Jurisprudence

Trump Can’t Outrun This One

Every Trump scandal follows a playbook. With Ukraine, the playbook finally might not work.

Trump with his hands out
President Donald Trump at the Sharon L. Morse Performing Arts Center on Thursday, in the Villages, Florida.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

An intramural war has broken out between two camps of progressives. One wants to proceed with an impeachment inquiry that is narrowly focused on Donald Trump’s phone call with the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in which Trump may have conditioned the granting of military aid to Ukraine for Zelensky’s pledge to both investigate Hunter Biden and dig up evidence that Ukraine tried to steal the 2016 election for Hillary Clinton. The other seeks to investigate Trump for everything, including (but hardly limited to) his continued self-enrichment in violation of the emoluments clauses, his alleged role in paying off former sexual partners, and the acts of obstruction Robert Mueller identified in his probe of the 2016 election. (Mueller did not believe he could bring criminal charges against a sitting president but seemed to suggest Congress could do something about the criminal acts of obstruction that had occurred.)

There is genuine merit to both sides. For the minimalist camp, the Ukraine transaction offers a clean, readily understood narrative that could shock a public that was largely unmoved by the 448-page Mueller report. The investigation could be done quickly, and there’s already a “smoking gun” in the readout of the phone call, a gun the president has released publicly and claims to be accurate. (It is not). But for maximalists, Ukraine is the tip of the iceberg, and limiting the scope of the inquiry leaves most of the really shocking, and even criminal, misconduct on the table. It might also make investigating all this other terrible conduct far more difficult. Seek and ye shall find, they contend—have a comprehensive airing of all that has happened, in order to ensure it never happens again.

Surely the maximalists are morally correct. A successful impeachment inquiry could surface everything we don’t yet know about, or at least everything we knew about and dismissed or stared at in collective bewilderment. Many of Trump’s most horrifying abuses of power, and his threats to the Constitution and the rule of law, including deeply racist attacks on his perceived enemies and the unlawful family separation policy that has seen innocent people die in detention, should not go unnoticed and unremediated. But precisely because they have taken place in plain sight, aided and abetted by Trump’s most faithful aiders and abettors, it’s hardly clear that airing them again in a partisan political forum and under a time crunch before the 2020 election will serve as a corrective when they have been reported in the press, subjected to congressional oversight, and litigated in the courts already, all without ever really sticking.

The most compelling reasons for a narrowly cabined inquiry into the abuse of power manifest in the attempt to conscript Ukraine into 2020 election interference are that it is (a) new and (b) it happened in secret. And even a probe limited to Ukraine seems to continually generate its own new related crimes, like what Thursday’s open call for further foreign interference had to be. And while it may feel a little bit like Democrats constraining the probe is like tagging the president with unpaid traffic fines while letting his felonies slide, it also appears to be the case that the public sees this new incident, with the threats, and the mob talk, and the whistleblower, as a discrete, improper use of the office of the president to manipulate the 2020 election. That the whistleblower explicitly named Rudy Giuliani and Attorney General Bill Barr as Trump’s henchmen in the effort—and that Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are on the bus as well—also conveys the extent to which this was an abuse of power, on par with one of the articles of impeachment that forced Richard Nixon to resign.

Perhaps most importantly, there’s something about this one that is not well served by the usual Trump dismissal of his wrongdoing. Part of Donald Trump’s seeming immunity to consequences comes from the fact that he has a singular, predictable response to being caught out: He first denies that it happened, and then, faced with proof that it did—or in the case of Ukraine, having himself hand-delivered the proof that it did—he admits having done it, but then argues that it’s perfectly cool, perfectly legal, and not that big of a deal. And that everyone does it and that people should do it more. It’s uncanny but it never fails him. From “Russia, if you’re listening” to “I don’t pay taxes because I’m smart,” the play is to rope-a-dope the public into believing we’re the idiots for abiding by the rules.

Just two days ago, Trump was being clobbered in the media for trading military aid to Ukraine for their promise to cook up some oppo research. Today he is openly calling on China to do the same, because if he’s doing it in public, it must be OK. Two days ago, Mike Pompeo was openly denying involvement in that phone call. Now he’s proud of it. Attempts to shame the un-shameable slide right off the plate. That pattern—deny it, continue to do it secretly, then do it openly—is the entirety of the Trumpian rinse cycle. It is by way of that pattern that Trump persuaded millions of Americans that locking children in cages without soap is acceptable, or that declining congressional subpoenas is permissible and just. Elapsed time and flagrant lies have so far had the desired effect. Monday’s scandal becomes Friday’s meh. And so, he’s spinning the message that inviting foreign powers to interfere with American elections to harm his electoral opponents is normal. It’s really just a smart thing smart people do all the time, and Republicans should come along for the rideThursday’s bombshells dream of becoming Friday’s meh.

Indeed, Trump’s minions are now openly circumnavigating the globe, enrolling and coercing foreign interference in elections in service of a conspiracy theory too extraordinary to be comprehended, much less explained. (It’s explained here). And in a week or two, the hope is that inviting and indeed bribing foreign allies into participating in election-stealing, while undermining one’s own domestic intelligence apparatus, will seem rather benign. What Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats appear to be doing here is attempting to outrun the normalization cycle.

Maybe this time feels different because, well, they are exceptionally bad at this one. Or maybe it feels different because the bombshells are coming from whistleblowers and inspectors general who were silent until they couldn’t be. Or maybe it feels different because no matter how you spin it, the president appears to be losing his shit. But maybe it just feels different because this time Donald Trump looks weak and pathetic. It’s not like the other nonscandals, when he didn’t pay his taxes and told people he was smart, or when he treated women like garbage and told people he was sexy, or when he profited from the businesses from which he refused to divest himself and told people he was just too fantastic a businessman, or even when he destroyed the lives of immigrants and asylum-seekers and told people he was tough.

No, this time, even as he admits to the impeachable act and says it’s what smart people do, he mostly looks nuts. He looks like a desperate man chasing an imaginary enemy—not his political opponent but his opponent’s son—around the globe, firing ambassadors, plotting with Paul Manafort, shaking down the Australians and the Italians and begging the Chinese to get in on the action, all because he’s hell-bent on destroying a political opponent who isn’t even his opponent yet. He’s twisted and bent the State Department and the Justice Department and the Republican Senate into confederates in what’s emerged as the saddest little snipe hunt in the world. He’s ripping up the carpeting on constitutional democracy for, well, an imaginary  grudge.

The Ukraine scandal may stick to him, and not simply because the president cannot seem to outrun it, but because even if he finally catches up, begging Australia and China to help him steal another election doesn’t have the look of a winner. It’s small, and weak. This time, maybe, bragging about that doesn’t help.