New right-wing defense: Trump is too incompetent to be impeached

Here’s why National Review's “no harm, no foul” fails

National Review is now seeking to advance a drastic change of strategy for Republicans in how to handle the impeachment inquiry. The conservative magazine says they should admit that President Donald Trump withhed military aid to Ukraine in an effort to pressure the country to investigate Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden — and even admit that it was wrong to do so — but claim that impeachment should still be rejected because the scheme didn’t work, anyway.

There is a major problem here, however: For it to work, countless Republicans and conservative commentators would have to reverse themselves on their previous numerous denials about the events that have taken place surrounding Trump’s phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky — about both whether there was a pressure campaign and whether it was wrong.

It’s a long list of people, including Fox News host Sean Hannity and legal analyst Gregg Jarrett, for example, as well as purported “news”-side personalities on the network like John Roberts, Ed Henry, and Melissa Francis. (It also includes people outside Fox, such as talk radio host and NBC News contributor Hugh Hewitt.) And then there are the congressional Republicans, such as Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who have staunchly denied that any quid pro quo had taken place.

That’s a lot of precious rhetorical work to just send it all down the memory hole. But even beyond that, the revised narrative National Review is floating still doesn’t actually work to explain what appears to have gone on.

An early sign of this stratagem came on Tuesday, when National Review contributor Andy McCarthy — a man who has demonstrated some egregious double standards on impeachment — declared during one of his Fox News appearances: “Now, should they have been asked to investigate the Bidens for violations of Ukrainian law? No. Should the aid have been dragged out after Congress passed it and the president signed legislation to give it to them? No. But at the end, I think, you know, their best defense is going to be, ‘No harm, no foul.’’’

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Citation From the November 5, 2019, edition of Fox News’ America’s Newsroom

By Wednesday afternoon, National Review had published an official editorial, “The Wrong Defense,” telling Republicans to stop advancing their current line of argument that no impropriety occurred.

“Overall, the White House and Republicans have been violating the first rule of a good defense counsel, which is not to deny things that are undeniable,” the editorial said. “It erodes your credibility and makes it harder to mount a better defense on other grounds.”

The editorial even conceded a major point in all this discussion: “What crossed a line was pushing them to look into the Bidens, and leveraging U.S. resources to do it. … But the contention that the president was merely interested in pursuing Ukrainian corruption is clearly pretextual, since this concern hasn’t been evident elsewhere in his foreign policy.”

The editorial then urged a change of focus to a different question: whether this whole effort, while wrong, constitutes a high crime and misdemeanor worthy of impeachment.

This is where Republicans are on firmer ground: The answer is “no.” It has to matter that, at the end of the day, the harm of this episode was minimal or nonexistent. The Ukrainians got their defense aid without making any statement committing themselves to the investigations. Indeed, the administration’s effort to get them to do it was ambiguous, confused, internally contentious — and ultimately abandoned.

And during an appearance Thursday on Fox News, the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Rich Lowry, further pursued this point:

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Citation From the November 7, 2019, edition of Fox News’ America’s Newsroom

RICH LOWRY (EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, NATIONAL REVIEW): I think this was improper, but does the enormity of it justify removing a president from office within 12 months of a reelection that he has a really good chance of actually winning — you know, short-circuiting that whole process? And is the drama here enough to hold the public's attention for months and months.

LOWRY: But at the end of the day, Ukraine gets the money. They don't dig up dirt on Joe Biden. They don't even investigate Joe Biden or Hunter Biden. … They don't even make a statement that they're going to investigate the energy company involved, and they get the money. And I think that's the ultimate defense Republican senators will fall back on, is whatever you think of these maneuverings over two months or so, Ukraine got the money and there was no investigation.

The thing is, Trump himself has publicly denounced the trial balloons for any such gambit, including in this tweet from just this past Sunday:

Trump’s scheme almost worked. The crucial military aid to Ukraine only got through because the Trump administration, by the thinnest of margins, was thwarted in its efforts to hold it all up. That is the only reason why “no harm” was ultimately done and the scheme was “ultimately abandoned.”

Just look to the timeline of events, in which the Trump administration released the aid only in mid-September. There had been a bipartisan pressure campaign from Congress, in August and September, to make sure it would get through and to extend its statutory expiration past the original deadline of September 30.

The New York Times has now reported that Zelensky had almost delivered a media announcement of the investigations that Trump was demanding — only to back out at the last minute when the aid was released two days ahead of the scheduled interview.

In short, National Review is recommending that the administration admit to having pursued an improper plot to use official United States foreign policy to affect the 2020 presidential election — after having fervently denied doing so — but claim that no harm was done because it was caught in the act and thus had to give up this haphazard attempt to do something wrong.