During the first day of Donald Trump's Senate impeachment trial, his legal defense team didn't make much of an effort to defend the president's alleged misconduct. And when his lawyers did try to delve into the details of the Republican's Ukraine scandal, it didn't go especially well.
Consider this argument from Jay Sekulow during yesterday's proceedings. The transcript comes by way of Congressional Quarterly:
"This president has been concerned about how aid is being put forward, so there have been pauses on foreign aid in a variety of contexts. In September of 2019, the administration announced that it was withholding over $100 million in aid to Afghanistan over concerns about government corruption. In August of 2019, President Trump announced that the administration were in talks to substantially increase South Korea's share of the expense of U.S. military support for South Korea.
"In June, President Trump paused over $550 million in foreign aid to El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala because those countries were not fairly sharing the burdens of preventing mass migration to the United States.
"It's not the only administration. As I said, President Obama withheld hundreds of millions of dollars of aid to Egypt."
This comes up from time to time, so it's probably worth pausing to set the record straight.
There are, in reality, instances in which U.S. administrations have paused foreign aid packages. There have also been examples of U.S. administrations taking steps to leverage aid in pursuit of specific foreign policy goals. As a rule, these practices haven't been especially controversial.
But whether Sekulow understands this or not, Trump's Ukraine scandal is fundamentally and qualitatively different.
Mother Jones' Kevin Drum has explained this more than once:
Trump used military aid as a way to extort a personal benefit from Ukraine. That's the start and the finish of the whole thing. If he had used military aid as bait to get Ukraine to fall in line with American interests in one way or another, no one would have blinked.
But he didn't. He used the aid as bait to get a personal favor from Ukraine: namely an investigation into an opponent in a presidential campaign. That's as plain an example of abuse of power as you could imagine. And after he was caught, Trump didn't apologize or promise not to do it again or anything like that. He conducted a scorched-earth attack that left Democrats with no choice but to impeach.
It's really that simple. Sekulow ignored the relevant details, but the difference between Trump's Ukraine scheme and those other examples of delayed aid was the purpose behind the delay.
When the rationale is corrupt, it's a scandal. When it's not, it's benign.
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