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Religious Freedom for Loganists!

It’s hard for conservative Christians to imagine how their notions of “religious freedom” could ever come back to bite them. So I constructed a thought experiment.

This week, the Trump administration announced a rule change that will allow private adoption and foster-care agencies to receive federal grants while discriminating against LGBTQ families. This is part of a years-long campaign to exempt conservative Christians from discrimination laws, if their desire to discriminate arises from their “sincere religious beliefs”. Making them treat fairly people that they disapprove of, according to this point of view, is a violation of their “religious freedom”.

Regular readers of this blog already know my opinion about this issue: “Religious freedom” used to mean that religious minorities — Jews, Buddhists, atheists — got the same rights as the followers of more popular religions. In recent decades, though, the term has been hijacked and its meaning has flipped: Now it means that conservative Christians have special rights that apply to no one else. (As a humanistic member of a religious tradition with its roots in liberal Christianity, what laws do I get to ignore?)

It’s hard to get the beneficiaries of these special rights to see the problems they cause, though, because they usually can’t imagine being on the other side. If you’re a white, straight, native-born, male Baptist or Catholic (like several conservative members of the Supreme Court) whose religious freedom is going to victimize you?

in the real world, no one’s. So making this point requires constructing thought experiments, and even that gets tricky. I think I finally have one that I like.

Psalm 90:10 says “The days of our years are three score and ten.” Imagine a sect that decides to take that as prescriptive: People aren’t supposed to live past 70. Let’s call these people Loganists. (Critics hung that name on them because of the age discrimination in the movie Logan’s Run. The Loganists themselves hate being called that, because killing people at thirty is just nuts. But the name has stuck.)

Before continuing, let me head off some objections: I understand that the Loganist interpretation depends on taking the scriptural quote out of context, but Christian sects do that all the time. You can’t seriously claim that this is a worse misreading of scripture than many other popular misreadings. Plus, if the issues I’m about to raise would ever go to court, do you want secular judges deciding whose readings of scripture are or aren’t reasonable? Are you certain that your own interpretations would pass muster in such a setting?

Also, I know that the patriarchs of Genesis lived well past 70, and God seemed to approve of that. (Noah, for example, was 600 when God saved him from the Flood.) But dispensationalist Christians hold that God changes the rules from time to time. This is not considered a fringe belief. (For example, God used to approve of polygamy, but most non-Mormon sects believe that he no longer does. Slavery is another issue on which God seems to have changed his mind.)

In every other way, Loganists are totally indistinguishable from other Christians. Absolutely nothing points to them being unserious, and there are many examples of Loganists dying because they refused medical care after they turned 70. It’s clearly their sincere religious belief that people over 70 should not have their lives saved.

Of course, Loganists don’t go out and kill septuagenarians — that would be like murdering gays based on Leviticus 20:13. (Lots of preachers say that should happen, but they don’t go out and do it.) But Loganist healthcare professionals claim that it violates their religious freedom to force them to give lifesaving care to people over 70.

So if you believe that the religious freedom of conservative Christians means that they don’t have to obey anti-discrimination laws — they don’t have to sell cakes to gay couples or provide contraceptives to unmarried women or help gay couples adopt children or even perform an abortion on a woman who will die without it — what about Loganists and age discrimination? Would it be religious persecution to fire a Loganist EMT because he let a elderly patient die? What if he just treated younger people first, because they still have some of their Biblical three-score-and-ten coming, and a 73-year-old happened to die in line?

Why Impeachment is Necessary

If receiving government money means you owe the President a personal favor, we’ve become a different kind of country.

As the House formalized its impeachment inquiry this week, many voices raised a legitimate question: Why put the country through this? Impeachments are divisive, and given Republican control of the Senate (and the proven willingness of Republicans to choose party over country) removing Trump from office seems unlikely, no matter what he may have done.

That question has an answer: If the direct evidence of corruption we’ve seen in the Ukraine case doesn’t produce any response, then as a country we’re saying that we view this kind of presidential behavior as normal and acceptable. Going forward, that collective shrug will make the United States a very different kind of country than it has been before.

Conservatives often raged about Barack Obama’s pledge to “fundamentally transform the United States of America”. (And just as often, liberals have expressed their disappointment at his inability to fulfill that pledge.) But if there are no consequences for his abuses of power, Trump will have succeeded in fundamentally transforming America —  into something much more like a banana republic than the nation the Founders envisioned.

