One of the more exasperating elements of the impeachment fight is a dispute that need not exist. We know that Donald Trump pressed foreign officials to launch investigations into Joe Biden, but we also know that many of the president's allies prefer to pretend he didn't.
Last week, for example, PBS's Judy Woodruff sat down with Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), and the host noted, "It was wrong of the president to ask the president of Ukraine to conduct an investigation into Vice President Biden and his son. Do you accept their premise that that is what President Trump did?"
The Republican senator replied, "I don't," reality notwithstanding.
This afternoon, during the president's impeachment trial, Deputy White House Counsel Patrick Philbin echoed the point while fielding a question on Trump's efforts, denying that his client ever actually called for a Biden-related investigation.
Trump lawyer Patrick Philbin argued on Thursday that Trump wasn't "necessarily" asking for a probe of the Bidens, he just wanted to look into the firing of former top Ukrainian prosecutor Viktor Shokin"All the president says is 'so if you can look into it, that sounds horrible, it sounds like a bad situation,'" Philbin said, pointing to the White House summary of Trump's July 25 call with Zelenskiy. "That's not calling for an investigation necessarily into Vice President Biden or his son, but the situation in which the prosecutor had been fired, which affected anti-corruption efforts in the Ukraine.'"
The White House lawyer added that "there's a lot of loose talk in sort of shorthand reference to" what the president did, but Trump didn't "necessarily" push for a probe into the Bidens.
Look, I don't mean to sound unsympathetic. Philbin is in a tough spot, trying to defend a client who appears to be awfully guilty. He's also trying to navigate complex political waters: Philbin can't say anything that the president won't like, regardless of merit of accuracy.
When lawyers don't have a lot to work with, it's not surprising that they resort to awkward and clumsy claims. But to suggest that Trump didn't "necessarily" call for Biden-related investigations is kind of bizarre.
The White House released an official call summary of Trump's July 25 conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in which the American president pressed his counterpart in Kyiv to "look into" the former Democratic vice president. "[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 the attorney general would be great," the Republican said in the phone meeting.
Trump continued, "Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it ... It sounds horrible to me."
I suppose one might quibble with the precise meaning to "look into," but it was the next day that Trump reportedly asked Ambassador Gordon Sondland, "So, he's gonna do the investigation?"
That seems to remove all doubt as to what the American president meant by "look into."
But we need not stop there. 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."
So, to borrow Philbin's phrasing, there's "a lot of loose talk in sort of shorthand" that references Trump calling for foreign investigations into Biden because that's precisely what happened.