Before hearing a single word of information presented at a Senate trial, Republican senators are of course already signaling that Donald Trump will be acquitted.
A growing number of Senate Republicans are ready to acknowledge that President Trump used U.S. military aid as leverage to force Ukraine to investigate former vice president Joe Biden and his family as the president repeatedly denies a quid pro quo.
In this shift in strategy to defend Trump, these Republicans are insisting that the president’s action was not illegal and does not rise to the level of an impeachable offense as the Democratic-led House moves forward with the open phase of its probe.
But the shift among Senate Republicans could complicate the message coming from Trump as he furiously fights the claim that he had withheld U.S. aid from Ukraine to pressure it to dig up dirt on a political rival, even as an increasing number of Republicans wonder how long they can continue to argue that no quid pro quo was at play in the matter.
The pivot was the main topic during a private Senate GOP lunch on Wednesday, according to multiple people familiar with the session who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the meeting. Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) argued that there may have been a quid pro quo but said that the U.S. government often attaches conditions to foreign aid and that nothing was amiss in Trump’s doing so in the case of aid to Ukraine, these individuals said.
Inside the lunch, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who ran against Trump in 2016, said a quid pro quo is not illegal unless there is “corrupt intent” and echoed Kennedy’s argument that such conditions are a tool of foreign policy.
“To me, this entire issue is gonna come down to, why did the president ask for an investigation,” Kennedy, who worked as a lawyer, said in an interview. “To me, it all turns on intent, motive. ... Did the president have a culpable state of mind? … Based on the evidence that I see, that I’ve been allowed to see, the president does not have a culpable state of mind.”
The discussion underscores the dilemma for congressional Republicans as a cadre of current and former Trump administration officials paint a consistent picture of a president wiling to use foreign policy to undercut a potential domestic political adversary. On Thursday, Trump appointee and longtime Republican aide-turned-National Security Council adviser Tim Morrison became the latest official to testify that nearly $400 million of congressionally appropriated military aid for Ukraine was frozen to increase pressure on President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Biden, a 2020 presidential contender.
And with the House Democrats voting Thursday to open the closed-door impeachment investigation, undermining the GOP’s complaints about a secretive process, Republicans are frantically seeking a new strategy and talking points to defend the president.
The talking points are now "He did it, he's guilty, but so what?"
That's it, guys. That's the entire GOP strategy, the talking points, the framing, the unified message.
He did it, but it doesn't matter one bit.