“Do us a favor”. With all the damaging witnesses who have testified to the House Intelligence Committee these past two weeks, it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that the most incriminating words so far came from President Trump himself and were released by the White House. In the rough transcript of his call with President Zelensky of Ukraine, Zelensky asks about buying more anti-tank Javelin missiles, and Trump responds, “I would like you to do us a favor, though.”

The favor is to launch investigations into two matters: “Crowdstrike”, which started “that whole nonsense [that] ended with a very poor performance by Robert Mueller” the previous day, and “The other thing, there’s a lot talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great.”

In other words, in order for Trump to stop blocking the military aid that Congress had already appropriated, Ukraine had to do two things to benefit not the United States, but Trump’s re-election campaign: undermine the basis of the Mueller investigation and tear down the Democrat that the polls have been saying is most likely to defeat Trump in 2020. [1]

Even baseless investigations can be effective. Presuming that these Ukrainian investigations were performed honestly, they would turn up nothing, because their subject matter consists of two conspiracy theories that can’t even be told coherently in any detail. The Wikipedia article on the Crowdstrike theory characterizes it as “multiple disjointed threads of unfounded allegations”. And the reporter who wrote the first Biden-Ukraine story in 2015 describes the Trump version as “upside-down“.

But the ultimate result of these probes doesn’t matter: The investigations into Hillary Clinton’s emails ultimately turned up nothing (beyond the kind of corner-cutting that happened under previous administrations and is also common among Trump’s top advisors, including Jared and Ivanka). But just the fact that Clinton was being investigated lent credibility to Trump’s smears against her and justified the chants of “Lock her up!”

Trump could get similar value out of an investigation of Biden, even if we later discovered it had found nothing. [2]

Beyond Ukraine. So Trump, by his own words, has been caught red-handed in an abuse of power — using his official powers for personal gain. The way we found out — a whistleblower inside the administration had the courage and the patriotism to write up a complaint — seems so fortuitous that it’s easy to imagine that many similar abuses of power have gone unnoticed. [3] Think how easy it would have been to miss this one: Ukraine announces a corruption investigation into the Bidens, and crowds chant “Lock him up!” without realizing that Trump himself started that investigation.

Lots of circumstantial evidence points to the conclusion that this isn’t a unique situation: Trump continues to insist that his side of the Zelensky call is “perfect” and “I did nothing wrong”. So why wouldn’t he do the same thing somewhere else? Plus, his zeal to unmask (and presumably punish) the whistleblower only makes sense as a tactic to intimidate officials who might blow the whistle on other abuses of power. We fortuitously caught him once, demanding a personal favor for a public action. How many other examples are there?

And what if, now that Congress and the public know about this, there is no consequence? No removal from office, no impeachment, no censure, no need for a humiliating public apology? Trump insists that “I did nothing wrong”, and Congress validates that opinion. [4]

Well, then we’ve established that this kind of behavior is OK. There’s no need even to hide it any more, or to limit the occasions for it: If you want Trump to perform his public duty, you need to do him a favor.

So if the State of New York wants the highway funds Congress has appropriated, maybe it should drop its investigation of the Trump Foundation. If Jeff Bezos wants Amazon to compete for a big Pentagon contract, maybe he should rein in The Washington Post, which he also owns. It’s no big deal; Trump just wants a favor. [5]

Lots of countries work this way: Russia under Trump’s role model Vladimir Putin, for example. One thing we can learn from looking at those countries is that corruption tends to trickle down. If Trump can ask for favors before doing his duty, so can officials of lesser power. In a few years, the clerk at your local DMV may expect a tip before processing your driver’s license renewal. That also happens in lots of countries.

Do we want to be one of those countries or not? Underneath all the arguments about process and quid pro quo and so on, that’s the issue Congress will be debating these next few months.

[1] The country/president distinction is one that Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney tried to skate over in the quid-pro-quo confession he later walked back:

We do that all the time with foreign policy. We were holding money at the same time for — what was it? The Northern Triangle countries. We were holding up aid at the Northern Triangle countries so that they would change their policies on immigration.

Unlike Ukraine, the Northern Triangle example was about trying to mitigate a problem for the country; it wasn’t a favor for Trump himself.

[2] Bill Barr’s investigation — recently upgraded to a “criminal” investigation — into the origins of the Mueller investigation serves a similar purpose. All Barr has to do is keep the investigation going through the 2020 campaign. That will allow Trump to make outrageous claims about what the investigation is finding, which Barr will be duty-bound not to comment on.

