.” – Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.) “Nothingburger.” – Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) “It was very gracious call. It was a very appropriate call. He’s being congratulatory, he was expressing the support for the new government and for the Ukrainian people.” – Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) “I didn’t see anything that ties him in there, that incriminates him in any way.” Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.)
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said it didn’t matter that the president said “we do a lot for Ukraine” and “I would like you to do us a favor” while withholding promised military assistance.
“There’s nothing in this phone call other than ‘Congratulations, you won. We’ve been generous to the Ukraine, other people need to pay more. And oh, by the way, you’re right. I’m glad you’re looking at corruption. This prosecutor they tell me was a good guy. You need to look at why he was fired,’” Graham said.
Republicans are clinging to the lack of a clear quid pro quo between Trump and Zelensky, where Trump asks the Ukrainian president to investigate the Biden matter while he holds up $400 million of U.S. aid to Ukraine. It doesn’t matter that Democrats have said Trump asking for dirt on a political opponent is more than enough, or that Trump actually does ― indirectly ― suggest that the money could be tied to Ukraine launching an investigation.
After raising how much aid the United States gives to Ukraine, Trump said, “I would like you to do us a favor.” Later in the call, Trump also predicted that the Ukrainian economy was going to get “better and better,” which could also be a reference to the money that he had just held up days earlier.
It was very gracious call. It was a very appropriate call. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.)
Regardless of those damning facts, some Republicans thought Democrats should be praising Trump.
“It looks like the president was doing exactly what Democrats have been asking him to do for the last two and a half years,” Rep. Andy Barr (R-Ky.) said, “which is inquire about Russian interference and the 2016 election.”
Trump does not ask Ukraine about Russian interference, though he does ask if they could help locate a DNC server that was hacked by Russia. There’s no known evidence that Ukraine has access to that server. But the corruption issue, which Trump explicitly raises in the context of Biden, is totally separate from Russian interference.
Either way, Barr said what troubles him is that Democrats rushed to judgment on hearsay. “What troubles me is a continued lurching from one impeachment theory to another,” he said.
Pressed whether he had a problem with the president asking a foreign leader for dirt on a political opponent, Barr reiterated that Trump was just investigating all aspects of Russian interference.
Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-Miss.), who reported that he’d only had a chance to briefly look at the memo, said what he saw wasn’t about “digging up dirt, it’s about following corruption.”
“I think they need to go all the way back to the Obama administration, that’s where it started,” Palazzo said without further explanation.
Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) said it was “totally appropriate” for Trump to ask for an investigation into a political opponent, if the president senses there was corruption involving the United States or United States officials.
I think they need to go all the way back to the Obama administration, that’s where it started. Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-Miss.)
Perry disputed that Trump was asking about a political opponent. “He’s not talking about Joe Biden,” Perry claimed. But in the call, Trump directly names the former vice president and potential 2020 Democratic nominee.
We know that, in 2016, then-Vice President Joe Biden did want Ukraine to fire its chief prosecutor, Viktor Shokin. Biden in fact threatened to withhold $1 billion of U.S. aid to Ukraine if the country didn’t dump Shokin. But Biden and other world leaders wanted Shokin out due to his own corruption, not because the chief prosecutor was supposedly looking at a Ukranian gas company where Biden’s son Hunter Biden sits on the board.
A Ukrainian investigation into the matter already concluded there was no wrongdoing. Documents show that Shokin wasn’t actively investigating the Ukranian gas company with ties to Hunter Biden, and there’s no current proof that Joe Biden was trying to protect his son’s company.
While Hunter Biden is obviously key to the controversy, it’s Joe Biden’s role that President Trump wants to investigate. According to notes from the call, Trump tells the Ukrainian President, “Biden stopped the prosecution, and a lot of people want to find out about that, so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution, so if you can look into it… It sounds horrible to me.”
(Note: The ellipsis is present in the transcript at a crucial time in the call.)
Again, there’s no evidence that Biden “stopped the prosecution” of the Ukranian gas company. In fact, there’s evidence that the company wasn’t under investigation at the time. But that’s not how Republicans like Perry read the situation.
“The only way you have any credibility ― if you’re going to use this call for the president’s impeachment ― is to say then, to agree, upon being elected President of the United States, you would immediately move to impeach Joe Biden,” he told HuffPost.
Perry seems to be claiming that Biden was doing the same thing Trump was doing, only Biden was acting out of his family’s monetary interest. There’s no reckoning with the fact that Trump is clearly acting out of his own political interest, or that there’s no proof Biden was doing as Trump has claimed.
The only Republican we found who would even remotely criticize Trump was Utah Rep. Chris Stewart. When we asked him if he found anything troubling about the phone call, Stewart said, “Yeah, there were some things that gave me a little pause.”
When we pressed him on what that meant, he ignored the question and walked into the House chamber.