A couple of weeks ago I wrote about President Trump's defense strategy in the Ukraine scandal, noting that he's basically running the same play that he ran during the Mueller investigation. He finds a few catchphrases to use on Twitter and during interviews and just repeats them over and over again. It's a crude salesman's trick and not one you'd expect to be effective in dealing with a legal and political scandal, but Trump thinks he was able to survive the Russia probe by yelling "No collusion, no obstruction!" and denigrating the press and the investigators.
He will almost certainly go with his gut instinct again and there's probably nothing anyone can do about it. But that doesn't mean there isn't a very lively debate among Republicans about the right course of action.
Trump's allies have complained for weeks about his stubborn refusal to have an impeachment "war room," as Bill Clinton did back in 1998. The fact is that it wouldn't do much good. Its efficacy under Clinton depended on message discipline and a president who could at least pretend that the process wasn't interfering with his ability to do the job. Obviously Trump would be unable to do either of those things. But he has brought in a couple of spokespeople to deal with impeachment questions, former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi and former Treasury Department spokesman Tony Sayegh. (Bondi is uniquely qualified for this gig, since she herself was credibly accused of a quid pro quo with Trump during the 2016 campaign.)
The Trump supporter who seems most at sea with all this is Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, perhaps the president's most loyal minion. Graham started out denying the whole thing outright, just as Trump did. On Sept. 25, he told reporters:
Sen. Lindsey Graham: "If you're looking for a circumstance where the President of the United States was threatening the Ukraine with cutting off aid unless they investigated his political opponent, you'd be very disappointed. That does not exist." pic.twitter.com/io19f19725
— The Hill (@thehill) September 26, 2019
It turned out that absolutely did exist. Yet Graham still seemed to think that was all there was to it. On Oct. 20, he told Axios on HBO:
If you could show that Trump was engaging in a quid pro quo outside the phone call that would be very disturbing.
More than half a dozen witnesses have now testified that the quid pro quo was discussed constantly and caused a full-blown uproar among the Foreign Service professionals. Graham remained the good soldier, parroting Trump's language but not sounding terribly convincing. On Oct. 25, he said: "He's telling me that the phone call was perfect. I'm saying the phone call was OK with me."
On Tuesday of this week, Graham finally threw up his hands, saying, "I've written the whole process off. I think this is a bunch of BS," telling reporters he won't even read any of the transcripts — the same ones he had previously clamored for Democrats to release. But by Wednesday, he was taking yet another tack:
"It was incoherent," Sen @LindseyGrahamSC
says of Trump's Ukraine policy.
"They seem to be *incapable* of forming a quid pro quo." pic.twitter.com/rdZxyIazNj
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— Steven Portnoy (@stevenportnoy) November 6, 2019
This has become known as the "moron defense," which holds that the president is too dumb to commit all the crimes it appears he has committed. So far, Graham's the only one I've heard articulate that defense in this case and I would guess that's because it's bound to make Trump livid. You may have noticed that he sees himself as a "very stable genius" and he'd probably rather be impeached than hear Republicans say that he was too stupid to have committed a crime. Which really is stupid, but there we are.
The other defense that's apparently being discussed among the senators who will supposedly be the jurors in an impeachment trial is the one that says, "Yeah, he did it, but it doesn't rise to the level of a high crime or misdemeanor." Sens. John Kennedy, R-La., and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, told the Washington Post that Trump had no corrupt intent when he did what did. Kennedy said, “To me, it all turns on intent, motive. ... Did the president have a culpable state of mind? … Based on the evidence that I see, that I’ve been allowed to see, the president does not have a culpable state of mind.”
According to the testimony of former State Department official George Kent, the White House insisted that the president of Ukraine go on CNN and use three particular words: investigation, Biden and Clinton. What could possibly be the corrupt intent in that?
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., is pushing the idea that Trump's defense team in a Senate trial should call Joe and Hunter Biden to testify in public. So far, other Republican senators haven't seemed too keen on that idea, but seeing as they're all afraid to cross Trump it's possible that if he decides he wants this, they will follow his orders. He seems to like the idea:
“What did Hunter Biden do for the money?” @SenJohnKennedy A very good question. He and Sleepy Joe must testify!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 7, 2019
Meanwhile, Bloomberg reports that there is a brewing battle between White House counsel Pat Cipollone and acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, with each demanding to be in charge of impeachment strategy. Mulvaney should probably be careful what he wishes for: Along with EU ambassador Gordon Sondland and Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, he's on a House GOP list of possible scapegoats to take the fall for Trump's corrupt bargain with Ukraine.
Richard Nixon tried that by throwing his two most trusted aides, John Ehrlichman and H.R. Haldeman, over the side. They did it gladly. They'd been with him for years and were his loyal Praetorian guards. Somehow, I doubt that these three amigos feel that way about Trump. Sondland and Mulvaney hardly know him, and it's hard to imagine Giuliani falling on his sword and winding up in federal prison, as Haldeman and Ehrlichman did. Anyway, we all know what happened to Nixon, don't we?
Finally, we have the working White House impeachment war room that will almost certainly handle Trump's defense on an official basis. Its two arms would be Fox News and the Twitter feed of Donald Trump Jr. The New York Times did a deep dive into the swift-boat campaign against Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who testified in the impeachment inquiry last week. Trump Jr and Fox News host Pete Hegseth played a big part in spreading an easily rebutted smear that bubbled up through the right-wing fever swamp. Don Jr. has also tweeted out the name of the purported CIA whistleblower, whom Trump and his henchmen have been trashing nonstop. Whatever happens going forward, we can be sure that Trump family Twitter feeds will play a big part in defending the president throughout the impeachment process.
Lindsey Graham says Trump's Ukraine policy was incoherent. It wasn't. He knew what he wanted. But the strategy to defend the president in this impeachment proceeding is certainly incoherent at this point. He will probably survive a trial in the Senate, but none of his defenders are going to come out looking any better than he does. The central fact they can't accept is that his behavior was indefensible.