The Republican position on the House Intelligence Committee’s impeachment hearings was mostly that the process was a sham, a hoax, a coup, a conspiracy, and a distraction from the many real crimes committed by Democrats. But amid this defense-by-attack messaging for the MAGA base, they did now and then offer a justification for Donald Trump’s Ukraine-directed 2019 behavior that, if not completely honest or commensurate with the facts, was at least internally coherent.
Trump, Republicans like Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan argued, was really just using his legitimate executive power for legitimate and high-minded policy ends. The president didn’t withhold already-appropriated military aid from Ukraine while demanding investigations of Joe Biden and nonexistent 2016 Ukraine–Democratic Party “server” collusion because he wanted to smear his political rivals, but because he had valid reasons as a statesman to believe Biden and the Democrats had behaved unethically and wanted to ensure Ukraine’s president shared his commitment to eradicating corruption.
As funny as that sentence sounds to type about someone who is in the news this week for having told his Secretary of State he didn’t think bribery should be illegal, it has the kind of respectable legal sheen that a certain type of Republican seizes on in order to avoid confronting Trump. (It’s not that they’re cravenly allowing an anthropomorphic fraud settlement who may not know what happened at Pearl Harbor to turn the federal government over to Sean Hannity; it’s that they’re respecting the constitutional prerogatives of the executive branch.) The argument seems likely to be deployed frequently at Trump’s Senate trial.
Unfortunately for Ben Sasse’s pre-written explanation of his vote for acquittal, though, the House Intelligence Committee is continuing to gather evidence from a Ukrainian businessman/hustler named Lev Parnas who was indicted by federal prosecutors for breaking campaign-finance laws while he worked on the Rudy Giuliani–led effort to remove U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch. (Giuliani and Parnas needed Yovanovitch out because she was actually working to eliminate corruption in the country, which put her at odds with the Ukrainian officials who they wanted to carry out the Biden smear. Previous testimony has shown that Trump told other U.S. officials in the region that all Ukraine policy had to run through Giuliani.) Parnas wants to save himself by turning state’s witness, and he’s been giving documents to the House and doing interviews to get his story out.
A lot of the attention around Parnas’s P.R. tour has concerned messages he received from a Republican hanger-on named Robert F. Hyde. In the messages, Hyde seems to be suggesting to Parnas that he was having Yovanovitch surveilled and could have her physically threatened if needed. But even Parnas told Rachel Maddow on Wednesday that Hyde was an erratic figure who may have simply been making extravagant claims while drunk.
Parnas also made the explosive claim, to Maddow, that he’d delivered a quid pro quo ultimatum to incoming Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky’s aides in May 2019; he says he told Zelensky’s team that all U.S. aid and cooperation with the country was directly dependent on the announcement of a Biden investigation. But the claim (which his lawyer has made previously) does not appear to be backed up with documentation, and even other figures in the scandal who have made incriminating allegations have not mentioned such a direct, explicit extortion demand having been made that early in 2019.
While Parnas’s wildest-sounding stories fly around uncorroborated, though, two hard documents that he turned over have snuck under the radar. The first is a letter that Giuliani sent to Zelensky in May requesting a meeting.
“Just to be precise, I represent him as a private citizen,” Giuliani wrote. This phrase tends to undermine the claim that the investigations Giuliani would press Zelensky to launch were meant to benefit the United States rather than to advance Trump’s interests as a private citizen, does it not?
Then there’s a WhatsApp message, translated by the Washington Post, from former Ukrainian prosecutor Yuri Lutsenko to Parnas in March 2019. Lutsenko, who was a part of the Ukrainian regime that preceded Zelensky’s, is the source for Giuliani and Trump’s otherwise uncorroborated claims about Biden. (The boss that Lutsenko refers to is likely Ukraine’s previous president. One of the favors Lutsenko wanted was Yovanovitch’s removal—she suspected, apparently correctly, that he was a crook—but it’s not clear what else he was asking for.)
“I’m sorry, but this is all simply b——t,” Lutsenko wrote on March 13. “I’m f—–g sick of all this. I haven’t received a visit. My [boss] hasn’t received jack all. I’m prepared to [thrash] your opponent. But you want more and more. We’re over.”
If Lutsenko was being engaged in a legitimate anti-corruption effort rather than a political hit job, it seems like he probably would not have described its intended outcome as “thrash[ing] your opponent.”
Giuliani, press secretary Stephanie Grisham, and Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway have all delivered the same response to questions about Parnas this week, which is that he is a “proven liar” who is “under indictment” and therefore not trustworthy. Typically, this kind of can’t-trust-a-cooperating-witness argument is employed by defendants who say they’re being scapegoated for criminal activities that the witness was actually entirely responsible for. In this case, though, Parnas is under indictment for his work to help achieve an outcome—Yovanovitch’s firing—that Giuliani has bragged on TV about having coordinated. It can’t be true that Lev Parnas is a crook who torched his credibility by participating in an illegal scheme but also that what Trump and Giuliani did was legal, above-board diplomacy when there is no question that Lev Parnas is the guy Trump and Giuliani asked to carry out the scheme. You can’t trust this guy’s allegation that we engaged in criminal corruption by firing an ambassador, they’re saying—he’s a criminal who engaged in corruption to successfully get an ambassador fired!
Grisham also noted that Parnas once created a company called Fraud Guarantee, a name which she presented as evidence that he was neck-deep in unsavory activities. Rudy Giuliani was paid $500,000 to act as Fraud Guarantee’s attorney.
Meanwhile, a report by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office released Thursday concluded that withholding appropriated military aid from Ukraine was inherently illegal—which is to say it would have been illegal even if Trump believed he had legitimate policy reasons for wanting to do so.
Trump should go to jail. Send Donald Trump to jail, Ben Sasse.
Support our independent journalism
Readers like you make our work possible. Help us continue to provide the reporting, commentary, and criticism you won’t find anywhere else.Join Slate Plus