Rand Paul helps capture the GOP's troubles in defending Trump

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) emerges from a closed-door weekly policy meeting with Senate Republicans, at the U.S. Capitol, May 10, 2016, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty)
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) emerges from a closed-door weekly policy meeting with Senate Republicans, at the U.S. Capitol, May 10, 2016, in Washington, D.C.

Donald Trump's impeachment trial hasn't even begun yet, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has made up his mind. So has Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). It's against this backdrop that CNN's Jake Tapper asked Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) yesterday, "[A]re you still keeping an open mind about this, or have you already decided you will acquit the president?"

Paul didn't answer directly, though he predicted that every GOP senator will side with Trump -- while unironically condemning the impeachment proceedings as "a very partisan exercise," that the senator believes will ultimately "dumb down" the country.

It led to this striking exchange:

PAUL: The president ... didn't call up the president of Ukraine and say, "Investigate my rival."TAPPER: He said, "Investigate Joe Biden."PAUL: He said, "Investigate a certain person." ... He does not call up and say, "Investigate my rival." He says, "Investigate a person." [...]TAPPER: And Joe Biden is his rival.

We've seen plenty of bad arguments from Donald Trump's allies, each of whom have been desperate to excuse his abuses and corruption, but this might actually be the least persuasive to date.

One of the core elements of the broader scandal is the simple fact that the American president pressured foreign countries to go after a domestic political rival, effectively taking steps to cheat ahead of his 2020 re-election campaign. For Rand Paul, the fact that Trump referred to a Democratic rival, but didn't literally use the word "rival," is somehow significant.

It's not.

The Kentucky Republican went on to insist that Trump was genuinely concerned about Ukrainian corruption, which according to Paul, is why the White House withheld congressionally approved military aid. It's difficult to say whether the senator believed his rhetoric, but it's easy to conclude that he shouldn't.

For one thing, if the American president has sincere concerns about corruption, it's odd that in his two conversations with the Ukrainian president, according to the White House's own call summaries, Trump made no references to corruption.

For another, as Tapper reminded the senator, if Trump were a true anti-corruption crusader, he probably wouldn't have surrounded himself with a bunch of criminals, including former top aides who are currently in prison.

Reminded of the former Trump aides who are now convicted felons, Rand Paul argued yesterday, "I think most of what you listed and most of the people that were indicted or convicted were alleged to have been part of some sort of huge Russian conspiracy. But I think what we found out from the inspector general's report is that it was all based on a false premise that Carter Page had something to do with Russia."

First, that's not what Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz said. Second, whether Rand Paul appreciates the factual details or not, Carter Page clearly had a great deal to do with Russia. (Trump's former campaign foreign policy adviser, among other things, described himself in writing as an adviser to the Kremlin.)

And finally, as Tapper reminded the senator, the FBI's missteps in the surveillance process don't "absolve Paul Manafort of money laundering."

Rand Paul and other Trump allies have had months to come up with coherent talking points on this scandal. Evidently, it's not going especially well.