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National Review’s Strained Defense of Trump

Standing athwart history, sighing "Whatever."

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Last Monday, I wrote that President Donald Trump’s supporters haven’t mounted a plausible enough defense of his involvement in the Ukraine scandal to avoid impeachment. His surrogates tripped and stumbled throughout their appearances on the previous weekend’s Sunday talk shows, and their performances haven’t improved much since then. The public seems to agree: A Washington Post poll released on Tuesday found that 58 percent of Americans now support the House’s impeachment inquiry, and 49 percent of Americans think Trump should be removed from office for it.

Trump’s own attempts to defend himself have backfired. The president undercut his own supporters on Thursday by publicly urging the Chinese and Ukrainian governments to open investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden. The best explanation that loyalists like Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio could offer at the time was that Trump was making some kind of joke—an incredible claim at best. By the time the next Sunday arrived, nobody from the White House or from the GOP’s congressional leadership was willing to appear on the weekly talk shows to defend him.

That hasn’t stopped others from trying. Two National Review pieces on Monday made a furtive effort to carve out a more nuanced view of the Trump-Ukraine saga than what the White House has heretofore been capable of producing. Andrew McCarthy, a former federal prosecutor, argued that Trump’s behavior seems to have fit within the normal bounds of American diplomacy. The magazine’s editors tried to take the rhetorical high ground, arguing that all sides were flawed and impeachment wasn’t warranted. Both pieces strain themselves to minimize and normalize Trump’s abuses of power. Both fall short of making a convincing case.

McCarthy largely does not dispute the facts surrounding Trump’s conduct. But he also offers a misleading portrait of Biden’s actions alongside them. “I have always assumed, for argument’s sake (and, increasingly, because it appears to be true), that the president slow-walked defense aid to pressure Ukraine both to assist the Barr investigation and to probe Biden’s activities in Ukraine,” he wrote. “On the latter, I am referring to Biden’s extortion of Kyiv to fire a prosecutor who may have been investigating Burisma, an energy company that, under circumstances that smack of self-dealing, retained Biden’s son on its board.”

It’s worth dissecting those assumptions a bit further. It’s indisputable that Hunter Biden’s board seat on Burisma was unsavory at best. It’s also indisputable that Biden pressured Ukraine’s then-president Petro Poroshenko to dismiss Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin over his handling of corruption investigations. One of these investigations was a probe into Ukrainian oligarch Mykola Zlochevsky, the owner of Burisma. McCarthy’s juxtaposition of these facts might lead a reader to conclude that Biden used his position as vice president to undermine an investigation that could affect his son. That would be profoundly troubling if it were true.

But all of the available context points in the other direction. The Obama administration’s problem with Shokin wasn’t that he was going too hard on oligarchs like Zlochevsky; it was that he was going too easy on them, often by slow-walking and shelving anti-corruption cases. What’s more, Biden and the Obama administration weren’t alone in criticizing how Shokin handled those cases. The European Union and the International Monetary Fund also urged Kiev to oust him, as did Ukrainian anti-corruption activists and reformers. So did three Republican senators, who signed a letter in 2016 that urged Ukraine’s president to reform the prosecutor general’s office. Poroshenko and other top Ukrainian officials have disputed Trump’s narrative and said Biden never discussed specific cases with them.

McCarthy also tries to normalize Trump’s approach to Ukraine. “To listen to commentary, not only by anti-Trumpers, but even some Trump defenders who don’t seem to understand what they’re talking about, one would think that a quid pro quo is always bad, and that it is a terrible thing to pressure a foreign government,” he wrote. He argues that what Trump’s opponents describe as a “quid pro quo” is actually just bargaining in American foreign relations, and that the alleged “extortion” is just a form of diplomatic pressure that one government applies to another. Trump’s actions, clumsy as they may be, are reimagined as statecraft in McCarthy’s retelling.

There’s a kernel of truth here. Presidents often seek things from foreign powers and offer them things in exchange. The U.S. government also uses a variety of soft-power and hard-power tools to pressure other countries into taking actions they would prefer. This is Foreign Relations 101. What sets Trump’s Ukraine dealings apart is not the means by which they were undertaken, but the underlying rationale that guided them. In democratic countries like the United States, presidents aren’t supposed to advance their personal interests when conducting foreign relations, but rather a policy agenda that benefits the country as a whole.

McCarthy muddles that line between Trump’s personal interests and his policy agenda. “Presidents are in charge of foreign relations, and they pursue policies that they’ve run on,” he argues. “Presidents seeking reelection need policy successes. A president’s management of foreign policy and his political interests naturally overlap. At the same time, a policy that is good for the United States may have the collateral effect of politically damaging a president’s political rival. A president should not be discouraged from pursuing American interests just because doing so might help the president or harm the president’s opposition.”

It’s hard to accept the notion, however, that there is no real distinction between using American diplomatic power to secure a trade deal with Beijing that benefits Iowa’s soybean farmers, and personally urging Xi Jinping to sic the Chinese prosecutorial services after an American political rival and his family. Both of them make it easier for Trump to win re-election, so what’s the practical difference? McCarthy’s argument only superficially makes sense if it draws upon two faulty assumptions: that there’s a legitimate reason for foreign powers to investigate Biden for corruption, and that Trump’s interest in corruption overseas springs from anything resembling good faith.

This entire argument might hold more water if Trump showed any tangible interest in tackling corruption. His campaign pledges to “drain the swamp” haven’t resulted in any proposed legislation to rein in lobbying and influence-peddling in Washington. Federal white-collar prosecutions are nearing their lowest levels in more than three decades. By leaving three vacancies open on the Federal Elections Commission, Trump is making it harder to police campaign-finance violations ahead of the next election. And his personal refusal to fully divest himself from his business empire both violates the Constitution and opens him up to allegation after allegation of corrupt self-enrichment.

Trump’s disinterest in fighting corruption extends to foreign countries as well. He is a critic of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, one of the flagship federal anti-corruption laws. The FCPA forbids U.S. companies from bribing foreign governments; Trump has said those restrictions are flawed because they hurt American competitiveness. “Now, every other country goes into these places, and they do what they have to do,” he told CNBC in 2012. “It’s a horrible law and it should be changed. I mean, we’re like the policeman for the world. It’s ridiculous.” It’s more accurate to say that Trump’s interest in corruption only extends as far as he can accuse his opponents of it.

National Review’s editors appear torn by the realization that Trump did something wrong and the unease with letting him face any consequences for it. To their credit, they fault Hunter Biden for the appearance of “soft corruption” without alleging wrongdoing on the elder Biden’s behalf. The editors take issue with Trump’s handling of the scandal and his unhinged accusations of treason; they also critique Democrats for “itching to impeach Trump from the beginning.” Everybody is to blame for the current crisis, and so no one is truly responsible for it.

The editors’ ultimate conclusion is that all of this could be politically advantageous for Republicans next year. “The truth is that, absent some radical change in the dynamic, the House is inevitably going to impeach Trump and the Senate is inevitably going to acquit him,” they wrote. “What we’re essentially arguing about is how this impeachment and acquittal will be regarded in the run-up to 2020 by independents and persuadable voters.” From the trajectory of both the polls and the president’s coherence, that may be the most flawed assumption of all.