It’s become very simple now.
We used to ask if Trump had conspired with a foreign power for his own gain—first as a candidate for president, then more recently, while in office—violating his oath, committing high crimes and misdemeanors, and betraying the national security of the country he is sworn to defend.
Then he voluntarily released a transcript of a phone call that made it clear that he did exactly that, while inexplicably believing it proved the opposite. (Or perhaps not so inexplicably; we’ll let the forensic psychiatrists deal with that.)
Then, while we were still grappling with that headspinning turn of events, Donald Trump stood on the south lawn of the White House in front of a dozen TV cameras and did it again, live, in front of the whole world, calling on both Ukraine and China to investigate the man he sees as his chief political rival, and alluding to the leverage he has incentivizing them to do so.
So that happened.
As Tim O’Brien writes in Bloomberg, “After the Mueller investigation, there’s no way Trump was unaware this violates the law.” Ignorance was never an excuse and is even less so now. But what that leaves us with is one of two equally appalling explanations:
1) Trump genuinely doesn’t understand the law, which means that he is mentally incompetent and the 25th Amendment ought to be invoked. (Don’t hold your breath.)
2) He simply believes he is above the law.
Either ought to be grounds for removal from office.
An insanity defense notwithstanding, at this point there is no longer any question about Trump’s guilt, or that the House of Representatives is going to impeach him for it. That debate is over. The only question is whether the Republican Party that has long since prostrated itself before this demagogue and human wrecking ball of all that we hold near and dear is going to do its duty, or act as his accomplice.
Shitbirds of a Feather
At the same time that this scandal has become simpler, thanks to Trump’s own self-incrimination, it has also revealed itself to be far broader and more far reaching than almost anyone first realized—a neat trick.
Far from being just one phone call in which the notoriously impulsive Donald Trump characteristically went off script, we now understand that the Zelensky call was just one small episode in a wide and deep global campaign by Trump and his team—including the Secretary of State, the Attorney General, the Vice President, and various US ambassadors, among others—to enlist the aid of foreign powers to attempt to discredit the reality of Russian interference in the 2016 election and smear his political opponents in 2020. As the always excellent David Graham writes: “This is no longer a controversy about a whistle-blower complaint, an American ally in eastern Europe, and the president. It is now an all-encompassing scandal, involving many of the top officials in the Trump administration pressuring countries around the world, from Australia to Ukraine and China to Great Britain.”
But is anyone really surprised that Donald Trump would do this, or that the kind of people willing to work for Donald Trump would eagerly go along? The real shock is that it took this long for a scandal like this to come out.
We know that Trump believes he can do anything he wants, both by virtue of his office and simply because he’s a rich, white, obscenely entitled mofo who has gotten away with everything his entire life. (“When you’re a star they let you do it.”)
So far the Grand Old Party has agreed.
But now Trump’s sheer brazenness and world-beating narcissism have put Republicans in a tough spot, one that tests even their already well-established capacity for bootlicking, cowardice, and Orwellian disinformation.
Remember when rumors of the whistleblower allegations first broke and Republicans kept saying, “Whoa, whoa, you rabid Democrats! Let’s not rush to judgment. Let’s hear what Trump really did first, OK?” Well, now we’ve heard it, and what more, we’ve heard the President* himself cop to it multiple times—even brag about it. In the New Yorker, Susan Glasser writes:
Republicans had spent days denying what Trump had more or less just admitted to…..It was as though Richard Nixon in 1972 had gone out on the White House lawn and said, Yes, I authorized the Watergate break-in, and I’d do it again. It was as though Bill Clinton in 1998 had said, Yes, I lied under oath about my affair with Monica Lewinsky, and I’d do it again.
Even now, after it blew up in his face and prompted an impeachment inquiry, Trump still keeps pointing to the Zelensky readout as exoneration, which is truly disturbing regardless of whether you believe it’s deliberate disinformation or evidence of dementia. The live solicitation of interference from China was just another step down that road, albeit an unprecedented, jawdropping one.
So now the GOP is reduced to complaining about process…..a technique they excoriated in the Bush and Clinton years.
Or, alternatively, they can go todo loco.
