The basic contours of Donald Trump's Ukraine scandal are straightforward: he delayed military aid to a vulnerable ally because he hoped to extort foreign officials into helping him cheat in his re-election campaign. The president and his allies, however, have periodically flirted with an alternative story: yes, Trump delayed the aid, the story goes, but only because of his deep and abiding concerns about corruption.
The fanciful talking point has fallen in and out of favor in recent months, but it's apparently making a comeback. The president claimed yesterday, in reference to his decision to block congressionally approved aid, "[T]he other thing I wanted to check very carefully -- and it's very important -- is corruption."
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) added on Twitter yesterday afternoon: "A reminder of what this is all about: any president -- any administration -- is justified in investigating corruption." Trump helped promote the missive soon after.
Do we really have to do this again? Hasn't the argument already been discredited enough?
To show that Trump has no genuine concerns about corruption we could shine a light on his efforts to make international bribery easier. We could also note the many instances in which the president has faced credible allegations of corruption since he took office. We could even note how difficult it is to see the president as an anti-corruption crusader given the number of close Trump associates who've recently ended up in prison.
But let's instead focus specifically on the subject at hand, highlighting a point House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) made during yesterday's impeachment trial about why Trump's claim is impossible to take seriously.
"If the president was fighting corruption ... why would he hide it from us?" Schiff said. "Why would he hide it from the Ukrainians? Why would he hide it from the rest of the world? ... Why wouldn't he be proud to tell the Congress of the United States, 'I'm holding up this aid, and I'm holding it up because I'm worried about corruption'?""Why wouldn't he? Because of course it wasn't true," Schiff said.
That's a devastatingly good point, but there's no reason to stop there.
If Trump's interest in Ukrainian corruption was sincere, why didn't he broach the subject during his July phone meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky? For that matter, why did Trump also fail to broach the subject in his April phone meeting with Zelensky?
Why is it that Trump was specifically urged by his own staff to bring up corruption when speaking with Zelensky, only to have the Republican ignore the advice?
If Trump was serious about corruption concerns, why did he rely on a private attorney -- Rudy Giuliani -- and his controversial associates, rather than turning to official channels?
If Trump "wanted to check very carefully" about corruption in Kyiv, why is there literally no evidence of any such Trump administration investigation?
Why has Trump been tripped up by questions like these?
To hear President Donald Trump tell it, his desire to get foreign governments like Ukraine and China to open investigations into the Biden family is all about principled corruption concerns, not politics.... But all it took was one question from CNBC's Eamon Javers to destroy his talking point."Have you asked foreign leaders for any corruption investigations that don't involve your political opponents?" Javers asked.The answer, it quickly became apparent, was no -- even if Trump didn't want to admit it.
I can appreciate the jam the White House and its allies are in. The president got caught engaging in an illegal extortion scheme, which sparked an intense effort to come up with a credible excuse.
But this talking point has been discredited. They'll have to look elsewhere.