Trump impeachment defense was filled with major distortions
Fact-checking Donald Trump’s impeachment defense.
Donald Trump’s impeachment defense appears to have cleared the bar as far as his fellow Republicans are concerned. But its adherence to the facts is another matter.
Multiple distortions marked Trump’s case for acquittal in recent days as the Senate moved toward that expected verdict in the coming week:
TRUMP on impeachment: “The Democrat controlled House never even asked John Bolton to testify. It is up to them, not up to the Senate!” — tweet Jan. 27.
THE FACTS: That’s false in its entirety. House Democrats did ask Bolton to testify, and he declined. He did not show up for his deposition. Trump is also incorrect in suggesting impeachment witnesses are the sole province of the House.
House Democrats decided not to pursue a subpoena compelling Bolton to testify in the House proceedings because he threatened to sue, which could have meant an extended court fight. Afterward, however, Bolton signaled his willingness to testify at the Senate trial if he were subpoenaed.
The Senate is empowered to summon witnesses if it chooses, contrary to Trump’s suggestion that “it is up to” the House only. But Republicans gathered enough votes to stop witnesses from being called in the Senate trial.
Bolton’s behind-the-scenes account is in the manuscript of his coming book. It intensified calls from Democrats to make him a witness because it contradicted key assertions by Trump and his defense team’s argument that there was no evidence the president conditioned aid to Ukraine on an investigation of his political rivals.
TRUMP LAWYER JAY SEKULOW, referring to Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukraine’s leader: “Asking a foreign leader to get to the bottom of issues of corruption is not a violation of an oath.” — trial Jan 27.
THE FACTS: Trump made no such request in the phone call. And beyond the phone call, there’s scant if any evidence that Trump cared about Ukraine’s history of systemic corruption unless it might involve Hunter Biden, son of former Vice President Joe Biden, a Trump political rival. Hunter Biden was on the board of a Ukrainian energy company when his father was vice president.
In the call, according to the rough transcript released by the White House, Trump repeatedly pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate the Bidens and a groundless conspiracy theory that Ukrainians tried to help Democrats win the 2016 election. Trump didn’t mention Ukrainian corruption.
Trump delayed military aid to Ukraine despite a Pentagon review that found the country had made sufficient progress in cleaning up its legacy of corruption to merit the aid that Congress had approved.
SEKULOW: “The president of the United States, before he was the president, was under an investigation. It was called Crossfire Hurricane. It was an investigation led by the FBI.” — trial Tuesday.
THE FACTS: Trump was not under investigation before he took office.
In fact, Trump says he was told that directly and repeatedly by then-FBI Director James Comey. Comey has said the same publicly.
The FBI counterintelligence investigation dubbed Crossfire Hurricane was underway when Trump took office, but that was into whether his campaign more generally coordinated with Russia to tip the election. Agents were also looking criminally at several Trump aides, but that’s different from Trump being under investigation.
The situation did change after a matter of months, when Trump fired Comey in May 2017. After that happened, the FBI began looking into whether Trump had criminally obstructed justice. Former acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe has said the FBI also began investigating whether Trump might have been acting on behalf of Russia.
SEKULOW: “It was President Zelenskiy who said no pressure.” — trial Jan. 27.
THE FACTS: True, but the statement skirts important context.
In and around the July 25 phone call, Zelenskiy was deferential to Trump as Ukraine, menaced by Russia, tried to keep U.S. military aid flowing. Even so, Ukrainian officials felt pressure for months to do Trump’s bidding, and Zelenskiy himself eventually complained about Trump’s dealings with him.
The Associated Press reported that in May, even before taking office, Zelenskiy knew that vital military support might depend on whether he agreed to investigate Democrats as Trump was demanding.
After the July 25 call, Zelenskiy said he had no problem with Trump’s comments on the call. But by then, Ukrainian officials were wondering why the aid was being held up. And in October, while insisting “there was no pressure or blackmail from the U.S.,” he criticized Trump for blocking the aid and for casting his country as corrupt.
“If you’re our strategic partner, then you can’t go blocking anything for us,” he told Time. “I think that’s just about fairness.”
TRUMP LAWYER MIKE PURPURA, dismissing the idea that military aid was released because Trump’s pressure campaign on Ukraine had been exposed: “On Sept. 11, based on the information collected and presented to President Trump, the president lifted the pause on the security assistance. … Our process gave the president the confidence he needed to approve the release of the security sector assistance. … The president’s concerns were addressed in the ordinary course; the president wasn’t ‘caught’ as the House managers allege.” — trial Jan. 27.
THE FACTS: The “pause” in Ukraine’s military aid was hardly routine, according to testimony heard by House investigators. Moreover, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office found the aid freeze to be illegal.
House investigators heard about confusion and frustration among senior State Department and Pentagon officials when they learned the congressionally approved aid was being held.
“I was embarrassed that I could not give (Ukraine) any explanation for why it was withheld,” said William Taylor, who was the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine.
The Defense Department’s Laura Cooper said she and other national security aides unsuccessfully tried to get an explanation for the hold and expressed concern about the White House’s legal authority. The Pentagon had already certified to congressional committees in May that Ukraine had made enough progress on reducing corruption to receive the military assistance.
Catherine Croft, special adviser for Ukraine at the State Department, said national security agencies were unified in support of the aid, and she had never before encountered a time when the White House budget office had injected itself into such a matter.
Top advisers scrambled to get Trump to release the aid through August. Ultimately, on Sept. 11, the funds were suddenly released, after Trump learned of the whistleblower’s complaint and a few days after Democrats opened a congressional investigation of the episode. The GAO later found that the White House budget office “withheld the funds for an unauthorized reason in violation” of the law that requires the executive branch to spend money that is appropriated by Congress.
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