A national group called Republicans for the Rule of Law is running ads aimed at moving U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski off the sidelines. They want her to criticize President Donald Trump for asking Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden. But both of Alaska’s senators have said they see shades of gray in the Ukraine picture.
This ad is showing up in Alaskans’ Facebook feeds. It’s focused, of course, on that call this summer, when Trump leaned on the president of Ukraine for an investigation of the Bidens.
“We think she will be receptive to the message,” said Chris Truax, a San Diego attorney who volunteers for the anti-Trump group. And yes, he said, they really are Republicans. One of their founders is Bill Kristol, former editor of conservative magazine The Weekly Standard.
“One of the running jokes at Republicans for Rule of Law is, we’ve all been Republicans far, far longer than Donald Trump has,” Truax said.
The group’s message is that Republicans need to put party politics aside, call out Trump for that phone call and defend what Truax calls the basics of American democracy.
“The right and wrong of this is very simple and straightforward,” he said. “‘No, Mr. President, you may not encourage a foreign government to investigate an American citizen for your political benefit. That’s wrong.’”
Just a month ago, Truax said, Republican members of Congress had no trouble condemning the idea of foreign government interference in an American election.
“And now that President Trump has decided it’s a beautiful thing and a wonderful thing, suddenly they’re completely silent on the topic,” he said. “And I’m embarrassed for them.”
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The Alaska delegation is not completely silent. The day the White House released the rough transcript of the call two weeks ago, Murkowski said it raises questions about the president’s intentions.
Even without a quid pro quo, Murkowski said it’d be wrong if the president asked a foreign leader to dig up dirt on a political rival.
“I’d say that is highly improper,” she said Sept. 25. “I can’t tell, from that transcript, if that is what we’re dealing with.”
Sen. Dan Sullivan isn’t defending all of the president’s words in that call, but as he described it in Haines on Monday, the phone call wasn’t really about the Bidens.
“Read the transcript. Because when you read it, I think what the president and his team are saying is he raised the issue of two things, looking at the previous 2016 election. … That’s the focus of the whole discussion, and corruption in Ukraine,” Sullivan said, adding to the list “this issue of whether the prosecutor was drummed out” and then suggesting there may have been a problematic quid pro quo regarding Biden.
(Senior officials from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund were also pushing for the prosecutor’s dismissal, as then-Vice President Biden did in 2015, on grounds that the prosecutor wasn’t fighting Ukraine’s endemic corruption. There’s no evidence getting rid of the prosecutor provided a benefit to Biden or his family.)
Democrats and anti-Trump groups like Republicans for the Rule of Law say it’s clear in the transcript that Trump’s focus on corruption was limited to the Bidens. They say the transcript shows Trump was pursuing his political goals, not the national interest.
But Alaska Republican Party Chairman Glenn Clary said that’s not certain.
“It could be both,” Clary said. “I don’t know that it’s either/or. It could be both.”
Clary said he doesn’t hear Trump doing anything wrong in that call. He brought up an unrelated sum of money former President Barack Obama’s administration gave to a different country, for a different reason.
“In that regard, isn’t everything political?” Clary asked.
In his view, it’s the Democrats who are putting political interests first.
“It depends on who’s in charge, correct?” the Republican state chairman said. “If you don’t like somebody, and you want to neutralize them. Or you want to demonize them, and you’re in control, then you do everything possible to do those things to him.”
Truax said GOP leaders should free themselves from having to make excuses for Trump.
“Sen. Sullivan, Sen. Murkowski, every Republican in Congress needs to make a decision about which side they’re going to stand on,” Truax said. “Twenty years from now, when all this is over, you’re going to look back on what you have done in this time, and you want to be proud of it.”