Remember the detectives Trump claimed he sent to Hawaii to investigate Barack Obama’s birth certificate? “They cannot believe what they’re finding,” he told NBC. But for some reason he never told us what those unbelievable findings were. I have to wonder if there ever were any detectives.

[3] Josh Marshall makes that case here. In brief: We’ve known for some time — there are several examples in the Mueller Report, just to name one source — that Trump frequently orders his people to break the law. In most of the stories that have reached the public, those people pushed back and refused.

In the Ukraine scheme, though, numerous people realize something is going on that is at best unethical and at worst illegal. And yet the scheme perks along until one guy — one of many, remember — reports it to Congress. Marshall wonders what has been happening in parts of the world where corruption is taken for granted, like Saudi Arabia or the Arab Emirates.

Trump’s willingness has always been a given. That of crooked oligarchies looking for advantage is equally so. The question has been the acquiescence, if not necessarily the connivance, of high level advisors. That is clear now too.

In other words, there is every reason to think, the very strong likelihood that Donald Trump’s corruption and lawlessness has already infected relationships with numerous countries abroad. It’s now just a matter of finding out the details.

[4] That’s why even an impeachment that fails to remove Trump from office will be worth doing, especially if a few Republican senators vote against him. Such a process would show that there is a line somewhere, even if this case didn’t result in punishment.

Behind the scenes, some Republican senators are rumored to be looking for a middle position: coming out against what Trump did, but holding that it’s not an impeachable offense. That’s not an impossible position to defend, but this question needs to be put to them: If not impeachment, what is the proper way to hold Trump accountable? Because doing nothing just says it’s OK.

If Trump were a different kind of person, I could imagine an outcome similar to the Clinton impeachment: He admits to doing wrong, apologizes to the country, and pledges never to do anything like that again. But Trump doesn’t even ask God for forgiveness; he’s not going to ask the country.

[5] You can see this kind of thinking in Trump’s war on California. The state has been a thorn in Trump’s side, participating in as many as 60 lawsuits against his administration’s actions. Trump, in turn, has used the federal government’s regulatory power to target California in numerous ways. The particular issues are often ones that Trump has otherwise shown no interest in, like the environment or homelessness. But he can make California pay a price for opposing him, so he does.

For now, all of this is done in a deniable way. But if the Ukraine scheme is acceptable, then there’s no reason not to be open about the quid pro quos Trump is demanding.

A Liberal View of Intervention

Trump has taken liberals’ no-endless-war rhetoric and gone somewhere ugly with it. How do we take it back?

Like many liberals, I was wrong-footed by President Trump’s abrupt decision to wash his hands of Syria. On the one hand, it sure looks like a dishonorable move that has led to an embarrassing defeat and opened the door to a humanitarian catastrophe.

On the other hand, I also want to see America stop policing the world. I was against invading Iraq and Afghanistan in the first place, and I don’t see any achievable goal in Afghanistan that is worth our continued involvement. In general, I want to see American troops come home from war zones far from our borders. So what was my plan exactly for Syria?

I feel like Trump has stolen my own rhetoric about “endless war” and abused it. But what is the right use of it? And if I’m against Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds, is the only alternative to side with interventionists like Mitch McConnell?

I can’t promise a complete answer here, but let’s try to sort this out as best we can.

Betrayal and surrender. Let’s start with the Kurds , who are among the most persistently short-changed people on Earth. Something like 30-40 million of them live in a more-or-less definable area, but somehow the self-determination wave that swept the world after World War I passed them by. Bulgarians and Czechs got their own states, and by now even Croatia and Azerbaijan are countries, but the Kurds are still divided up among Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria.

And now we’ve screwed them over again. We enlisted them into our fight against the Islamic State, and something like 11,000 of them died in that war. They had managed to carve out an autonomous zone in northeastern Syria, one in which women played an unusually active role, but the connections between that zone and a sometimes-violent Kurdish independence movement in Turkey threatened the authoritarian Erdogan government, which has wanted for years to cross into Syria and crush the Kurdish forces.

What had been stopping them was the presence of a small number of US troops in the area, and the threat of American air power. The Kurds may not be a military match for the second-largest army in NATO, but they are real soldiers, and with control of the skies they could make Turkey pay an unacceptable price. After all, this wasn’t some kind of asymmetric guerilla war, it was an invasion — exactly the kind of thing the American military was built to stop.

