It’s been almost funny how quickly each new argument to defend President Donald Trump against the looming impeachment inquiry has fallen apart, all of which miss the central point that the White House should never be used to pressure a foreign government to investigate a political opponent of the current occupant of the Oval Office.
But there has been one throughline in Trump and his defenders’ claims about the Ukraine scandal that, while not actually exculpating him, gave the president some room to deny that the charges against him were as grave as they sounded. When he asked the president of Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, Trump claimed, he wasn’t targeting a political opponent, he claimed — he was just going after “corruption.”
Now, there were many reasons that we never had reason to take this claim seriously. First, Trump and Rudy Giuliani’s efforts to go after Biden only emerged when the 2020 Democratic primary ramped up and the former vice president emerged as a top competitor. Second, Trump has never seemed to care about corruption in countries like Russia, which he frequently praises, or Azerbaijan, where he has conducted business. Third, Trump doesn’t care about corruption among his own Cabinet members, friends, and family. And fourth, when former Attorney General Jeff Sessions oversaw the Justice Department prosecuting two Republican congressmen ahead of the 2018 election — one of whom is set to plead guilty — Trump lashed out at him. So he certainly doesn’t care about fighting corruption in his own party.
For all that, Trump was still clinging desperately to the “corruption” line on Friday morning when he spoke to reporters.
“I don’t care about Biden’s campaign,” Trump said. “But I do care about corruption. His campaign, that’s up to him. Politics, that’s up to them. I don’t care about politics.“
This is important if Trump’s actions are ever analyzed through a legal lens. If Trump was just pressuring Ukraine to root out corruption, that’s just typical American diplomacy. But if he was asking for and hoping to receive services that would benefit his presidential campaign, that could be a criminal violation of the federal election law.
But then a reporter asked a fateful question which clarified the issue: “Have you asked foreign leaders for any corruption investigations that don’t involve your political opponent?”
Trump looked upward.
“You know, we would have to look,” he said. “But I tell you: What I ask for and what I always will ask for is anything having to do with corruption with respect to our country. If a foreign country can help us with respect to corruption and corruption probe, and — I don’t care if it’s Biden or anybody else. If they can help us.”
So in the face of all the other evidence that Trump doesn’t care at all about corruption, the president was asked to name a single instance — just one could have sufficed — of his asking for a specific corruption investigation that wasn’t about Biden or a political opponent.
He was stumped.
The man who “always will ask for … anything having to do with corruption with respect to our country” can’t name a single other time when he’s brought up the issue. The only reasonable conclusion is that he’s lying. He doesn’t care at all about corruption. He cares about leveraging criminal investigations to smear his general election opponent. Just like he did in 2016.