Dana Milbank: As clear as if he shot somebody on Fifth Avenue
(1) a foreign national, directly or indirectly, to make-
(A) a contribution or donation of money or other thing of value, or to make an express or implied promise to make a contribution or donation, in connection with a Federal, State, or local election ...
(2) a person to solicit, accept, or receive a contribution or donation described in subparagraph (A) ... of paragraph (1) from a foreign national.”
— 52 U.S. Code 30121
“There’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. I will have Mr. Giuliani give you a call and I am also going to have Attorney General [William] Barr call and we will get to the bottom of it. I’m sure you will figure it out.”
— President Trump, soliciting a “thing of value” for his reelection from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on July 25
During his 2016 campaign, Donald Trump famously said he could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters.”
Now, based on a common-sense reading of the White House’s own rough transcript, Trump has fired the campaign-law equivalent of a Fifth-Avenue gunshot. Will he lose any Republican lawmakers?
Let’s step back.
Forget, for the moment, whether there was an implicit or explicit quid pro quo in Trump suspending and dangling aid to Ukraine just before he asked Ukraine’s president for help dishing dirt on his likeliest 2020 opponent.
Forget, too, whether there was “pressure” applied.
Forget the whistleblower’s (well-supported) allegations that the White House attempted a cover-up after the conversation, or that Trump’s lieutenants followed up extensively with Ukraine.
Forget Rudy Giuliani’s back-channel diplomacy and the ouster of the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.
Forget that the White House and the Justice Department attempted to quash the whistleblower complaint.
Forget that Trump essentially confirmed the veracity of the complaint by calling those who provided information for it “spies” and suggesting they committed the capital offense of “treason.”
And forget the umpteen other instances of Trump’s lawbreaking, abuse of power and obstruction of justice, 17 of which I outlined this last week.
Even setting all of that aside, what the White House put out this last week was enough: The president broke the law when he solicited political help from Ukraine. In doing so, he put his political interests above the national interest. How can Republicans defend the indefensible?
Well, they claim that there was “no quid pro quo” (Sen. Lindsey Graham, S.C.), that it’s a “he said, she said” case (Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, Tenn.), that the whistleblower had “zero first-hand knowledge” (House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, La.) or “political bias” (Rep. Devin Nunes, Calif., and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Calif.), that “these attacks are lies” (Rep. Jeff Duncan, S.C.) or, contrary to the evidence, that the real villain is Joe Biden.
Nunes, the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, unfurled all manner of diversion at Thursday’s hearing with the acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire: “information warfare operation Russia collusion hoax hearsay cabal of leakers Fake news. (Nunes demonstrated his seriousness earlier this year when he sued a fictitious cow that mocked him on Twitter.)
A paltry few — among them Sen. Ron Johnson (Wis.), Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (Pa.), Sen. Mitt Romney (Utah), Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), Rep. Will Hurd (Tex.), Rep. Adam Kinzinger (Ill.), and Rep. Michael R. Turner (Ohio) — have expressed at least some squeamishness over Trump’s actions.
But we’re not hearing Republicans defend Trump’s illegal behavior — because there is no defense.
McCarthy simply pretended it didn’t happen. “Let’s be very clear: The president did not ask to investigate Joe Biden,” he told reporters. (Which part of “look into it,” “get to the bottom of it” and “figure it out” did McCarthy not understand?)
Pressed on whether Trump did “anything wrong,” McCarthy said it was “the question that Democrats are not asking: Did he do something wrong? They have raised this to impeachment.”
McCarthy, though he struggles with spoken English, stumbled onto inadvertent honesty: Trump may have done wrong, but McCarthy thinks the transgression isn’t impeachment-worthy. Fair enough. But Trump’s violation of the law is as clear as if he shot somebody on Fifth Avenue. Trump’s partisans are free to choose their president over the law, but make no mistake: This is the choice they face.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.