Republicans Know Trump Is Innocent—They’re Trying to Figure Out Why

The three leading GOP defenses of the president contradict one another.

Tom Brenner / Reuters

Give Mac Thornberry this much: Unlike some of his Republican colleagues, he was at least trying.

On Sunday the Texas Republican appeared on ABC’s This Week, where he tentatively offered a message on the impeachment inquiry, which enters its public phase with hearings this Wednesday and Friday. Thornberry sought a middle course.

“I believe that it is inappropriate for a president to ask a foreign leader to investigate a political rival,” he said. “I believe it was inappropriate. I do not believe it was impeachable.”

Debatable, but coherent. But from there, things went off the rails. First, Thornberry inadvertently compared President Donald Trump to a rapist or murderer while critiquing the procedure House Democrats have used (though perhaps he is not far off). He then offered the defense that Trump couldn’t be impeached because the abuse of power in the Ukraine scandal is his standard operating procedure. “There’s not anything that the president said in that phone call that’s different than he says in public all the time,” he said.

Thornberry’s performance may have been stumbling, but he was still more persuasive than Senator Lindsey Graham. In September, the South Carolinian said, “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.” As testimony leaked out that showed there was, in fact, a quid pro quo, Graham demanded full transcripts. And when it became clear that they backed the quid pro quo, he announced that he would not read the transcripts and said he had “written the whole process off.”

Thornberry and Graham are both grappling in their own ways with a conundrum facing Republicans, in both the House and the Senate. Most of them know what their conclusion is—Trump is innocent and should not be impeached or removed—but they haven’t figured out why, and no one is helping them out.

Typically, this is the sort of role that the White House would play, with a war room designing and pushing out a message. But Trump has declined to set up such an operation, relying on his Twitter account to push his message. “He is the war room,” Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham told Fox News earlier this month. If Twitter is the president’s army, it’s a fighting force that’s ready and willing to go over the top at a moment’s notice, but one that eschews any kind of long-term strategic planning.

The White House has made clear that it will launch an all-out offensive against any Republican who dares to criticize the president at all. As for affirmative defenses, the White House’s line—which is to say the president’s—is that Trump did absolutely nothing wrong or inappropriate, as he reiterated Sunday:

While a few Republicans are willing to adopt this line of argument, most are not. It’s simply a very hard claim to make based on the factual evidence, and consistently about two-thirds of Americans tell pollsters they believe that what Trump did was inappropriate.

Republicans aren’t getting much messaging help from the second-most powerful official in the party either. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told caucus members at a meeting in October that “their best bet was to calibrate their own message about the impeachment inquiry to fit their political situation,” according to the Associated Press. McConnell himself has studiously avoided taking a stance. In October, he pointedly denied telling Trump his July 25 conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was “the most innocent phone call that I’ve read,” but did not offer an alternative assessment.

A few Republicans have either labeled Trump’s call wrong or managed to avoid commenting. (Igor Bobic has a useful list on Senate Republican views.) But in the absence of guidance, the majority of Republican members who are trying to stick with Trump have been left to fend for themselves and come up with defenses. They’ve ended up in three main categories:

The president did nothing wrong. The advantage of this position is that it puts you on the same side as the president, and means he won’t be taking shots at you publicly, the way he has at some other Republicans. The disadvantage is it puts you on the same side as the president—and against the judgment of most Americans. (Some of the people espousing it have constituencies that may be more Trump-friendly than the general populace.)

The president did something wrong, but it’s not an impeachable offense. This is perhaps the simplest position to argue, since it allows members to concede that something is rotten without having to actually take the drastic step of backing impeachment. Yet it conflicts with the president’s insistence that he did nothing wrong and the call was “perfect,” making it a precarious ledge on which to stand.

The president did nothing wrong, but his advisers did. This view, far more ridiculous than the “he did nothing wrong” defense, holds that although various Trump aides, including government officials and his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, may have extorted Ukraine to announce politically motivated investigations in exchange for a White House visit and the release of military aid, “there is no direct linkage to the president of the United States,” as Representative Mark Meadows put it. Never mind that Trump had made the demand himself in the call with Zelensky, to name one serious flaw in the argument.

The glaring problem with this splintered response is that the defenses are mutually exclusive. If the president did nothing wrong, then the act couldn’t have been inappropriate but not impeachable. If the president didn’t know what was going on, how would everything he’d done have been perfect and aboveboard?

These contradictions undermine the effort to defend Trump in the court of public opinion. Whether they’ll matter in a more immediate sense is unclear. The White House position seems to be that it doesn’t matter what defense Republicans adopt as long as it’s a defense. And so far, enough Republicans are embracing some defense of Trump’s behavior that he seems not to be in imminent danger of removal by the Senate after a House impeachment.