Ukraine Smoke and Mirrors

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks in Kyiv, Ukraine, Oct. 10. Photo: genya savilov/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Democrats and the media for three years used a fog of facts and speculation to lull America into forgetting there was never a shred of evidence of Trump-Russia collusion. They flooded the zone with another flurry of scattershot claims in their campaign against Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Republicans might bear these tactics in mind as they confront the left’s new impeachment push.

In the two weeks since the White House released the transcript of President Trump’s call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, the debate has descended into the weeds of process and people. This is unsurprising given House Democrats’ decision to keep hidden the central doings of their impeachment inquiry, and the media’s need to fill a void.

The press has responded by seeking to weave dozens of obscure Ukrainian and U.S. names into a crazy quilt of corruption. Readers have no time to keep track of all the Vlads, envoys and meetings in Spain, and that’s the point. The goal is to cover the Trump administration in ugly.

Republicans for their part are miffed at the highly irregular manner in which all this is unfolding. So they’re highlighting the anonymous whistleblower, his motives and his methods. They’ve pointed out the whistleblower’s admission that his information was secondhand. They’re drilling into whether he was biased on behalf of a current Democratic presidential candidate. They are (correctly) pointing out that the whistleblower has no legal right to anonymity.

Motive matters, but what matters more is the accuracy of the complaint itself. The real news of the past few weeks has been the steady accumulation of evidence that its central claim is totally wrong.

Which shouldn’t be surprising, given how many facts the complaint mangled about the call. It alleged, for instance, that Mr. Trump asked Ukraine to “locate and turn over servers.” He didn’t. It claims Mr. Trump “praised” a prosecutor named Yuriy Lutsenko and suggested the Ukrainian president “keep him in his position.” That didn’t happen either. There’s more, and when the whistleblower can’t get the facts of the call right, it’s no surprise he got his conclusion wrong too.

There is simply no evidence of what House Democrats have made the central claim of their impeachment inquiry: that Mr. Trump engaged in a “quid pro quo” by withholding aid to Ukraine unless it “opened an investigation” into former Vice President Joe Biden.

We now have the transcript of the call, in which Mr. Trump never threatened to withhold aid as a condition of an investigation. He doesn’t even mention money. The press is trying to suggest the threat was “implicit”—which means he didn’t say it.

There’s also the belated and devastating fact that the Ukrainians say they had no knowledge the aid was being withheld until a month after the call. How can you demand a quo when the target is unaware of the quid? Further, the aid was released—despite no “investigation” or “dirt” from Ukraine. And Mr. Zelensky has twice said there was no “pressure” or “blackmail” from the U.S. with regard to an investigation.

We also now have the opening statement of Kurt Volker, the former special representative to Ukraine, from his testimony last week to the House Intelligence Committee. “As you will see from the extensive text messages I am providing,” Mr. Volker said, “Vice President Biden was never a topic of discussion” during negotiations with Kyiv. He also testified he did not discuss the withholding of aid with his Ukrainian counterparts until “late August.” This is second confirmation of the Ukrainians’ statement that they had no clue during the July phone call there was any risk to aid.

Then there are the text messages. Democrats have highlighted several in which a State Department diplomat frets that aid is being withheld for political reasons. They neglect to point out that the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, shut down that claim in his own text: “You are incorrect. . . . The President has been crystal clear no quid pro quo’s of any kind.”

Republicans will be tempted to keep jumping down the rabbit holes the media and the left dig for them. They’d be better off uniformly noting that the central players in this episode, and the written record, have already refuted the complaint, and that anything further is theater, no different from the Russia-collusion hype. The left is again counting on the public getting lost in a swirl of innuendo. But facts matter, especially when it comes to impeachment.

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