The Capitol building at dusk.
Michael Reynolds/EPA

Republicans call Trump scheme ‘inappropriate,’ but there’s a catch

Updated

In the wake of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman’s devastating recent deposition as part of the House’s impeachment inquiry, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said, “I thought it was inappropriate for the president to ask a foreign government to investigate a political opponent.” The Ohio Republican added, however, “I also do not think it’s an impeachable offense.”

On ABC News’ This Week yesterday, Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), the ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee, used nearly identical phrasing during an interview with Martha Raddatz. From the transcript:

RADDATZ: Congressman, you’re again talking about process. The process. I asked you about substance. How do you fend against the substance?

THORNBERRY: Well, as you know – maybe you know, Martha – I believe it’s inappropriate for a president to ask a foreign leader to investigate a political rival. Now that leads to a question if there’s a political rival with a family member who is involved in questionable activity, what do you do? Just let them alone.

But set that aside. I believe it was inappropriate. I do not believe it was impeachable.

The Texan went on to say, in reference to Trump’s July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, “[T]here’s not anything that the president said in that phone call that’s different than he says in public all the time.”

I’m not sure it helps Trump when his supporters suggest the president routinely and publicly abuses the powers of his office.

Nevertheless, it’s worth emphasizing that represents a subtle shift in posture for Republicans. As we discussed the other day, after the U.S. House formally approved a measure to proceed with the impeachment inquiry, House Republican leaders held a press conference at which a reporter asked, “Will you all go on the record and say the president did nothing inappropriate?”

There were dozens of GOP lawmakers on the stage at the time. They collectively responded, “Yes.”

This was, of course, a ridiculous posture – though the president insisted yesterday it’s the one he expects his party to stick to – but more importantly, it was unsustainable. The evidence of “inappropriate” actions in Donald Trump’s Ukraine scandal was, and is, overwhelming. Some Republicans may see value in playing make-believe and pretending the entire controversy is a mirage, but the vast majority of fair-minded observers will know better.

And some GOP officials seem to realize that, prompting lawmakers like Thornberry to adopt an “inappropriate, but not impeachable” posture, which isn’t as plainly bonkers as the original party line, though it still doesn’t work.

The existing evidence is simply overwhelming. To agree that Trump’s extortion scheme was “inappropriate” is to appreciate, at some level, that the president shouldn’t have tried to shake down a vulnerable ally in the hopes of getting a foreign country to manufacture dirt on a domestic rival.

The Washington Post’s Michael Gerson wrote a compelling five-point summary late last week:

First, as your average third-grader could tell you, but your average GOP senator could not, this was cheating. And cheating is wrong.

Second, this was cheating in a presidential election. Americans need to let that sink in: Trump was not stiffing another contractor or underpaying his taxes. He was trying to manipulate a freakin’ presidential race, as if it were the 1919 World Series. Trump’s actions were an assault on the assumption of electoral fairness that lends legitimacy to democracy.

Third, this was cheating in a presidential election using public money as leverage. Trump was effectively employing $400 million in taxpayer money as his own corruption slush fund.

Fourth, this was cheating in a presidential election using public money as leverage to subcontract actions that would have caused a political crisis at home. If Trump had ordered the Justice Department to open a corruption investigation of Biden and his son for clearly political reasons, it would have been seen, appropriately, as a Vladi¬mir Putin-like attack on U.S. democracy. So Trump contrived to outsource his Putin-like attack on U.S. democracy.

Fifth, this was cheating in a presidential election using public money as leverage to subcontract corrupt actions in ways that could have compromised the security of a friendly country resisting Russian aggression. And this could have materially undermined U.S. security in the region.

For Mac Thornberry and some of his Republican brethren, all of this is problematic, but it falls short of the impeachment threshold. The obvious follow-up question has no good answer: if Trump’s extortion gambit isn’t an impeachable offense, what is?