Politics

Maybe the White House Meant “Take Her Out” and “Your Head Will Be on a Pike” in an Innocent Way?

Donald Trump smirking and holding a microphone.
Totally innocent U.S. President Donald Trump.
Nicholas Kamm/Getty Images

Late on Thursday, and again on Friday afternoon, Rep. Adam Schiff made a powerful argument that President Donald Trump must be convicted of abuse of power and removed from office, before he can use his office to damage the country’s democratic institutions again, perhaps beyond repair. This was, technically, part of the House impeachment managers’ opening remarks, but under the topsy-turvy procedural rules set for Trump’s trial by the Republican Senate majority, it may stand as Schiff’s best chance at making a closing argument as well.

Republican senators have so far appeared unmoved by the case the impeachment managers are making for holding a full trial of the president, with new documents and witnesses, let alone by the case for his conviction. On Friday morning, Sen. Lindsey Graham—who a day earlier had praised Schiff’s presentation—called the case against Trump presented by the House managers on Thursday “mind numbing.” Sen. John Barrasso echoed those remarks, saying: “It seems to me their case is weaker today than it was yesterday. There’s so little brought out kind of every hour and a half they bring out the same thing.”

Axios on Friday, meanwhile, reported that Senate Republicans were pushing the message that the trial had been tainted by Rep. Jerry Nadler’s remarks that Senators who blocked witnesses and evidence would “be complicit in the president’s cover-up.” That call for independence had “backfired on Democrats,” Axios’ sources said; self-styled Republican moderates, whose votes would be essential to calling new witnesses, called it “stunning” or “offensive.”

Similarly, Axios reported that Senate Republicans were taking offense at Schiff’s argument that Trump’s repeated attempts to cheat would not stop, and that such cheating threatened to place the legitimacy of the 2020 general election outcome in doubt. As the majority weighed how seriously they have to take the trial, it was apparently insulting to try to remind them of the stakes.

The thrust of all the complaining was that the House managers, by hurting the Republicans’ feelings, were forfeiting their claim to be able to call witnesses, let alone to win a conviction. It gave Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s caucus something to talk about other than the hours and hours of factual documentation that Trump is a reckless criminal who attempted to extort a foreign power to help him cheat in the next election, and who can only be expected to increase his abuses once the threat of impeachment no longer looms over his head.

Meanwhile, even as the Republicans were expressing their dismay at being bullied by the impeachment managers, CBS News reported late Thursday that a “Trump confidant” had issued a warning to wavering Republican Senators: “Vote against the president, and your head will be on a pike.” Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins, who had denounced Nadler for suggesting they could be complicit in the president’s coverup, have so far had nothing to say about the president’s camp publicly threatening them if they don’t loyally go along with Trump.

Then, on Friday, ABC News reported it had reviewed a recording of an April 2018 dinner at the Trump International Hotel attended by Rudy Giuliani’s now-indicted associates Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, in which the president could be heard saying of Marie Yovanovitch, the American ambassador to Ukraine, “Get rid of her! Get her out tomorrow. I don’t care. Get her out tomorrow. Take her out. OK? Do it.”

Parnas had previous told interviewers that at that dinner he had beseeched Trump to get rid of Yovanovitch—who he saw as an obstacle to using Ukrainian authorities to advance Trump’s private political goals—and the president had offered to do so. The new recording seems to corroborate that account. Parnas and Fruman have been indicted by the Southern District of New York for campaign finance crimes related to their pressure campaign to remove Yovanovitch, who was ultimately “taken out” one year later and who text messages show may have been stalked by goons working on behalf of Parnas (Ukraine has said it is investigating the evidence).

President Trump has said he doesn’t know Parnas and that “I don’t believe I’ve ever spoken to him.” The recording reportedly features Parnas telling the president “We gotta get rid of the ambassador” and “She’s basically walking around telling everybody ‘Wait, he’s gonna get impeached, just wait.’” Such a conversation would obviously contradict Trump’s claim that they had never spoken.

How did Republicans react to this news? Vice President Mike Pence said any such recording “will only confirm what people already know: is that the president had concerns, and in his authority the president made a decision.” Graham, meanwhile, responded that “the president can fire any ambassador they want.”

Faced with new proof, past and present, of the president issuing mobster-like threats, the Senate majority remains unmoved. Why bother getting any documents or testimony from Parnas, or from anyone else, if the conclusion will still be the same? Whatever the president may do, or may have already done, the majority will define it as his legitimate use of his powers. To support the charge of abuse of office, the impeachment managers have repeatedly played the video clip of Trump declaring that under Article 2 of the Constitution, he is allowed to do whatever he wants. Where they see the crime, the Republicans see the excuse for it.