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Trump’s Defenders Have Plenty of Lame Excuses

Ramesh Ponnuru

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- You’re going to be seeing quotes from Federalist 65 a lot over the next few months. It’s the one where Alexander Hamilton explains that because impeachment “will seldom fail to agitate the passions of the whole community,” it will often “connect itself with the pre-existing factions, and will enlist all their animosities, partialities, influence, and interest on one side or on the other.” The outcome, thus, will depend as much on political strength as on truth.

Watching the agitated arguments over impeachment this week, you’d have to say that Hamilton nailed it. The passions he mentioned are leading political combatants on both sides of the issue astray. Representative Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat who has been in Congress for 32 years, has decided that President Donald Trump is guilty of “treason.” Not according to the Constitution’s definition of the term, he isn’t.

Those of us who consume a lot of conservative media are, however, seeing even more flawed arguments in defense of Trump. Here are a few of the leading ones.

There was no quid pro quo in Trump’s call with Ukrainian president Volodomyr Zelenskiy. It takes willful naiveté to read the memorandum of the call released by the White House that way – especially given that the Trump administration had held up some aid to Ukraine at the time of the call. In the conversation, Trump said that the U.S. had been good to Ukraine, noted that the relationship was not reciprocal, and then asked for “a favor” and an “other thing.”

The “favor” concerned Ukrainian cooperation with an effort by Attorney General Bill Barr to look into a conspiracy theory involving Ukraine and the 2016 elections. The “other thing” was to help Barr and Trump’s personal attorney, Rudolph Giuliani, “get to the bottom” of whether Vice President Joe Biden had intervened to stop a prosecution affecting his son.

It’s fine for the president to ask for Ukrainian help in uprooting corruption. It’s the administration’s right to set its foreign-policy priorities, and fighting corruption has been a low one. The president’s interest here was obviously personal. Otherwise there would have been no reason to involve Giuliani, a private lawyer, who had already said that he was “meddling in an investigation” to help his client.

The news media has edited the memorandum of the phone call to make Trump look worse. This is correct. Some outlets have used ellipses to jump from Trump’s request for a favor directly to his comment about Biden. In skipping over the conspiracy-theory part of Trump’s comment, they made the evidence that Trump was pressuring Ukraine over Biden look stronger than it is. An accurate recounting of the memorandum, though, is strong enough.

Democratic senators interfered with Ukrainian prosecutors, too. Not really. Three Democratic senators sent a letter urging Ukraine to cooperate with an ongoing investigation by the U.S. government rather than to succumb to any pressure from Trump to withhold cooperation. There was no threat of U.S. policy changes adversely affecting Ukraine, either. So no quo, and a less problematic quid.

It was just a phone call. There’s no reason a phone call can’t be enough to be worth investigating, or even removing an official from office. But what’s under investigation isn’t just a phone call anyway. We need to know the motives for the administration’s temporary withholding of aid, which are disputed. And Giuliani’s comment about meddling came more than two months before the phone call.

The “whistleblower complaint” contains a lot of hearsay. That’s true, but the allegations are of sufficiently troubling acts as to be worth investigating.

Russiagate was a hoax, and the same people who spread it are yelling about this. Russia interfered in the 2016 election; the president has repeatedly denied that point; and top aides expressed their willingness to get election help from the Russian government. The idea that there was something worth looking into was no hoax, even if Robert Mueller was unable to show that Trump was involved in a criminal conspiracy.

The multiplicity of grounds Trump’s enemies have cited to call for impeachment shows they are just after him for partisan reasons. Partisanship is definitely playing a large role, just as Hamilton predicted. Note, though, that this defense of Trump is similar to one Hillary Clinton’s fans made over her emails: They’ve alleged one thing after another about her for decades, so why take this one seriously? It wasn’t wrong for Clinton’s defenders to point to Republican partisanship. But Clinton also had a history of ethical corner-cutting that kept leading to accusations, some of them justified and some of them unjustified. Trump seems to have a habit of confusing his interests with the country’s, and it too is leading to scandal after scandal.

Trump’s enemies are trying to annul an election; they can’t accept his legitimacy. Trump is the legitimate president, and some of his opponents have foolishly denied it. He was elected fair and square under the process our Constitution lays out. If he’s removed from office after an impeachment trial, he’ll have exited the presidency under another process the Constitution lays out. And Hillary Clinton won’t become president.

Removing a president for high crimes and misdemeanors is not something to be done lightly. There is plenty of room for debate over what counts as an impeachment-worthy offense. It may be wiser to leave a judgment of Trump’s conduct to the next election. But if Congress chooses to leave him in office, it shouldn’t be based on the weak arguments his defenders are currently making.

To contact the author of this story: Ramesh Ponnuru at rponnuru@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and contributor to CBS News.

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