And then Trump decided to stand aside. We don’t know for sure what happened on that Trump/Erdogan phone call, but I picture it the way Mitt Romney does: “Turkey may have called America’s bluff.” I imagine Erdogan saying: “We’re coming whether you like it or not” and Trump being cowed into submission.

Trump tried to spin his “ceasefire agreement” (Turkey refuses to call it that) into a victory:

I’m happy to report tremendous success with respect to Turkey. This is an amazing outcome. This is an outcome, regardless of how the press would like to damp it down, this was something they were trying to get for 10 years.

But Trump’s “tremendous success” looks a lot like surrender. The agreement calls for Turkish forces to remain in the territory they have captured, and for our Kurdish allies to turn over their heavy weapons, dismantle their fortifications, and remove their forces from the 20-mile buffer zone Turkey has claimed. The United States will remove its forces from Syria entirely and impose no sanctions on Turkey. So Turkey gets what it wants and pays no price. Turkey may have been trying to get to this point for ten years, but that’s not what the Kurds wanted — or us for that matter.

I also doubt that any of the American troops waiting to be evacuated from Syrian feel victorious. Russians have already occupied one of the bases they left behind, and we destroyed another one with an air strike. Those are the kinds of things that happen when you flee in desperation, not when you win.

McConnell’s internationalist critique.  Friday, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell took the unusual step of publishing an op-ed in the Washington Post to denounce Trump’s Syria policy. Before looking at the content of his article, it’s worth considering what its mere existence tells us: McConnell doesn’t think Trump is listening to him. An influential player like McConnell doesn’t make a public argument if the President is taking his calls and paying attention. For McConnell, going public like this is a last resort, and points to feelings of both frustration and helplessness.

He’s also taking out insurance. If bad things happen because of Trump’s surrender, he doesn’t want to share the blame. So his article is a public marker that says, “I warned everybody.”

Also worth noting: He’s doing his best not to attack the President personally. In fact, the name “Trump” doesn’t appear (though “Obama” does). He focuses on the decision, not the man who made it.

Now to the content. First he makes an abstract defense of America’s military role abroad: Recalling 9/11, he predicts that the threat of ISIS or similar terrorist groups will not stay in the Middle East, and lays out a strategy where America provides strategic leadership, but has allies and so does not have to do all the fighting itself.

Then he assesses the current situation:

The combination of a U.S. pullback and the escalating Turkish-Kurdish hostilities is creating a strategic nightmare for our country. Even if the five-day cease-fire announced Thursday holds, events of the past week have set back the United States’ campaign against the Islamic State and other terrorists. Unless halted, our retreat will invite the brutal Assad regime in Syria and its Iranian backers to expand their influence. And we are ignoring Russia’s efforts to leverage its increasingly dominant position in Syria to amass power and influence throughout the Middle East and beyond.

And his prescription:

We need to use both sticks and carrots to bring Turkey back in line while respecting its own legitimate security concerns. In addition to limiting Turkey’s incursion and encouraging an enduring cease-fire, we should create conditions for the reintroduction of U.S. troops and move Turkey away from Russia and back into the NATO fold.

Finally, he worries that Trump’s desire to pull the US out of “endless wars” will strike next in Afghanistan.

We saw humanitarian disaster and a terrorist free-for-all after we abandoned Afghanistan in the 1990s, laying the groundwork for 9/11. We saw the Islamic State flourish in Iraq after President Barack Obama’s retreat. We will see these things anew in Syria and Afghanistan if we abandon our partners and retreat from these conflicts before they are won.

He closes with “America’s wars will be ‘endless’ only if America refuses to win them.”

In essence, McConnell is restating what has been the conventional wisdom in American foreign policy since World War II. (It lapsed a bit after Vietnam but came back after 9/11.): The world will never leave us alone, so we can’t leave it alone. Threats can arise anywhere, and we need to be ready to oppose them while they’re small and tractable, rather than wait for them to get large enough to strike at our homeland.

My anti-war record. I’d like to stay in an objective-journalist role and quote other people making the case for bringing our troops home from overseas — maybe Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden, as Atlantic’s Peter Beinart does — but that would be disingenuous: I’ve been making that case myself for years, and I can’t disown it now.

