Politics

The Week That Everything Changed

Donald Trump
Donald Trump
Alastair Pike/AFP/Getty Images

Things are suddenly different. For three years, the right has been defending Donald Trump’s actions with smugness and swagger. For three years, the left has been issuing strident and sometimes desperate condemnations of violations by the president. As political thermometers go, the way people talk is a slippery and ineffable measure. But political discourse has a subtext: The frames people choose reflect who has power and who doesn’t—or who thinks they have it, which sometimes amounts to the same thing. For a long time now, the right has held this particular set of cards. You see it in the easy dismissals, the eye-rolls and chuckles at serious criticisms, the pleasure in watching “libs” be “owned” or “triggered,” the general, luxurious unconcern. And while many on the left have only intensified their efforts in decrying the horrors of incarcerated children, white supremacist rallies, and other awful, unforgettable episodes, many of those grief-stricken condemnations have shared a pitch we can all hear even if we don’t realize it: They come from a place of powerlessness—whether actual or perceived.

To those who wanted to mitigate the damage this administration was inflicting, change seemed impossible. Indeed, a feature of the political landscape as presently configured is that the left often feels weaker than it actually is: A historic Democratic wave swept through the House in 2018, but because of learned skittishness over polls and how long it took for electoral results to roll in with close races, Democrats (the “Squad” excepted, tellingly) never really adopted the discourse—or the attitude—of the victor. The result has been enormously frustrating to liberals and progressives who have watched Democratic politicians condemn this administration with the same plangent rhetoric that those without power wield to compensate for what we don’t have. You have power, the 2018 voters expressly reminded the Democratic Party. You can actually do something, so stop speaking as if you have no ability to act.

And suddenly, overnight, the party has acted. An entire landscape of political feeling that felt drearily constant seems to have changed. A whistleblower’s complaint about Donald Trump pressuring Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Joe Biden for his own political gain—with help from Rudy Giuliani and William Barr, and from White House officials who tried to hide the conversation by relocating the transcript—seems to have blown open political possibilities that were previously unthinkable. For the moment at least (but what a notable moment!) the impression is of one of a party pursuing a clearly defined goal while the opposition careens wildly. Understatement can communicate power, and Democrats who railed against Trump’s actions during the Mueller report have spoken about the Ukraine affair more in sorrow than in anger.

It’s remarkable what a difference a day (and a formal inquiry) can make. What just weeks ago may have seemed like lackadaisical resignation on the part of Democratic leadership now somehow scans as sober purpose. “This is not a cause for any joy that we have to go down this path,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told New Jersey Democrats Friday night, the reluctant warrior. While Breitbart is tweeting “President Trump says Pencil Neck Has to Go!” and GOP Rep. Matt Gaetz claims that Pelosi has been “functionally catfished” based “on a bloodlust for the president,” Rep. Adam Schiff’s calmness comes off as steely by comparison. While Trump implies that members of his own White House are “close to spies” and appears to wish them dead, even friend-of-the-resistance Rep. Ted Lieu is echoing the speaker’s “last option” and “sad time” rhetoric. You don’t do that unless you’re more confident of the hand you’re playing—one that makes bombast and hyperbole unnecessary.

Just as instructive is what’s happening to Trump’s defenders: Despite emailing their talking points to everyone—including the Democrats, by accident—the right has not figured out how to respond. It is not in control of its tone. Money may be pouring in for Trump’s re-election as the threat of impeachment looms (his more fanatical supporters will follow him no matter what he does) but the discourse on the right, which is supposed to rationalize that loyalty, is scattershot and unfocused—even sensitive. Take Fox News: Trump acolytes on the network’s The Five started literally shouting at co-host Juan Williams when he brought up the talking points that had, by this point, circulated widely. “What does that mean?” Greg Gutfeld yelled.* “Are you saying I got talking points? You got to answer to the accusation!” The rest of the network is no more composed: Vanity Fair’s Gabriel Sherman reports that Lachlan Murdoch is considering a new post-Trump direction for the network; that Paul Ryan, who now sits on the board, is urging him to cut ties with Trump; and that Shep Smith and Tucker Carlson are feuding. Chris Wallace appeared on Fox News colleague Sandra Smith’s show to object to “the spinning that has been done by the president’s defenders over the last 24 hours.” Carlson was reduced to calling Schiff “mentally ill” on Thursday night—and even Sean Hannity, Trump’s smarmiest propagandist, told a confidant that the allegations in the complaint were “really bad.”

