On Monday, I wrote that history was watching how Republicans and Democrats alike responded to the newly emerging evidence of Donald Trump’s corruption—this time, that he had pressured Ukraine’s new president to dig up dirt on political rival Joe Biden while withholding promised military aid.

Soliciting foreign interference into an election is, of course, a crime—as Trump, someone who owes his 2016 election to foreign interference, and who should already have been impeached for obstructing an investigation into that interference, should well know. 

Yesterday, Democrats finally began treating Trump’s venality with the gravity it deserves: With previously reticent Dems jumping aboard the impeachment train, Speaker Nancy Pelosi signed off on a formal inquiry. It’s a long, improbable road from here to removal from office, but if they don’t muck things up—no guarantees there—the country could get to see the case against Trump laid out in a clear, compelling manner ahead of the 2020 election. (In any event, it was enough to prompt a predictable Twitter tantrum.)

We also got to see how Trump’s sycophants would respond. Chief among them, North Carolina’s own Mark Meadows, a red-meat Republican once considered a candidate for Trump’s chief of staff. According to Meadows—whom former Republican House Speaker John Boehner once called an “idiot”—Trump is the totally blameless target of “evidence-free hysteria.” 

Tell us more, Mr. Meadows (annotations mine): 

“From the moment Donald Trump was inaugurated, Washington Democrats have been myopically focused on politically targeting his administration and impeaching him from office. Their efforts began with the dissemination of a fake Russian collusion conspiracy theory (1); transformed into a failed attempt to convict the President on a baseless obstruction of justice allegation (2); and finally morphed into evidence-free hysteria over a secondhand allegation about a call they haven’t heard and a transcript they haven’t read (3). All of this has occurred even as the country faces serious challenges and American families encounter real needs every day.”

1) True: Robert Mueller said he could not establish that the Trump campaign had met the legal threshold for conspiring with the Russian government to interfere in the election. Also true: The Mueller report made clear that the Trump campaign was colluding with Wikileaks. From a prosecutorial standpoint, however, collusion isn’t a crime

2) The president hasn’t been convicted—or charged—with obstruction only because Mueller adhered to an Office of Legal Counsel ruling that presidents can’t be indicted while in office. If that hadn’t been the case, the Mueller report indicated, Trump would have been charged with “multiple acts” of obstruction.”

3) Indeed, we have not heard the call. And we won’t. Administrations have been a little hesitant to record the president since, oh, 1974 or so. And when Meadows released this statement yesterday, we had not yet seen a transcript or readout of the call. But this morning, under mounting pressure, the White House released a memo of Trump’s call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, which Trump apparently assumed would exonerate him.

It did not. 

The five-page memo—not a transcript, as the memo points out—shows Trump explicitly asking Zelensky to “do us a favor” after Zelensky says he wants to buy more anti-tank missiles from the U.S. A short time later, Trump asks Zelensky to reopen an investigation into Biden, a leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, after Trump pointedly notes how much nicer the U.S. has been to Ukraine than other countries.

In addition, Trump—who was, at the moment this phone call takes place, withholding hundreds of millions of dollars in congressionally allocated military assistance from Ukraine—instructs Zelensky to cooperate with Rudy Giuliani, the president’s private lawyer, who was reportedly circumventing key national security officials to pursue his own agenda in Ukraine, which included settling scores with those involved in exposing former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort’s corrupt behavior and going after the Bidens. 

(Not super important, all things considered, but it’s also interesting how Zelensky volunteers that he stayed at Trump Tower the last time he was in the States.)

In a less-than-shocking development, William Barr’s Department of Justice—having beclowned itself during the Mueller affair—quickly decided that Trump’s Ukraine dealings didn’t constitute a crime, a fact Trump’s on-the-ball communications people trumpeted in the talking points they emailed to … Nancy Pelosi. (At National Review, conservative writer David French, a lawyer, says the transcript offers plenty of evidence of a quid pro quo.)

There’s still a lot we don’t know. We haven’t seen the whistleblower’s complaint, for starters. The White House is still playing hide the ball on that one. And more information will come to light should the whistleblower get to testify before the House and Senate intelligence committees, as he wants to do. (Senator Richard Burr chairs the Senate committee.) The acting director of national intelligence, moreover, reportedly threatened to quit if the administration blocked him from testifying before Congress tomorrow, so that, too, could yield new revelations. 

But what we do know—that the president used his office to further his political position—is bad enough. At the very least, it warrants further inquiry. 

Unless, of course, you’re Mark Meadows, in which case you want us to focus on what really matters: an easily debunked Joe Biden conspiracy theory (annotations mine, again). 