Back in 2005, when I was blogging on Daily Kos under the pseudonym Pericles, I wrote a piece called “Cut and Run” about pulling out of Iraq. At the time, even people who realized that invading Iraq had been a mistake were falling for Colin Powell’s “Pottery Barn Doctrine”: We broke Iraq, so now we had a responsibility to fix it before we left. They admitted that we needed to get out, but in six months or maybe a year or two, after we had stabilized the situation.

The case I made in “Cut and Run” was that we weren’t fixing anything by staying.

What are we fixing? What do we expect to get better if we stay for another year or five years or ten years? I do not intend that question to be rhetorical. If “we are making progress, “as President Bush claimed this week, we ought to be able to measure that progress somehow.

Elsewhere (the link has since died; I need to repost somewhere) I argued that the stay-a-little-longer caucus would never be satisfied: Whenever we left, disaster would ensue, and they would claim vindication. And that is what happened. We stayed another six years, but McConnell (and others) blame Obama’s withdrawal for the rise of ISIS. (If only we’d stayed seven or eight more years rather than six.)

That’s why I’m not satisfied by McConnell’s assurance that he doesn’t want to stay in Afghanistan forever, just until we “win”. I have the same fundamental objection I had many years ago: What does “winning” even mean? If someone would offer a compelling vision of a post-victory Afghanistan, and then describe a path for getting there, reasonable people could argue about whether the outcome is worth the cost.

Instead, we always get the same dystopian vision: If we leave now, something terrible will happen. So when can we leave? Sometime, maybe, but not now. So how many “not nows” make a “forever”?

Is it possible to thread this needle? On the one hand, I am disgusted by what I’m seeing in Syria. On the other, I still don’t want to join McConnell and most of the rest of the foreign-policy establishment in the post-World-War-II intervention consensus.

Looking back, I also find that I’m not against all interventions. I like what President Clinton did in Bosnia: We ended a genocide. And while we (but mostly our European allies) ended up with troops in the area for many years afterward, it was a peace-keeping mission rather than a war-fighting mission. Casualties were minimal.

I regret that we didn’t find some similar way to end the genocide in Rwanda. And I don’t know what to think about Libya. Things haven’t turned out well there, but I can’t feel bad about stopping Qaddafi from killing civilians by the tens of thousands.

So what kind of policy do I want exactly?

I warned you I wouldn’t have a complete answer. I don’t have a doctrine that spells out precisely when the US should or shouldn’t get involved in some distant conflict. (Senator Warren: If you have a plan for that, this would be a good time to reveal it.) All I can offer are some intuitions that I still trust, in spite of it all. Mostly they revolve around coming to a proper understanding of the scope of American power: Being the most powerful nation on Earth gives us some responsibilities. But at the same time we need to be realistic: There are things our military — or military power in general — can’t accomplish. If we try we’ll only make bad situations worse.

So here’s what I think:

We can’t end tyranny in the world, but we should try to prevent genocide. The world is full of bad governments, and sometimes overthrowing them just gets you a worse government, or a failed state that can’t fulfill the responsibilities of a government at all. You can’t create a good government at gunpoint.

What you can do at gunpoint, though, is stop one group of people from slaughtering another. Sometimes the mass murder is a mania that will pass if you can just interrupt it. Some groups will see that — as much as they still hate some other group — the world is not going to stand for a genocide, so they need to come up with some other plan. Other situations may require a longer occupation. But stopping genocide doesn’t require you to rule over people or teach them to govern themselves, just to put limits on them.

There’s hope for a peacekeeping mission, but nation-building hardly ever works. An amazing number of the world’s problem areas, particularly in the Middle East, are “nations” that were created by colonial powers drawing arbitrary lines on a map.

The people in those regions often feel no sense of national loyalty to each other, and the only way they have ever held together as “nations” is under the dominance of some strongman. You can’t turn such places into constitutional democracies just by writing a constitution and having elections.

Don’t misinterpret that: It’s not that some kinds of people aren’t ready for democracy as individuals. When they emigrate to the US or Western Europe, they often make fine citizens. The problem is that democracy requires a sense of mutual loyalty that the residents of places like Iraq and Afghanistan have never developed. And that’s something else you can’t instill at gunpoint.

What you can do at gunpoint, though, is stop them from killing each other.

We can’t kid ourselves about our good intentions. One mistake American interventionists often make is to whitewash our motives. We didn’t go into Iraq and Afghanistan because we wanted to bestow democracy on these oppressed peoples. We invaded Iraq for the oil and Afghanistan because we wanted to get Bin Laden. Building democracy was a story we told ourselves to salve our consciences.