Witness the epic “Meet the Press” meltdown of Senator Ron Johnson R-WI, who, like some of his colleagues, had initially expressed some tepid “discomfort” with Trump’s actions, only to face fury from the White House (we presume), driving him to go on national TV and behave like a rabid muskrat, spewing misdirection about Peter Strzok and conspiracy theories that came right out of Sean Hannity’s butthole, culminating in a furious, red-faced tirade that he doesn’t trust our own FBI and CIA. I suspect it will haunt Johnson forever.
It was one of the most incredible performances by a national politician that I can recall seeing, ending only when Chuck Todd motioned for Animal Control to come out and shoot the Senator with a tranquilizer dart.
This is what the Republican Party is reduced to in its desperate attempts to defend the indefensible.
Gaslighting for Beginners
The standard GOP gaslighting on Ukrainegate is beautifully exemplified by the columnist Marc Thiessen, a regular contributor to the Washington Post and a living rebuttal to the canard that the media leans left. Thiessen writes: “There is absolutely nothing wrong with asking foreign heads of state or intelligence officials to cooperate with an official Justice Department investigation.”
True. If this were a legitimate investigation aimed at advancing US national interests, rather than an illegal personal crusade to benefit Donald J. Trump. The attempt to spin it as the former is at the heart of the Republican counter-strategy, but it doesn’t hold a thimbleful of water.
It’s hardly worth the figurative ink required to dismantle all the dishonesty in his statement, but just as an exercise:
The DOJ “investigation” that Bill Barr is heading—aimed at undermining the US Intelligence Community’s conclusion that Russian aided Trump in the 2016 election—is itself a partisan sham and abuse of power. Citing it as justification for Trump strongarming Kiev is a circular argument and master class in graft. Team Trump’s contention that its interest in Ukraine was and is an altruistic campaign against generic “corruption” is laughable, especially coming from the most corrupt presidency in modern US history. The only “corruption” Trump referred to in the Zelensky call was the fairy tale of Biden’s wrongdoing. (Even if one believes Hunter Biden was unethically trading on his father’s position, Joe Biden was in no way complicit in that…..and by the by, that is the entire stock-in-trade of the Trump children.) Only the willfully blind could fail to recognize Trump’s true motive as regards Ukraine—damaging a political rival, and using the full might of the US presidency to do so, which is the very epitome of the corruption in its own right.
Of course, it has grown tedious to point out that if Barack Obama had phoned a foreign leader and demanded an investigation of Tagg Romney while holding US military aid for ransom, he would already be the GOP poster child for a new version of “Strange Fruit,” covered by Kid Rock and Ted Nugent.
But Thiessen’s disgraceful apologia represents mainstream conservative thought in the age of Donald, where seldom is heard a discouraging word. Never, in fact.
To that end, I was admittedly shocked to see some Republicans, including those twin pillars of hypocrisy Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham (to the extent that a pillar can be spineless and flaccid) push back over Trump’s unconscionable betrayal of our Kurdish allies this week. Why the GOP is willing to risk incurring Trump’s wrath over that and not, say, over selling our country out to the highest bidder, remains a mystery. But no elected Republican, not even Mitt Romney, who is what passes for a GOP profile in courage these days (we’re grading on a sliding scale), has really stood up to the president in the way that his actions call for. And I am not confident that sufficient numbers will do so should it come down to an impeachment trial in the Senate.
(On the subject of Syria, and adding to the madness, at a time when Trump desperately needs the fealty of Senate Republicans, why did he choose this moment to piss off even Moscow Mitch and Leningrad Lindsey? More proof that he doesn’t think strategically at all, only impulsively, despite repeated efforts to credit him for such.)
But even this rare sighting of the elusive Republican vertebrate in the wild has a dark side, as noted by the New York Times’ Jamelle Bouie in what may have been the most incisive observation of the week. In addressing this question of why Republicans stick with Trump so submissively, the conventional wisdom is that it’s a Faustian bargain. But Bouie argues convincingly that it’s really something much simpler and uglier: they agree with him.
Trump has taken an ax to domestic spending programs for the poor—his Agriculture Department just proposed new cuts to food stamps; he signed a tax cut that funnels trillions to the highest earners; and he stacked the federal judiciary with right-wing ideologues. It’s hard to imagine a better outcome for a conservative politician.
