Defending Trump: The Republican Playbook

Vice President Mike Pence and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) walked Nov. 5 to a Republican luncheon. Mr. Pence advised senators on how to defend President Trump in the impeachment inquiry. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Republicans have run the gamut in their defense of President Trump’s interactions with Ukraine in recent days, as the public hearings in the House impeachment inquiry loom: There was no quid pro quo. Or if there was, it wasn’t illegal or even improper. And because Ukraine ultimately received aid and its president met Mr. Trump without opening investigations, no favors were traded.

The impeachment inquiry centers on reports that Mr. Trump withheld aid to Ukraine while he was pressing the country to investigate Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son, Hunter.

Mr. Trump has made it clear he wants GOP lawmakers to defend him more on substance, not merely complain about the House process. “I’d rather go into the details of the case,” he told reporters last week.

Many Republicans, however—Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell chief among them—are sticking with criticism of how Democrats have conducted the inquiry and ducking questions on the merits of the case.

WSJ’s Shelby Holliday lays out a timeline of interactions between the president’s inner circle and Ukrainian officials. Photo Composite: Laura Kammermann/The Wall Street Journal

At a closed-door lunch with GOP senators this week, Vice President Mike Pence commended House Republicans for sticking together in opposition to the vote affirming the impeachment inquiry, according to a person familiar with the matter. Mr. Pence encouraged the senators to review the transcript of the July call between Mr. Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and stressed that the administration did ultimately release the aid to Ukraine, the person said. Mr. Pence also dismissed the House impeachment process as a sham.

Some Republicans consider Mr. Pence’s remarks as a road map to follow as they respond to defend the president on the merits, as he has requested.

Here is a breakdown of six of the GOP’s most commonly used lines of defense on Capitol Hill as Congress approaches the public-hearing phase of impeachment:

Nothing wrong with the phone call

The president’s critics say it was improper for the president on the July phone call to link U.S. military aid to Mr. Zelensky doing him a political favor.

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The White House has encouraged members of Congress to follow Mr. Trump’s lead in saying his phone call with Mr. Zelensky was “perfect” and showed no evidence of a quid pro quo, though the impeachment inquiry has gone beyond the contents of the single call.

“I mean look, the one hard piece of evidence that we do have that’s out there in public for everybody to see is the transcript of the call,” said Sen. Josh Hawley (R., Mo.). “I mean, I don’t see any evidence of a quid pro quo or any other illegality.”

There was no quid pro quo

Critics of Mr. Trump say U.S. policy hinged on a quid pro quo—U.S. aid in exchange for investigations into Mr. Trump’s political foes.

Some Republicans argue that even if Mr. Trump had intended to withhold the aid from Ukraine, there could be no quid pro quo because the administration eventually released the money. They note that both Mr. Trump and Mr. Zelensky have publicly denied Mr. Trump was pressuring Mr. Zelensky to investigate Mr. Biden and his son.

“The president says he didn’t do it,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R., Okla.) “The President of Ukraine said he didn’t do it. And the aid was released without an investigation. So, you know, it will take a lot more than that to convince me that there was quid pro quo.”

Quid pro quos can be OK

White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney was the first to suggest that nothing was out of the ordinary in Mr. Trump’s insistence that Mr. Zelensky investigate the Democrats before the U.S. would release aid.

“We do that all the time with foreign policy,” Mr. Mulvaney said in a press conference last month.

He said the White House was holding up money at the same time for Northern Triangle countries so that they would change their policies on immigration. Mr. Mulvaney later issued a statement walking back his earlier remarks, saying there was “absolutely no quid pro quo” involved on the Ukraine matter.

Some Republican lawmakers have picked up on Mr. Mulvaney’s line of argument. They have contended that a quid pro quo could be fine, depending on the circumstances.

“Quid pro quo is a red herring unless you distinguish between a legal quid pro quo and an illegal quid pro quo,” Sen. John Kennedy (R., La.) told Politico Wednesday.

Evidence of quid pro quo is second-hand

Several witnesses have told the House committees conducting the impeachment inquiry that they understood that Mr. Trump wanted the quid pro quo.

Rep. Jim Jordan (R., Ohio), however, emphasized to reporters Wednesday that none of the witnesses had been told directly by Mr. Trump to withhold aid unless the Ukrainians opened the investigations Mr. Trump desired and explored an alternative theory about 2016 election-meddling.

“It’s all based on what someone told someone,” said Mr. Jordan.

None of this constitutes an impeachable offense

The Constitution states a president or vice president can be removed from office through impeachment for treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.

Some Republicans have suggested that none of the Ukraine-related allegations against Mr. Trump, even if proven true, rises to the level of an impeachable offense.

“I think the substance is not worthy of an impeachment discussion,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) told reporters this week.

Mr. Trump isn’t enamored of this argument.

“False stories are being reported that a few Republican Senators are saying that President Trump may have done a quid pro quo, but it doesn’t matter, there is nothing wrong with that, it is not an impeachable event,” he tweeted this week. “Perhaps so, but read the transcript, there is no quid pro quo!”

The Trump administration is incapable of committing a quid pro quo

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Mr. Graham told reporters Wednesday that the Trump administration’s policy toward Ukraine was too “incoherent” to enforce a quid pro quo.

“They seem to be incapable of forming a quid pro quo,” he said.

Write to Lindsay Wise at lindsay.wise@wsj.com

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