Nothing is as doomed to failure as a mission you didn’t really believe in from the start.

If we examine our real motives before we start an intervention, usually we’ll either realize that we shouldn’t do this at all, or see that the scope of our mission should be much smaller than taking over the whole country.

So what about the Kurds? Our troops in Syria got there because they were fighting ISIS. Once the territory of ISIS had all been retaken, there were two reasons to keep them there: to keep ISIS from reforming, and to prevent either the Turks or the Syrians from attacking the Kurds.

Both of those were peace-keeping missions. We weren’t trying to teach the Kurds how to be a people; they knew that already. They were building their own nation.

One way you can tell the mission was peace-keeping is that war broke out as soon as Trump ordered our troops to stand down.

The Kurds believe that the Turks intend an ethnic cleansing of the area or even a genocide. Trump thinks not, but I guess we’ll see.

Planning. One final note: Even if you believe that our mission in Syria wasn’t worth the cost any more, there’s no excuse for the way Trump handled it.

When we do decide to pull out of a country, we need a withdrawal plan rather than just a tweet announcing our departure. First, we need a plan to get our own people out of the country safely. And second, we need to do right by the people who have helped us, and who will likely be targeted for death after we leave. If nothing else, that means doing something Trump hates to do: welcoming refugees to the United States.

The Leader or the Law?

The impeachment question is coming down to this: Will Republicans honor the Constitution, or usher in a new era of authoritarian rule?

More and more each week, the Trump strategy for avoiding impeachment looks to be a pure power play. He is barely even pretending any more that he hasn’t committed (and isn’t continuing to commit) impeachable offenses. Meanwhile his lawyers are making absurd arguments in court, demanding (and sometimes getting) blind loyalty from Trump-appointed judges.

It’s coming down to this: Will Republicans uphold their oaths of office, or get in line behind the Leader and let the American experiment in democracy end? The key question isn’t “What is right?” or “Who is guilty?” any more. It’s “Whose side are you on?” If there are five pro-Trump votes on the Supreme Court and 34 pro-Trump votes in the Senate, he wins.

And that’s the only way he wins.

In court, Trump’s lawyers are arguing that he has “absolute immunity” from every conceivable kind of legal jeopardy: not just indictments, but also investigations and subpoenas, state and federal alike. Ten days ago, that argument got laughed out of federal appeals court by two judges; the third, a Trump appointee, chose the Leader over the law. [1] Trump’s only hope for victory in his attempts to obstruct congressional investigations is that the five Republican judges on the Supreme Court do the same.

I refuse to believe that Trump’s lawyers can’t come up with any more plausible arguments than this sweeping claim of executive supremacy. Rather, it seems to be their intention to put the question to judges as bluntly as possible: Regardless of the law, are you with us or against us?

It’s not complicated.

Whether subpoenas allow Congress to gather more evidence or not, the rough transcript of the Ukraine phone call is by itself compelling evidence of abuse of power: Trump is using his office to demand a partisan political favor from a foreign leader. The only question at this point is whether that abuse is sufficient to warrant impeachment. [2]

But if the phone call represents a quid pro quo — Ukraine won’t get the weapons it needs to defend itself against Russia unless it does Trump a political favor — then all doubt about impeachability is removed: It’s bribery, which the Constitution specifically calls out as an impeachable offense. So “no quid pro quo” — implausible as that is, given the transcript — has been the mantra of Trump defenders.

But Thursday, acting Chief of Staff Mike Mulvaney openly admitted the quid pro quo. (In Mulvaney’s dual role as the head of OMB, he was responsible for holding up the Ukraine aid package.)

Did [the President] also mention to me the corruption related to the DNC server? Absolutely. No question about it. But that’s it. That’s why we held up the money … I have news for everybody: Get over it. There’s going to be political influence in foreign policy.

Reporters offered several follow-up questions to make sure that Mulvaney had really said what he said — some used the phrase “quid pro quo” in their questions — and he stuck by his claim. Only hours later, after he saw the firestorm his comments evoked, did he try to walk it back, blaming the media for “misconstruing” his confession, and basically telling the world that we hadn’t seen and heard what we saw and heard (and can watch again if we have any doubts).

Meanwhile, the Trump campaign has embraced the claim Mulvaney disavowed. They’re selling a “Get Over It” t-shirt. That kind of Orwellian doublethink has become typical of Trump’s defenders: We didn’t say it, and we’re proud that we did say it.