Bouie points to the pushback on Syria as evidence that this narrative that the GOP fears the wrath of Trump and his base is wrong. They will in fact stand up to him when they wish….and not only on foreign policy but on tariffs and economic issues as well. So perhaps we should take those Republicans at their word when they say they don’t think blackmailing foreign powers for personal gain with US tax dollars is a problem.
As long as it’s a Republican who does it.
In Other News
There were so many other significant developments this week that if you went into a dentist appointment, five new scandals might have erupted while you were in the chair. (Now spit.)
- More whistleblowers came forward, both from the Intelligence Community and—tantalizingly—the IRS.
- Texts among US diplomats revealed the explicit quid pro quo the White House was seeking from Kiev, yet continues to deny. Trump’s assertions of innocence notwithstanding, he clearly knew—or at least his staff did—that what he was doing was not kosher. We know that not only because of the frantic reaction of his aides (who immediately hid the Zelensky transcript on a classified server) but also because of a text exchange made public week between career diplomat Bill Taylor, the chargé d’affaires for Ukraine, and US Ambassador to the EU, a Trump political appointee (and million dollar donor) named Gordon Sondland. After an aghast Taylor expressed his strong opposition to the idea of withholding military aid for partisan political reasons, Sondland—during a Rose Mary Woods-like five-hour gap—conferred personally with Donald Trump and was directed to reply with a laughably legalistic text falsely denying that any such quid pro quo was in play. (Why the Ambassador to the EU was involved in this at all is a separate question. But notably, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was copied on this texts, according to the assessment of Joel Rubin, a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs in the Obama administration, speaking on MSNBC.
- As if on cue, this week Ukraine also helpfully provided more evidence of that quid pro quo by opening an “audit” of Hunter Biden’s business transactions—precisely the sort of cooperation Trump had asked for.
- And then just today the White House prevented Gordon Sondland from testifying before three House committees, which was probably not because they were worried he was going to exonerate Trump so much that it would make him blush.
Sounds like the actions of a perfectly innocent White House to me.
Capping all that, the White House sent the Speaker of the House a peevish letter saying it will not cooperate with the impeachment inquiry at all, citing nothing to support that outlandish position (but with paragraphs about how great the economy is doing, which sounded suspiciously like they were dictated by a certain someone).
The chief takeaway from all this is that we should not wait for the White House to comply with subpoenas and requests for documents as a prerequisite for moving forward with impeachment. We all know that the administration will never cooperate with the House no matter what the Speaker does to appease it. It’s Lucy holding the football for Charlie Brown. Luckily, Nancy Pelosi is a lot smarter than good ol’ Charlie. The administration has made it very clear that it intends to flout the law, and stall, and try to run out the proverbial clock in hopes that the American people will get bored and distracted by something shiny, and Trump can move on to his next atrocity.
Let’s not play their game.
We already have enough evidence to bring articles of impeachment against Donald Trump on multiple counts. By all means we ought to aggressively continue to gather more evidence, and make our case to the American people, and rightly depict Trump’s obstruction of justice as more proof of his guilt and unfitness to serve. But we do not need Donald Trump to give us permission to move forward and prosecute him. He already stood on the south lawn and pulled out the murder weapon and waved it around for all to see.
Limbo Lower Now
Trump may yet survive this scandal as he has survived untold previous scandals that would have been presidency-ending in any sane era. Then again he may not. Having sufficiently covered my bases, let me just say that right now it ain’t looking good for him. In a tenure riven with non-stop greasefires, he has never looked this panicked or terrified or erratic, which is saying something. So much for the pre-Ukrainegate theory that he wanted to be impeached, for the alleged political advantage that would supposedly accrue to him.
Susan Glasser notes that the number and hysteria-level of our mad king’s tweets have recently risen, suggesting he knows he’s in what Bush 41 once called, “deep doo-doo.” Upping the ante on his claim of being an “extremely stable genius” (itself a self-promotion from the earlier “very stable genius”), he last week referred to his own “great and unmatched wisdom.” We have also seen an uptick in the frequency of random capitalization, schoolyard namecalling, frantic calls for senators to be impeached (NB: they can’t be), references to witchhunts, fake news, and the rest of his greatest hits. With her typically Antarctic élan, Nancy Pelosi quipped, “Sometimes I think he is having a limbo contest with himself, to see how low he can go in his rhetoric. I think he was surprised that this happened, because he thinks he can do whatever he wants.”