Elsewhere, Breitbart referred to the whistleblower (whose identity is unknown) as a “partisan federal employee,” and the Federalist called the exploding scandal “an elaborate gossipy game of telephone.” But no one can quite agree on the angle: While some have argued that the complaint was sloppy, others aver that it was much too polished. A commentator and former Trump staffer claimed that the complaint is “too convenient and too perfect to come from a typical whistleblower.” A lack of confidence is leaching through most of these attempts to launder tribalist loyalty into a principled stand. There might be no better approximation of the current state of the right’s rhetorical power than Devin Nunes’ claim at Thursday’s hearing that Democrats want “nude pictures of Trump.”

That doesn’t mean the right won’t find its footing. But its machinery is actually slow and ungainly relative to the whistleblower story, while what the Democrats have working for them is speed. The impeachment inquiry feels like an emergency (because it is one, even if others have come before it and gone unrecognized). And the Democrats’ single-minded sense of urgency is somehow outpacing the hurricane of misinformation the right usually generates to drive American news cycles.

It helps that this is a pretty straightforward case that has unfolded in good time. The whistleblower’s complaint builds on what we already know about how Trump operates and crystallizes the stakes in a new way, and perhaps most importantly it’s packaged in a way Americans can easily recognize as a scandal. The Mueller report was too long and too complicated, too kneecapped by Justice Department guidelines and too already-reported for the average busy American to process and understand. But the Ukraine situation is clear-cut, and the complaint is mercifully short. These factors have turned out to be key ingredients in a remarkable turn in political expression.

What has set this week apart from other scandals—and may be contributing to a noticeable shift in public support for impeachment—is that Trump’s latest potential high crime did not happen out in the open, that its details have had to be ferreted out and revealed, piece by piece, and in rapid and damning succession. That’s legible as malfeasance in ways that “Russia, if you’re listening” isn’t. Americans still don’t quite believe that things that are done in the open are bad; it might be a joke, or a bit, or a performance, or a mistake. (We can’t even agree that Trump is lying because maybe he believes in his heart that the “falsehood” is true.) Convincing the public of ill intent seems to require a “revelation” or an “exposure” or a secret. I wrote back during the Mueller investigation that this was key to understanding why that effort was doomed—not because it lacked merit, but because it misunderstood American psychology:

Americans have few tools for dealing with an administration that relies so wholly on lying—publicly, chronically, without shame. … We fixate instead on secrets because secrets are how government malpractice has been accounted for in the past: Investigations are done, sins are exposed, and consequences are meted out.

This goes a long way to explaining why the Case of the Ukraine Call has broken through, and why Trump defenders are having a hard time keeping up any one defense: Talking points are raised and then disproven within a day. On Wednesday, several Republicans suggested that raising the specter of impeachment without examining the evidence was premature. Texas Rep. Roger Williams’ statement was typical of this genre: “It was an irresponsible and political move to, once again, call for impeachment before we had any facts or evidence of what allegedly transpired.” Yet by that very night, that evidence had been released corroborating the complaint. The Washington Post reported that several Republicans were “privately stunned” that the White House released the so-called transcript—and believed it would help its case—with one unnamed senator calling it a “huge mistake” that the party now had to defend.

It didn’t help that confirmation came from sources the right has a harder time disputing, namely the president himself, Rudy Giuliani, and the reconstructed transcript of the call the White House released. While Republicans like Rep. Matt Gaetz and Sen. Lindsey Graham have loudly supported the president, a choice few, like Rep. Mike Turner, offered mild recriminations: “I want to say to the president, ‘This is not OK. That conversation is not OK,’ ” he said during Thursday’s intelligence hearing with acting Director of National Intelligence Joe Maguire. Dozens of Republican politicians are claiming they haven’t managed to read the explosive 8.5-page document. (This is less persuasive than it was with the doorstopper of the Mueller report.) Others, like Sen. Susan Collins, are claiming they can’t comment because they will serve as “jurors” during an impeachment trial.

