Since Donald Trump’s Ukraine scandal first came to public light a few months ago, Republicans have confronted a question that’s simple but difficult to answer: should an American president press a foreign country to go after a domestic political rival?
A few too many GOP lawmakers – most notably Iowa’s Joni Ernst and Colorado’s Cory Gardner – struggled mightily with the question early on, refusing to say much of anything. Others soon realized this was unsustainable, conceded that presidents should not seek foreign campaign assistance, and looked for other ways to excuse Trump’s misdeeds.
This morning, however, CNN’s Manu Raju spoke to Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.) about this foundational element of the overall scandal, and according to what the Capitol Hill reporter posted to Twitter, the exchange didn’t go especially well.
Q: Why is it ever ok for an American president to ask a foreign power to investigate a political rival? Why do you think that’s ok?
Lesko: “He didn’t. He didn’t do that”
Manu: He did ask Zelensky
Lesko: “He did not do that.”
It’s really not a trick question. Either it’s acceptable for presidents to ask foreign governments to go after domestic political rivals or it’s not. In this case, Trump’s allies can try to argue that it is acceptable behavior; they can make the case that it doesn’t rise to the level of an impeachable offense; or they can agree with impeachment proponents and vote for the pending articles.
What GOP members – especially those on the Judiciary Committee, on which Debbie Lesko currently serves – shouldn’t do is pretend up is down and reality has no meaning.
Trump obviously asked a foreign country to go after a domestic political rival. We know this in large part because the White House released an official call summary of Trump’s July 25 conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in which the American president was quoted saying, “[T]here’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 [Attorney General Bill Barr] would be great. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it … It sounds horrible to me.”
A week after that call summary was released to the public, Trump stood on the South Lawn of the White House and told reporters on camera, “China should start an investigation into the Bidens.” The Republican added soon after, “I would say that President Zelensky, if it were me, I would recommend that they start an investigation into the Bidens.”
But taking this a step further, I’m curious what Lesko would do with this information. As we discussed yesterday, when the scandal first broke and Republicans weren’t sure where the controversy was headed, several GOP lawmakers were willing to acknowledge that the facts painted a pretty ugly picture for Trump and his accomplices. Republicans made the case at the time, however, that the allegations – based on leaks, anonymous reports, et al. – might yet prove to be untrue.
Except that’s no longer the case. There’s no longer any question that Trump pressed foreign countries to go after a domestic political rival, just as it’s clear that the Republican president leveraged taxpayer money as part of a scheme to get the political benefits he sought.
Burying one’s head in the sand won’t make these truths disappear.