(CNN)The same White House aide who coined the term “alternative facts” is at it again.
Asked Sunday by CNN’s Dana Bash whether she felt “comfortable” with what President Donald Trump said to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on that now-infamous July 25 phone call, White House senior counselor Kellyanne Conway responded this way:
“I feel comfortable saying that he never mentioned 2020, quid pro quo, holding up aid, Joe Biden, his political rival.”
Really? Let’s go to the transcript!
1. Trump, after congratulating Zelensky on his win, very quickly establishes that the United States has been very, very good to Ukraine.
“I will say that we do a lot for Ukraine. We spend a lot of effort and a lot of time. Much more than the European countries are doing and they should be helping you more than they are.”
2. He then makes clear that the US does a lot more for Ukraine than Ukraine does for the US.
“I wouldn’t say that it’s reciprocal necessarily because things are happening that are not good but the United States has been very, very good to Ukraine.”
3. Trump directly asks Zelensky to investigate Joe Biden and his son, Hunter.
“There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it … It sounds horrible to me.”
Any — and I mean any — reasonable person reading that transcript would draw a simple conclusion: There is an not-even-that-subtle quid pro quo at work here. Trump wants Zelensky to do something — actually, two somethings since he also wants Ukraine to look into a conspiracy theory about the location of the Democratic National Committee’s hacked server — and in order to light a fire under the Ukrainian president, Trump reminds him of all that the US does for Ukraine.
What Conway appears to be arguing here is because Trump doesn’t say the actual words “2020” or “quid pro quo” then it’s all hunky dory. (Leave aside the fact that Trump quite clearly says the word “Biden” — contra Conway.)
This is, of course a beyond-ridiculous argument on which to base a defense of the President.
Start here: The call happened July 25, 2019. So Conway’s argument that this was all about 2016 and had nothing to do with 2020 totally and completely overlooks the fact that Biden had already been running for president for months when Trump and Zelensky got on the call — and was quite clearly the race’s front-runner at that point.
It is ludicrous — sorry for sounding like a broken record, but this is truly beyond-the-pale stuff — for Conway to argue that because Trump was asking Zelensky to look into something that happened in 2016 — and for which no facts currently exist to back up Trump’s allegation — that it had nothing to do with 2020.
To believe that you have to think that Trump would never bring up anything unearthed by the investigation he was pressuring Zelensky into opening in the context of the 2020 campaign. And you could not believe that, because Trump had already begun to attack Biden at the time of this call for what Trump alleged without evidence was corrupt behavior as vice president!
Now for Conway’s assertion that Trump never mentioned a quid pro quo or “holding up aid.” It is true that the President doesn’t use those words. But according to the testimony of National Security Council Ukraine expert Alexander Vindman last week, he believed it was clear as soon as July 10 — two weeks before the call — that almost $400 million in military aid was being withheld from Ukraine until they did what the President wanted.
And again, use common sense here. You are the president of Ukraine. Russia, which has already annexed Crimea, poses a ever-present threat to your borders and sovereignty. In order to successfully keep that threat at bay, you require military assistance from the United States. Given that context, do you really think Zelensky would be entirely unaware that the US was withholding $400 million in aid when you talked to the President of the United States by phone? Or that Trump’s insinuation on that call — “I will say that we do a lot for Ukraine,” “I wouldn’t say that it’s reciprocal” — wouldn’t make it crystal clear what was going on?
The heights of Conway’s intellectual dishonesty in her answer to Bash — and in the entirety of their interview — is staggering. And what’s worse is that the argument she is making is nonsensical. Like, it literally does not make sense.
None of that changes the fact that Trump will laud Conway for the performance (and it was a performance) because she never gave in to the media or something. But take your partisan blinders off for a minute and see this interview for what it was: An attempt to convince you that what you are seeing and what you are hearing isn’t what you are seeing and hearing. And that is a dangerous thing.