Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, talks with reporters after a meeting of the House Republican Conference in the Capitol on June 26, 2018.
Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via AP Images

GOP’s Trump defenses tacitly acknowledge presidential wrongdoing

Updated

About a week ago, House Minority Leader appeared on CBS’ 60 Minutes with the intention of defending Donald Trump. CBS News’ Scott Pelley presented the Republican leader with basic factual information: Trump told the Ukrainian president, in the context of military aid, “I would like you to do us a favor, though.”

McCarthy was incredulous and accused the journalist of adding a word to the quote. Pelley explained that he was simply reading the text from the official White House call summary. The GOP leader asked, in reference to Trump, “He said, ‘I’d like you to do a favor, though’ ”? The interviewer replied, “Yes, it’s in the White House transcript.”

It was a humiliating exchange for McCarthy, who apparently hadn’t read the document he was there to defend, but it was also a tacit acknowledgement of wrongdoing: the Republican congressman seemed to suggest that if Trump has said, “I would like you to do us a favor, though,” it’d be an inherently problematic thing for a president to have said.

A few days later, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), one of the president’s most sycophantic supporters, told the Washington Examiner, “If a president just randomly was parachuting his personal attorney down into countries where he thought he could get some dirt on political opponents … that might be questionable. That’s not what this is.”

Actually, that was a decent summary of what Trump did with Rudy Giuliani, dispatching him to Ukraine to dig up dirt the Republican president could use.

All of which leads us to yesterday’s Sunday shows, where viewers heard Trump supporters make the case that the president was kidding when he publicly urged China to go after Joe Biden. Consider this exchange between ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio):

STEPHANOPOULOS: Threshold question=: Do you think it’s appropriate for President Trump to ask China and Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden?

JORDAN: George, you really think he was serious about thinking that China’s going to investigate the Biden family? … I don’t think anyone in America really believes – except people maybe in the press and some Democrats in Congress really believe – that the president of the United States thinks China is going to investigate.

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) made similar comments around the same time. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) also pushed the humor-related talking point on Friday.

At this point, we could talk about the fact that Trump clearly wasn’t kidding with his appeal to China. We could also talk about how the president echoed his very serious appeal to Beijing on Twitter, and by some accounts, he brought up the matter directly with Chinese President Xi Jinping during a phone meeting over the summer.

We could also point out that China took the appeal seriously, and several Republican senators have been willing to denounce Trump’s appeal.

But as important as these details are, there’s a common thread tying together McCarthy’s, Nunes’, and Jordan’s unpersuasive talking points: they’re all tacitly acknowledging presidential wrongdoing.

McCarthy’s defense made it sound as if it’d be problematic if Trump told the Ukrainian president, “I would like you to do us a favor, though.” Nunes’ defense made it sound as if it’d be problematic if Trump dispatched a private attorney to dig up dirt on an American rival. And the “just kidding” argument peddled by Jordan, Blunt, and Rubio implicitly concedes that an American president shouldn’t appeal to Beijing for campaign aid.

And therein lies the rub: Trump did all of these things. He told Zelensky, “I would like you to do us a favor, though.” He parachuted Rudy Giuliani into Kiev. He stood on the South Lawn of the White House and appealed to China to investigate Biden.

Trump’s diehard allies keep pushing arguments that tacitly concede presidential misconduct.

Maybe if the White House could come up with a credible defense, Trump’s friends might have something compelling to peddle during media interviews, but for now, they’re making stuff up as they go along, and they’re not doing an especially good job.