In that regard the Barr-led campaign to discredit the Russia narrative is another own goal, like the release of the rough Zelensky transcript: a self-inflicted wound caused by this administration’s unfailing impulse for skullduggery. Did they really need to discredit Russian interference? Miraculously, Trump had already managed to dodge justice once, in the special counsel investigation. But greedhead that he is, he couldn’t be content with that. He simply could not live with the intelligence community’s conclusion that the Kremlin had interfered, nor accept the taint on his electoral victory, even though MAGA Nation really didn’t care at all and still doesn’t. It was all about Trump’s ego, which in this case, has severely damaged his political position when it didn’t have to.
Glasser again, on the ways in which this latest scandal has its roots in Russiagate:
The Mueller investigation, and Trump’s festering grievance about it, appears to have shaped his public persona more than any other event of his tenure. Trump publicly proclaimed victory with the report’s release, portraying it as “complete and total exoneration.” “I won,” he said, but Trump did not take the win. Instead, he launched his Attorney General, William Barr, on what we know now was an international quest to investigate the origins of the Mueller investigation, pressuring U.S. allies from Britain to Italy to Australia, and also Ukraine, to unearth information that undermined the Mueller probe’s credibility. Who knows what will come out next. The impeachment investigation has just begun, and although it is starting out as tightly focused on Ukraine, we have no real idea where it might end up. What we do know about Trump, though, is unlikely to change: the restraints on him are gone, and they are not coming back.
(Jeffrey Toobin has also written eloquently on how the two scandals are really one.)
Police on My Back
On that count, let me close by addressing the notion that Trump is playing some sort of twelve-dimensional chess here.
As noted last week, many have suggested that Trump is trying to slip out of this latest noose by attempting to normalize his behavior: brazenly bragging about his crime, Nathan Jessup-like, as a way of tricking into the public into thinking he did nothing wrong. If he had, would he openly admit it like that? That would be crazy!
The answer, I suppose, is that he has gotten away with everything else, so at this point, why even bother mounting a defense? But as Hillary Clinton, tweeted, “Someone should inform the president that impeachable offenses committed on national television still count.”
But behind the scenes, the administration and the GOP are certainly not behaving that way, but rather, pursuing the classic Nixonian strategy of stonewalling, defying subpoenas, ordering government officials not to testify before the House, making specious claims about executive privilege, propagating disinformation, bitch-squealing about Congressional bullying, and so forth. True commitment to Trump’s “say the quite part out loud” strategy would actually require the GOP to be even MORE brazen, which apparently it is reluctant to do. Because that is too batshit for everyone except Donald Trump.
Once again, I’m not saying Trump’s strategy won’t work. He may not be playing twelve-dimensional chess, or chess of any kind, or even Hungry Hungry Hippos; he seems to be simply reacting to questions shouted over the sound of Marine One in his usual manic, shoot-from-the-hip, transactional way. But the effect may be the same. If he does skate away yet again, it will be because his party has provided him cover and enabled that miscarriage of justice. In that case, as Uri Friedman wrote in The Atlantic: “Just like that, a democratic norm stretching back to the founding of the republic is collapsing before our eyes.”
In short, the President of the United States brazenly “colluded” with two foreign powers (to coin a term), publicly encouraging them to attack one of his domestic political opponents—the very thing the Founders most feared, and which they created the mechanism of impeachment to address. Yet the silence from the President’s party thus far has been deafening. Are we going to be a representative democracy ruled by law, or an autocracy led by a despot? Is the modern GOP really willing to burn the entire foundation of our republic to the ground in order to maintain its hold on power? (Rhetorical question. We know by now that they are.)
The modern Republican Party is about to decide just how savagely history will remember it. And if we as a nation allow them to get away with it, we deserve what we get.
During the 2016 campaign, Trump memorably bragged about the near-fanatic loyalty of his supporters, musing that could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot someone and not lose any votes. Now we have a dead body on the corner of 5th Ave and 14th Street, and Trump standing over it with a smoking Smith & Wesson, bragging that he bagged the sonofabitch.
Anyone wanna call the cops?
Robert Edwards is a writer and filmmaker based in New York City. Previously he was an infantry and intelligence officer in the US Army and served with a parachute infantry regiment in Iraq during the first Gulf war.