I haven’t been a litigator since 2015. I haven’t conducted a proper cross-examination since 2014. But if I couldn’t walk a witness, judge, and jury through the transcript of Donald Trump’s call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky and demonstrate that a quid pro quo was more likely than not, then I should just hang up my suit and retire in disgrace. Far from being “scattershot” — as my esteemed colleague Kyle Smith declares — the actual sequence is extremely tight, and the asks are very clear.
First, right near the beginning of the call, President Trump signals his displeasure with Ukraine. He notes that while the United States has been “very good” to Ukraine, he “wouldn’t say” that Ukraine has been “reciprocal” to the United States. There’s nothing subtle about this statement. It’s plain that Trump wants something from Ukraine.
To be clear, there is nothing inherently wrong with that. Nations strike deals all the time. It’s the nature of the proposed deal that’s potentially problematic, not whether two leaders bargain.
In the next paragraph, Zelensky responds with the key ask. He wants more Javelin missiles, an indispensable weapon system in Ukraine’s conflict with Russia. It’s an anti-tank missile that helps address the yawning power imbalance between the two countries. It doesn’t level the playing field, but it does help deter Russian aggression by raising the possibility of substantial armor losses on the battlefield.
Given the multiple layers of Ukrainian–American contact during the 2016 campaign cycle, a request for Ukrainian assistance in lawful American investigations of foreign interference is entirely proper. If that’s where the transcript ended, there would be no problems, and it’s entirely proper for Zelensky to respond “yes” and state that the matter was “very important to him.”
But then, in the following paragraph, Trump continues his ask. He says he is going to ask Rudy Giuliani, his personal attorney, to call Zelensky, and he asks Zelensky to take the call. Then, Trump says this: “The other thing, 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.” He continues, “Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it . . . It sounds horrible to me.”
And what is Zelenksy’s response? He pledges that the new Ukrainian prosecutor will be “100 percent” his person and that “he or she will look into the situation.”
I highlight the quid pro quo aspect of the transcript because the other published report — that Trump asked that Ukraine work with Giuliani to investigate Joe and Hunter Biden — is clearly and unequivocally established. The transcript provides proof that Trump made a completely improper request that the president of Ukraine work with Trump’s personal counsel to investigate a political rival. It provides strong evidence that this took place in the context of a quid pro quo for desperately needed military aid.
Trump’s comments to Zelensky should not be considered an offhand remark or word salad that’s merely “Trump being Trump.” Recall that Giuliani has been working on his Ukraine project for months. He has bragged that his efforts should be “very, very helpful to my client.” Trump has wanted to push Biden’s Ukrainian conflicts of interest into the center of the national debate.
More investigation is necessary. Congress needs to understand the full context of Trump’s decision to place a hold on military aid to Ukraine, it needs to hear the whistleblower’s complaint (though it appears that the whistleblower may have been mainly complaining about the call that we’ve now read), and it needs to determine what, if anything, Ukraine did in response to Trump’s requests. It also needs a full accounting of Giuliani’s odd actions on behalf of his client.
I’m honestly puzzled that Trump’s defenders online are claiming any kind of vindication over the contents of this transcript. It admits one profound abuse of power, and it implies another, even worse, violation of the public trust.
Sohrab Ahmari has set off a bitter debate, but it’s not at all clear what that debate is supposed to be about.
- Classical liberalism?
- President Trump?
- The collected works of David French?
So far, it seems to be about all of those things put in a blender — which is not a recipe for maintaining useful distinctions. I’ll try to separate some of the discrete issues.
Over on the home page, J.J. McCullough has penned a piece urging a “compromise on transgenderism,” but as I read it, this proposed compromise looks a lot like capitulation. While J.J. rightly notes that the Left has overreached in its “effort to strong-arm sweeping social change as a flex of their power,” he asks conservatives to essentially abandon their central argument and accept the radical left’s premise that a man can be a woman or a woman can be a man. This paragraph stands out:
Though transgenderism is a far rarer phenomenon than homosexuality, I think most adults could admit it does seem like a rather persistent aspect of humanity. Most can probably recall a transgender person making at least some minor appearance in their life. If we concede that transgenderism is not going away, and is not something anyone intends to exert effort toward ending, then Americans, especially conservative ones, should reflect on our culture’s honest and fair attitude toward homosexuality and acknowledge that the most sensible path out of the present acrimony will probably require similar compromise. Some degree of cultural ceasefire and consensus seems the only path for both sides to maintain a degree of pride while avoiding a more radical, disruptive societal transformation. (Emphasis added.)
