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Trump cites ‘obligation to end corruption,’ but ex-ethics official says he’s digging deeper hole

‘There’s no more debating the facts. He did it,’ Walter Shaub says

President Donald Trump, while speaking to reporters Thursday morning, asked China to investigate 2020 Democratic front-runner Joe Biden. Then text messages were released showing top U.S. diplomats trying to trade a White House visit to Ukraine’s president for a probe of Biden. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump, while speaking to reporters Thursday morning, asked China to investigate 2020 Democratic front-runner Joe Biden. Then text messages were released showing top U.S. diplomats trying to trade a White House visit to Ukraine’s president for a probe of Biden. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump on Friday dismissed criticism from House Democrats and others over his renewed calls for foreign governments to investigate his domestic political rivals, even as text messages from U.S. diplomats suggest he insisted of trading a White House visit with Ukraine’s president for just that.

Experts see a president and administration only digging a deeper hole — and unable to help themselves or build a strategy to allow congressional Republicans to counter House Democrats’ message that Trump is corrupt and putting his own interests over those of the United States.

In a morning tweet, the president wrote that he has “an obligation to end CORRUPTION, even if that means requesting the help of a foreign country or countries.”

That tweet came about 22 hours after he stood on the South Lawn of the White House and again called for the Ukrainian government to look into Joe Biden’s work as vice president to oust what Western officials viewed as a corrupt prosecutor there, while son Hunter Biden was being paid as a board member of a Ukrainian gas firm. Trump contends the former vice president did so to help his son. But then Trump, unmoved by suggestions that his request of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy is an impeachable offense, made an incredible statement.

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“And, by the way,” he said, “China should start an investigation into the Bidens, because what happened in China is just about as bad as what happened with Ukraine.”

The next morning, as Washington was buzzing about a slew of text messages released by House Democrats, Trump again denied doing anything wrong. “It is done all the time. This has NOTHING to do with politics or a political campaign against the Bidens. This does have to do with their corruption!” he tweeted.

Experts were astounded by Trump’s message to China — especially because he made it after talking about the “power” he believes he has over Xi Jinping amid stalled trade talks.

[Trump presses China to investigate Joe and Hunter Biden]

“This should put to bed any debate as to whether Trump asked a foreign government to investigate his political rival. Before today, his supporters tried to challenge the whistleblower complaint and attack its author,” Walter Shaub, who resigned as Trump’s first director of the Office of Government Ethics over objections about perceived lapses by the administration, told Roll Call.

“But now millions of people around the world have seen and heard him do what the whistleblower accused him of doing,” Shaub said, referring to the president and an intelligence community whistleblower who prompted House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry. “There’s no more debating the facts. He did it. The only question left is whether we will tolerate a sitting president soliciting foreign interference in the very thing that makes us a republic: our elections.”

‘I think it’s crazy′

The bundle of U.S. diplomats’ text messages released late Thursday by House Democrats will only intensify such feelings. The messages appear to show conversations among several U.S. diplomats linking White House business to Trump’s desire for the Ukrainian government to investigate the Bidens.

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The president, his top aides and surrogates have denied there was any quid pro quo on a July 25 telephone call between Trump and Zelenskiy during which the latter brings up his desire to buy more U.S. anti-tank weapons and Trump immediately asks him to “do us a favor though” and brings up a probe of the Bidens.

The text messages, however, show U.S. diplomats discussing the president’s unwillingness to grant Zelenskiy an Oval Office visit he greatly desired unless the Ukrainian leader looked into the Bidens. In one, Bill Taylor, a senior U.S. diplomat in Kiev, drew a direct line between Zelenskiy’s White House meeting request and a nearly $400 million military aide package that Trump himself froze.

“Are we now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?” Taylor wrote in a Sept. 1 text message to Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union.

Sondland responded: “Call me.”

One week later, Taylor offered clues about the contents of that call, and it suggests a quid pro quo was on the table.

“As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign,” Taylor told Sondland.

White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham and her top deputy, J. Hogan Gidley, have not responded to an email seeking comment on the contents of the text messages.

Impeachment proceedings continue

Some doubt the China ask or diplomats’ text messages will greatly alter the impeachment inquiry strategy being employed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Intelligence Chairman Adam B. Schiff of California.

“Speaker Pelosi has expertly rallied her far-flung caucus around this narrow focus ensuring a clear message and as minimal political risk as possible. She has been clear that this is a matter of national security,” said Mark Alexander, dean of the Villanova University School of Law.

“Keeping the impeachment proceedings focused on national security will be compelling to the American people — a more scatter-shot approach would be seen as partisan and likely ineffective in persuading voters,” Alexander added.

Several polls released since Pelosi announced a formal impeachment investigation on Sept. 24 show more support among voters for the inquiry.

[Analysis: Dodge. Deny. Defame. Testy Trump adds fuel to raging impeachment battle]

A CNN-SSRS poll conducted last week, mostly in the five days immediately following the speaker’s announcement, shows a plurality of voters — 47 percent — support Trump being impeached by the House and removed from office by the Senate. That’s up from 41 percent in May, with those opposing such action declining by an even larger amount, 9 percent (from 54 percent in May to 45 percent in the CNN-SSRS survey).

The number of Democrats who support impeachment remains relatively the same, at 74 percent, as in past versions of the same poll — but the number of GOP and independent voters who support Trump’s impeachment has risen.

Forty-six percent of independents surveyed support impeachment, up 11 points. Among Republicans, support is at 14 percent — an 8-percentage point increase. Notably, 47 percent of independents say the president improperly used his office to gain a political edge against potential 2020 general election foe Biden.

If that shift continues amid more disclosures like the diplomats’ text message conversations and the president’s own actions, what should congressional Republicans do? Alexander sees one way out of this for them — and Trump.

“If the House Democrats present a compelling case, Republicans may need to come up with a middle ground where the president gets censured and not removed,” he said. “So far, Republicans have been ill-prepared to protect the president, with no salient message or strategy — except repeating the president’s debunked conspiracy theories about the Ukraine and the 2016 election.”

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