Folks, this “Ukraine whistleblower” story is peak Washington D.C. Swamp in action

We have actual video evidence of Joe Biden acknowledging quid pro quo corruption involving his son and Ukraine—admitting his White House withheld $1 billion in exchange for getting a Ukraine state prosecutor fired (1)

But no—the left instead focuses on Trump, armed with only secondhand hearsay and exactly zero evidence (2)

This is completely unserious (3)

1) The state prosecutor was a hack, and the Obama administration pushed Ukraine to get rid of him, in conjunction with our allies, because he didn’t go after corrupt oligarchs. (Biden was the point-person, but even Erick Erickson is smart enough to recognize that he wasn’t calling the plays.) Ukraine forced the prosecutor out in 2016. The investigation into the company that hired Hunter Biden had ended by early 2015, and Hunter Biden has never been accused of criminal wrongdoing—only cashing in on his last name, which is unseemly, yes, but hardly something for a guy who fawns over the Trumps to harp on.

2) Sure about that? 

3) John Boehner was right about you.

Update: You’ll be shocked to learn that Meadows took a gander at the transcript and, lo and behold, figured out that everyone who saw Trump pressuring Zelensky to do his bidding was “misleading and irresponsible.” Here, have a look: 

Seeing some political conflation about two sections of the report:

The “favor” section of the call is referencing “crowdstrike,” or an investigation into election interference. This is NOT the same thing as the Biden section.

Conflating the two is misleading and irresponsible

— Mark Meadows (@RepMarkMeadows) September 25, 2019

Crowdstrike is the company the Democratic National Committee hired in 2016 to investigate its hacked emails, which turned out to be Russia. Trump does a bit of a Trump word salad on the top of page 3 of the memo (see below), and it’s unclear whether the ellipses refer to things we’re not allowed to read or Trump is just rambling—really, could be either. 

He is quoted as saying: “I would like you to do us a favor because the country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it. I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say Crowdstrike…I guess you have one of your wealthy people…The server, they say Ukraine has it.”

Then Trump rambles on about how Robert Mueller sucks, then Zelensky kisses his ass, then Trump gets to the “work with Rudy about Biden’s son” part. So Meadows believes it is obvious that the favor has to do with Crowdstrike, which apparently would mean it has to do with an investigation into Russian interference in U.S. elections. 

If we grant him the point—and, maybe?—what exactly is Trump asking Zelensky to do? 

The likeliest answer is, well, sad: Trump is chasing a conspiracy theory to help him prove that the Russians didn’t really help him win after all. 

From ABC News: 

“Trump was apparently asking the Ukrainian president to open an investigation into what has repeatedly been described as a debunked conspiracy theory Trump has often promoted to defend himself against his Democratic critics. … 

“Nearly three years later, special counsel Robert Mueller confirmed in his final report that Russians had breached the DNC servers and disseminated private emails in an effort to boost Trump’s presidential campaign.

“Throughout Mueller’s investigation, however, Trump repeatedly questioned the investigation’s fairness and thoroughness because, he insisted, the FBI was never able to independently analyze the ‘server at the center of so much corruption.’”

The Bulwark explains: 

“So when Trump asked Zelensky about the ‘server’ that Ukraine has, it seems likely that he is hoping to get information that will prove once and for all that Russia didn’t actually do what it did, that Vladimir Putin can be the friend that he’s always wanted, and that he is a legitimate president and a very good boy indeed. 

“That the president even possibly believes this is crazy and dangerous enough. But why would he think that Zelensky would be able to help prove this conspiracy? Vice, which has been following this bizarre storyline for a while now, notes that in a 2017 interview with the AP, Trump said that CrowdStrike is Ukraine-based. ‘They brought in another company that I hear is Ukrainian-based…That’s what I heard. That it’s owned by a very rich Ukrainian, that’s what I heard.’  (This is … not accurate; the company is based in California.) … 

“Given that background, it seems likely that the favor Trump asked for on the call was for the Ukrainian president to look into an American company, with a non-existent Ukranian CEO, to verify a conspiracy theory—one that has been debunked by his own intelligence agencies and Department of Justice—which would reveal that the Russians didn’t actually hack the DNC, that the leaked emails came from a midlevel staffer who was then murdered by the Clintons.”

The very best-case scenario, in other words, is that the president of the United States is a crackpot who’s about as well-informed as your average Breitbart commenter. 

But yes, Representative Meadows, let’s be careful not to conflate the criminal act (pressuring the president of a foreign country to interfere in elections) with the simply insane one. I wouldn’t want to mislead anyone. 

Read the entire memo below. But also read this thread, from the editor of ProPublica, which really gets at the context and undercurrents of the conversation: 

As the editor in chief of ProPublica, I’m always telling reporters to read their work out loud. As an experiment, I tried that with today’s rough transcript of President Trump’s phone call with President Zelenskyy of Ukraine. The results are illuminating.

— Stephen Engelberg (@SteveEngelberg) September 25, 2019

Contact editor in chief Jeffrey C. Billman at jbillman@indyweek.com. 

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