WASHINGTON — Impeachment of a president is a deeply serious affair. Efforts by President Trump and his defenders to explain away his clear-as-day abuse of power are providing a bit of comic relief.
The problem for the president and his amen chorus is that the White House released a document proving Trump guilty of an impeachable act. In the official memorandum of a July 25 conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky — at a time when Trump was unilaterally withholding $391 million in military aid for Ukraine, which Congress had approved — Zelensky expresses a desire to purchase U.S. anti-tank missiles. Trump replies: "I would like you to do us a favor though."
The "favor" includes firing up an investigation of Joe Biden, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination. Trump ignores U.S. national security interests and uses taxpayer funds as leverage to coerce a foreign leader into interfering in the 2020 election. For such conduct, he not only can be impeached but (BEG ITAL)must(END ITAL) be impeached.
Those trying to somehow explain this away are reduced to playing dumb.
Some Republicans claim not to have found the time to read the rough transcript of the phone call, which is a mere five pages long. Others claim to have misread it: When Scott Pelley of "60 Minutes" read the above quote to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, McCarthy initially disputed that the president said the word "though," which delivers a clear message: Zelensky will get his missiles if Trump gets his investigation.
When Pelley pressed the point, McCarthy hemmed and hawed about former President Barack Obama before complaining that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi should not have opened an impeachment inquiry based on a phone call that "the speaker never even heard." But of course she didn't have to hear it. Trump himself publicly acknowledged asking the Ukrainian president to investigate Joe Biden.
McCarthy finally settled on what is perhaps the lamest defense of all: The whistleblower whose complaint set all of this in motion "wasn't on the call."
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who has lashed himself to the mast of Trump's foundering ship, has gone all-in on this narrative. "This seems to be like a political setup. It's all hearsay. You can't get a parking ticket conviction based on hearsay. The whistleblower didn't hear the phone call," Graham said on "Face the Nation."
If Graham, who has a law degree, were to read the whistleblower's complaint — which is all of nine pages long — he would see there is no issue of hearsay whatsoever. The whistleblower says he or she was informed of the phone call's content by "multiple White House officials with direct knowledge of the call." That alone would not constitute admissible evidence in a court of law. But the White House released the transcript — which both confirms and supersedes the description of the call in the complaint. There is no need to rely on hearsay evidence when you have direct evidence — provided, in this case, by the defendant himself. Oops.
The contest for the most unhinged defense of the president comes down to Trump and his attorney Rudy Giuliani. Narrowly, I give the nod to Trump.
Giuliani has been giving interviews in the persona of a shrieking banshee, waving sheaves of paper that he claims prove that Biden and his son Hunter are somehow corrupt. "It is impossible that the whistleblower is a hero and I'm not," he told The Atlantic magazine. "And I will be the hero! These morons — when this is over, I will be the hero!"
OK, that's hard to top. Trump manages, though.
In dozens of tweets and retweets over the weekend, Trump convincingly proved just one thing: Those who worry this is a trap and he actually wants to be impeached can relax. No one could fake being so frantic.
Witness a representative tweet from Sunday evening: "I want to meet not only my accuser, who presented SECOND & THIRD HAND INFORMATION, but also the person who illegally gave this information, which was largely incorrect, to the 'Whistleblower.' Was this person SPYING on the U.S. President? Big Consequences!"
Trump also quoted evangelical pastor Robert Jeffress as saying on Fox News: "If the Democrats are successful in removing the President from office (which they will never be), it will cause a Civil War like fracture in this Nation from which our Country will never heal." (The parenthetical is Trump's.)
Endorsing armed insurrection constitutes grounds for impeachment. The most damaging witness against Trump, by far, is Trump himself.
Eugene Robinson's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.