I can acknowledge that gender dysphoria is a “persistent aspect of humanity,” but I will not concede that gender dysphoria trumps biology, and I don’t think our culture should cease efforts towards “ending” the dangerous notion that men or women should amputate healthy organs in the quest to sculpt their bodies to become something they’re not. Gender dysphoria may not “go away,” but transgenderism is something else entirely. Our culture is in the midst of a live and important dispute over the very nature of biological reality — and over the psychological and spiritual health of hundreds of thousands of precious souls — and now is not the time to abandon the field.
J.J. says that “part one of the compromise will be borne by cultural conservatives and traditionalists.” And what does this compromise require?
It asks for broad tolerance for the reality that transgender men and women exist, and are entitled to basic human dignity, just like everyone else. This does not mean having to morally endorse behavior many may believe runs contrary to God’s plan for a just and healthy society, but it does imply that acts like ostentatiously calling people by pronouns they don’t want, or belittling their personal struggle, are boorish and petty. It means acknowledging that arbitrary discrimination against transgender people is a cruel bigotry like any other.
Wait just a moment. While I’m utterly opposed to boorish behavior, the use of a pronoun isn’t a matter of mere manners. It’s a declaration of a fact. I won’t call Chelsea Manning “she” for a very simple reason. He’s a man. If a person legally changes his name, I’ll use his legal name. But I will not use my words to endorse a falsehood. I simply won’t. We’re on a dangerous road if we imply that treating a person with “basic human dignity” requires acquiescing to claims we know to be false.
I don’t know any serious social conservative who doesn’t believe that a transgender man or woman is entitled to “basic human dignity.” No one is claiming that they should be excluded from the blessings of American liberty or deprived of a single privilege or immunity of citizenship. Any effort to strip a transgender person of their constitutional liberty should be met with the utmost resistance. But that’s not the contemporary legal controversy. Current legal battles revolve around the state’s effort to force private and public entities to recognize and accommodate transgender identities. The justification for this coercive effort is often the state’s alleged interest in preventing so-called “dignitary” harm. Thus, men are granted rights to enter a woman’s restroom, even when gender-neutral options are available. Thus, private citizens are forced to use false pronouns. Girls are forced to allow a boy to stay in their room on an overnight school trip, or they’re forced to compete against boys in athletic competition.
But once you grant the premise that a man is, in fact, a woman, don’t all these consequences flow directly from that concession? After all, existing nondiscrimination statutes are quite clear in their scope. And judicial precedents are increasingly aligning with this new fiction. To “compromise” on identity (including on pronouns) is to end the dispute.
In his own response to J.J.’s piece, Michael Brendan Dougherty asks a key question, “[A]re we allowed to tell the truth?” Increasingly, the answer is no. J.J. compares the modern dispute over transgenderism to current and recent fights over homosexuality. The comparison is instructive, but not in the way that he hopes. There has been no “compromise” over homosexuality. Instead, we’re locked in brutal legal fights over whether Christian bakers and florists can be compelled to use their artistic talents to celebrate gay weddings. Christian colleges have had to fend off challenges to their accreditation and funding (and the Obama administration raised the possibility of challenging their tax exemptions) for simply upholding basic standards of Christian sexual morality. And in California, the new sexual orthodoxy now threatens even the sale of books that deliver a disfavored message not just on sexual orientation but also on sexual conduct.
I understand the desire for social peace. Truly I do. The culture wars are exhausting and divisive. But treating every single human being with dignity and respect means not just defending their constitutional liberties and showing them basic human kindness, it also means telling the truth — even when the truth is hard. Any compromise that requires conservatives to grant the other side’s false and harmful premise is no compromise at all.
French has been unfairly caricatured — but the caricature is worth defending.
Near as I can tell, the David French controversy revolves around allegations that the man is too much of an accommodating pragmatist on social issues. The charge is amusing to me, given that one of my defining experiences here at NR occurred when French denounced a column I wrote last year about the need for conservatives to pragmatically accommodate transgender Americans.