Two Weak Defenses of Trump
I cannot call this post “The Two Weakest Defenses of Trump,” because the president’s cult has amply proved that there is no depth to which they will not go, and from which point they will not dig even lower, in defending Mitch McConnell’s wayward puppet against the impeachment charges. Today, therefore, rather than waste time debating against those who believe Trump is God’s chosen messenger, or that the deep state wants him dead because he was sent among us to expose the truth about the Lizard Men, I choose to focus on two arguments of a superficially more reasonable nature — arguments which are actually being used on the floor of the United States Senate, as well as throughout the “conservative” (i.e., Republican establishment) media on a daily basis.
The first is the attempt to dismiss the accusation of abuse of power — related to Trump’s alleged quid pro quo of withholding military aid to Ukraine until Ukraine agreed to investigate Joe Biden’s son — on the grounds that “All foreign aid, and even foreign policy in general, is quid pro quo in nature; after all, why help nations that will do nothing for you in return?” This argument is meant to imply that the abuse of power charge is all hyperbole and hypocrisy at its core.
In some sense, of course, it is technically true to say that foreign aid, particularly military aid, will (and should) always be conditioned upon some sort of understanding of reciprocity. For example, no rational nation would offer military assistance to a hostile government, i.e., arm its own rival. One of the basic conditions upon which such aid will be extended is strategic alliance, which is to say a general agreement on regional or global goals. This, then, could be classified as a quid pro quo: We’ll give you this military aid on the condition that you share our democratic principles and assist us in resisting the threats of our shared enemies.
But this acknowledgment of the inevitable give-and-take nature of military aid does not legitimize any and all conditions set upon assistance. Specifically, there would seem to be an obvious and very reasonable distinction between conditions grounded in considerations of national interest (a head of state’s only proper negotiating position), and conditions grounded in a particular leader’s desire for personal advantage. For example, if a president said, “We’ll give you this military aid if and only if you set me up with your daughter,” I think most people would agree that this was not a legitimate condition for withholding previously designated assistance to an ally. (Admittedly, if Trump were found to have said this, his fans would completely defend and admire it: “After all, that daughter is cute; what alpha male wouldn’t use military aid as leverage to get a shot at her?”)
In the current case, Trump is accused of conditioning the release of aid upon the Ukrainian government pursuing an investigation that would be harmful to a very likely electoral rival. That certainly would seem to be the (illegitimate) personal advantage sort of quid pro quo, rather than the (legitimate) national interest sort. After all, Ukraine’s ability to defend itself against Russian intervention, and the United States’ desire to show tangible support for a former Soviet satellite’s independence from Putin’s Russia, would seem to far outweigh any alleged concerns about Hunter Biden’s finances.
In short, then, the “All foreign aid is quid pro quo” argument is pure logical invalidity, equivalent to saying “Everyone who can play basketball well enough to star in the NBA is tall; Frankenstein’s monster is tall; therefore Frankenstein’s monster can play basketball well enough to star in the NBA.”
The second of the standard Republican arguments in Trump’s defense, and one apparently being reiterated on a daily basis during the senate trial — including by such supposedly principled constitutionalists as Rand Paul and Mike Lee — is that “The Democrats (or Obama holdovers or the deep state) have been plotting ways to impeach Trump since the 2016 election.” This claim is intended to reveal the current impeachment case as illegitimate by impugning the motives or objectivity of the accusers.
But in fact it makes no difference, in principle, whether the people accusing Trump today — or some people associated with some of these accusers — have been on a personal vendetta to “get that guy” since 2016. All that matters, from a legal and constitutional point of view, is whether the offenses they are accusing him of now are verifiable and acceptable grounds for impeachment and removal. If they are, then he should be removed from office. If they are not, then he should not.
Senator Joe McCarthy has gone down in history as the embodiment of Cold War paranoia and inquisitional abuses of government authority. Nevertheless, his investigations really did expose some genuine communist infiltration within American institutions. His motives may have been paranoid in origin, and his methods unconstitutional, but he and his allies did turn up some authentic cases of communist subversion.
Likewise, there may be a whole network of paranoid “deep state” operatives who have been on a three-year mission to take down President Trump as a fascist demagogue or a Putin agent or a conservative Republican (at least two of those identifications being patently false), but this in no way establishes that there could be no legitimate charge made against Trump, let alone that he is an innocent but persecuted white knight on a noble crusade to make America great again.
You might have it in for someone, and spend three years unfairly monitoring his every move, seeking dirt on him, and treating him with undo suspicion — and then, one day, find yourself as the only eyewitness to his shooting a man on Fifth Avenue. The fact that you are known to have harbored bad intentions toward him all along might disqualify you as a juror at his murder trial, but it does not negate the eyewitness testimony you can give against him under oath at that trial. Nor, more importantly, does it make the man any less guilty of the murder that the only eyewitness happens to be a person who is known to dislike him. If he shot the man on Fifth Avenue, then he is a murderer, regardless of who was in the position to catch him in the act. Arguing that you, the witness, must be lying because you never liked him in the first place, might be a clever lawyer’s trick, but it does not change the facts of the crime.
Throughout much of the Obama presidency, there was a faction on the outskirts of the so-called grassroots conservative movement — the Alex Jones kook fringe of the Tea Party — that was dead set on proving that Barack Obama’s birth certificate was a fake, and that the reason for this is that he was born in Kenya, and that when this was finally proved, Obama could be summarily removed from office on grounds of constitutional illegitimacy. Among the public figures who decided to jump on this bandwagon as a means of furthering their own personal agendas, none was more prominent, nor more vocal in claiming the cause as his own, than Donald J. Trump.
Now let’s imagine that in September 2012, by some happenstance, a person with close ties to Donald Trump — oh, let’s say Hillary Clinton — had happened to be in the White House when Barack Obama was making the fateful choice to abandon several American government officers to their horrifying deaths in Benghazi. Had Hillary, after exchanging e-mails about the matter with her friend Donald, chosen to come forward with evidence of Obama’s gross dereliction of duty and cold-blooded inhumanity, and this evidence in turn led to an impeachment trial, there would no doubt have been Democrats screaming every day that the charges were illegitimate, on the grounds that the “whistleblower,” Mrs. Clinton, was a long-time associate and friend of Donald Trump, who was known to have been arguing for Obama’s removal from office long before Benghazi.
In short, the fact that some Democrat apparatchiks have long wished for an opportunity to impeach Trump does nothing to prove the illegitimacy of the particular case at issue, which has its own set of facts and testimony, independent of any of those apparatchiks’ pre-existing pipe dreams.
These are, it seems to me, the two most prominent attempts by the Republican establishment and its voting dupes to swipe away the entire impeachment trial without properly answering the charges. That these arguments are inherently fallacious does not prove that Trump is guilty and should be removed from office. But it does demonstrate how frivolous and trivial the Republican Party, including its supposedly principled conservative faction, has become in this Trump era. Knowing that America has reached a low ebb of moral and constitutional decay, they simply do not feel any compulsion to look at the issues involved honestly and seriously. They know they don’t have to. So they don’t.
Shame on the Republican voters, who could have had better, who ought to have demanded better, but who have now, with the rarest exceptions, rejected even the pretense of caring about “better.”