It doesn’t help a frazzled GOP that every new piece of information that has come out has made the case against the president worse. That progression hasn’t always happened, in previous crises. First, all we knew was that a whistleblower existed, and that Maguire had not given the report to Congress as required by law; no one knew why, or what he or she was revealing. (An air of mystery!) When the rough contents of the complaint were made public—something about a phone call with the Ukrainian president and Biden—it seemed problematic but remained unconfirmed. (Hints of something bigger!) The White House “transcript” proved that this was quite serious. (An unexpected escalation!) And when the whistleblower’s complaint was finally made public, it was clear that the White House’s readout of the Zelensky phone call largely corroborated it, and that the allegations were even more serious than anyone realized.

“Attorney General Barr appears to be involved as well” appears in the first paragraph of the complaint, a sentence that sits conspicuously beside reports that the Justice Department knew about the whistleblower complaint a week before the inspector general of the intelligence community issued a formal referral. Senior White House officials allegedly intervened—before the whistleblower’s complaint—to “ ‘lock down’ all records of the phone call, especially the official word-for-word transcript of the call that was produced,” by improperly relocating the transcript into “a separate electronic system that is otherwise used to store and handle classified information of an especially sensitive nature.” In short, the golden egg of political scandals: a cover-up.

Reactions from the principal parties have only compounded the challenge of defending the president. Trump, leaning into the mob-like portrait painted by the complaint, raged at a fundraiser that the whistleblower was “almost a spy” and fondly recalled how spies used to be “dealt” with. Attempts to downplay this as a joke or a fabrication were quickly disabused: a recording surfaced later in the day. “You know what we used to do in the old days when we were smart, right?” Trump is heard saying. “We used to handle it a little differently than we do now.” Not to be outdone, Giuliani, far from exculpating himself, is using the spotlight to inculpate State Department officials: He’s for some reason talking like a mobster, referring to a “nice little paper trail” of text messages with the now-resigned envoy to Ukraine, Kurt Volker, that he plans to use to prove that he hadn’t acted alone. He went on Laura Ingraham’s show to share the screenshots.

Giuliani’s disclosures are useful, however—partly because the involvement of the State Department, if confirmed, would mean the scandal was even more widespread, and partly because Giuliani’s own lack of clarity about who exactly he was working for is likely to become a matter of national interest as these proceedings move forward. On Sept. 20, when CNN’s Chris Cuomo asked him, “So, you did ask Ukraine to look into Joe Biden?” Giuliani replied, “Of course I did.” When pressed, Giuliani explicitly claims that he was working on behalf of his “client,” Trump. But Thursday, talking to the Atlantic’s Elaina Plott, he said the opposite: “I’m not acting as a lawyer. I’m acting as someone who has devoted most of his life to straightening out government.” The whistleblower’s complaint alleges that Volker (and U.N. Ambassador Gordon Sondland) “sought to help Ukrainian leaders understand and respond to the differing messages they were receiving from official U.S. channels on the one hand, and from Mr. Giuliani on the other.” Whether Giuliani was acting as Trump’s lawyer or not may affect his ability to claim attorney-client privilege. Then again, that might not matter. “You can’t claim privilege if the president told you to take action, because that’s not advice,” John Moscow, a senior prosecutor, told Bloomberg. “And if the request was political in nature, it’s not protected.” Giuliani is currently insisting that he is a hero.

Things are moving fast. Friday morning, the White House blamed National Security Council lawyers for relocating the Ukraine transcript to the server it had no business being on. Some interpret this as another sign the circular firing squad is taking aim. As my colleague Ben Mathis-Lilley pointed out, Trump and Giuliani’s inclination to keep talking is generating a very useful list of witnesses for the impeachment hearings. And amid all this chaos, something palpable has shifted, and it might be our collective sense of how the seesaw of power has tilted anew, perhaps not so subtly. On the day Trump tweeted that if his “perfect phone call” wasn’t considered appropriate—“then no future President can EVER again speak to another foreign leader!”—Pelosi went on MSNBC’s Morning Joe to say that “the clarity of the president’s actions is compelling and gave us no choice but to move forward.” She was by then in a position to afford some magnanimity. “I pray for the president,” she added. “I pray that God will illuminate him to see right from wrong.”

Correction, Sept. 28, 2019: In an earlier version of this article, Greg Gutfeld’s first name was misspelled.