WASHINGTON - Congressional Republicans who have long disputed Democratic assertions that President Donald Trump strong-armed Ukraine to help him politically are pivoting hard to a new argument: the president's actions are not impeachable -- even if he did leverage his office for an investigation of a domestic rival.
For months, Trump's allies on Capitol Hill have argued that Democrats are relying on second-hand information to support their allegations that Trump withheld military aid and a White House meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to pressure Ukraine to investigate his political rivals, including former vice president and 2020 candidate Joe Biden.
The House impeached Trump last month, adopting charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.
Many Republicans have even repeated Trump's "no quid pro quo!" talking point.
But in his forthcoming book, former national security adviser John Bolton said Trump tied aid to the probe of the Bidens, prompting Republicans to quickly change their message: On Tuesday, they latched onto an argument from Trump defense attorney Alan Dershowitz, that his actions don't rise to the level of impeachment, even if the allegation is true.
"Let's say it's true, OK? Dershowitz last night explained that if you're looking at it from a constitutional point of view, that that is not something that is impeachable," Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., told reporters Tuesday morning.
"Alan Dershowitz said it was not" impeachable, said Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., a top ally of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. "And I don't disagree with that."
The ramifications are striking and could have long-term implications. It suggests senators believe a U.S. president can use taxpayer dollars to try to pressure an ally to investigate an American citizen who happens to be challenging him for president, without any repercussions. Most Republicans have also notably refused to say publicly whether they even believe Trump's actions were appropriate, with some Republicans growing angry when reporters press them for a simple answer.
But the new talking point also stands in stark contrast to a key argument by Trump's most ardent defenders in Congress and his own legal team: that a quid pro quo never happened. As recently as Tuesday, Trump's defense team was calling into question the notion that the president pressured Ukraine for a probe at all.
"The person that would be on the other end of the quid pro quo, if it existed, would have been [Ukraine] President [Volodymyr] Zelensky," said Trump's attorney Jay Sekulow. "But President Zelensky -- and we already laid out the other officials from Ukraine -- have repeatedly said there was no pressure . . . We are clear in our position that there was no quid pro quo."
The diverging messages underscores the challenge Republicans face as they try to coalesce around a unified argument for why they don't want to hear from witnesses after the White House stonewalled Congress, denying both evidence and witnesses. The White House hopes the GOP-led Senate votes as soon as this week to acquit Trump despite the Bolton revelations, but they've struggled to come up with an answer for why they don't want to hear from the former national security adviser.
The idea of acknowledging a quid pro quo first surfaced in the Senate last fall, as more than a dozen current and former Trump administration officials testified to House impeachment investigators that they believed a White House meeting and $391 million in congressionally appropriated money were being held to pressure Ukraine. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, told his colleagues in a private late October meeting that by admitting the act occurred, Republicans could then argue that Trump did not have criminal intent, perhaps even a legitimate reason to ask for those probes.
But such a strategy contradicted Trump, who said he did nothing wrong, called his call with Zelensky "perfect" and denied that he tried to force a U.S. ally into announcing investigations of Joe Biden. Indeed, Trump's top House defenders, including Reps. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, and Mark Meadows, R-N.C., pushed back on any attempts by senators to simply knowledge a quid pro quo happened and explain why.
Now, however, news that Bolton personally spoke with Trump about his intention to freeze military aid for an investigation has totally upended the GOP line that no witnesses heard from Trump that he was directing such a plane. It sent Republicans into a private frenzy on Monday morning, as some GOP lawmakers struggled with a sense of duty to call in Bolton to testify.
Enter Dershowitz, a Trump lawyer who argued Monday that "nothing in the Bolton revelations, even if true would rise to the level of an abusive power or an impeachable offense."
Republicans seized on the argument Tuesday morning, suggesting senators need not hear from additional witnesses because even if the reports were true, Trump can't be removed for office for those actions.
"I actually think what Ken Starr and what Professor Dershowitz [said] is true, which undermines the whole concept of carrying this impeachment forward," said Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C. "The charges at the extreme don't rise to the level of impeachment."
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, agreed, arguing that Dershowitz "made a good argument that a crime is required."
"The Constitution says 'treason, bribery, other high crimes and misdemeanors,'" he said. "It talks all about crimes. So impeaching somebody for a non-crime strikes me as novel. I found it pretty compelling."
Elsewhere around the Capitol, other Republican senators -- Mike Crapo of Idaho and Mike Rounds of South Dakota -- expressed similar opinions about Dershowitz's rationale. That argument "probably gave a lot more peace of mind to people that were wanting to see how to sort through it," Braun said, noting that he approached Dershowitz after his argument to ask him again: "if Bolton's revelation in its full form was true, is that impeachable in your opinion . . . and he said no, because it imputes motives."