At the same press conference, Mulvaney announced a blatant violation of the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution: Trump would host the next G-7 meeting at his privately owned resort. That decision got reversed Saturday, after another firestorm, but without any admission that the proposal was criminal. The problem, in Trump’s view, is that people objected to his attempt to enrich himself. [3] If no one objects to his next acts of corruption, he’ll go through with them.

It’s becoming clear that the House will eventually vote articles of impeachment, one of which will be about Ukraine. (Possible others concern the multiple examples of obstruction of justice outlined in the Mueller Report, obstruction of the impeachment inquiry itself, and abundant additional examples of illegal emoluments.) Then the Republicans in the Senate will face a choice: Admit the now obvious fact that Trump has committed impeachable offenses, or choose the Leader over the law.

[1] The Slate article in the link lays out the scope of Judge Rao’s opinion:

there is another, even more disturbing aspect of Rao’s dissent. She wrote, ominously, that “it is unnecessary here to determine the scope of impeachable offenses.” Unnecessary here? It isn’t just unnecessary—it’s impermissible, because the federal judiciary has no constitutional authority to determine “the scope of impeachable offenses.” The Supreme Court has ruled that the Constitution assigns the power of impeachment to the House exclusively, denying the judiciary the ability to meddle in impeachment proceedings. Rao seemed to reject that precedent, instead suggesting that courts can “determine the scope of impeachable offenses” and, by extension, quash an impeachment on the grounds that the charges are not “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

[2] I argue that it is, using standards that I laid out long before the Ukraine affair, because the Ukraine call represents Trump’s attempt to cheat in the 2020 election. When the President’s corruption starts to affect the integrity of the next election, it is extremely cynical to argue that the voters rather than the Senate should remove him.

[3] Trump’s two defenses — that his Doral Resort is the best possible place to hold the G-7, and that he will host the event “at cost” and make no profit — are both absurd.

South Florida in June is a terrible place to be, which is why the Doral has such low occupancy rates then. (I know from personal experience, having attended a conference in Fort Lauderdale one June.) Plus, the Doral bears no resemblance to the kinds of places (typically remote, peaceful, and easily secured) where these events are usually held. It beggars the imagination to think that no place in, say, Hawaii or Maine would be better. For that matter, why not go back to the historic New Hampshire hotel where the Bretton Woods Conference was held in 1944?

And Stephanie Ruhle outlines the tricks Trump could use to funnel government money into his resort without reporting a profit.

The Ukraine Story Runs Deeper Than We Thought

What at first looked like just a phone call has turned out to be a much larger and sleazier operation.

When it first broke, the Ukraine story seemed nice and simple: In a call to Ukrainian President Zelensky, Trump strongly implied that if he wanted American military aid, he should dig up (or invent) dirt on Joe Biden — and also investigate some other conspiracy theory involving the DNC server (and “proving” Putin’s contention that the Russians didn’t really hack it). Unlike the crimes that the Mueller investigation uncovered, it was an easy story to understand, and easy to see why what Trump did was wrong.

Conversely, that simplicity was why Trump supporters didn’t think it was an impeachable offense: It was just a phone call. Trump got a couple of weird ideas into his head, and they happened to spill out while he was talking to somebody. The American aid got released eventually anyway, so let’s just move on.

I have an analogy that I think sums up their thinking. (As far as I know, none of them actually used it, but it would make sense out of the kinds of things a lot of them said.): A married man gets drunk at a party and makes a move on some pretty girl, who manages to get away from him. Sure, his wife should be upset with him, but it’s probably not worth getting a divorce over. Tucker Carlson put it like this:

Donald Trump should not have been on the phone with a foreign head of state encouraging another country to investigate his political opponent, Joe Biden. Some Republicans are trying, but there’s no way to spin this as a good idea. Like a lot of things Trump does, it was pretty over-the-top. … The key question with Trump’s Ukraine call, though, is whether the president’s actions, advisable or not, rise to the level of an impeachable offense. It’s hard to argue they do.

In the two weeks that followed the initial revelation, though, we’ve been finding out that the pressure-Ukraine-for-partisan-favors scheme was way more than just a phone call: In fact, it shaped the whole Ukraine policy of the United States over a period of (at least) months. Our ambassador to Ukraine got recalled because she kept getting in the way. Diplomats up and down the line were rattled about it. Multiple national-security people in the White House were raising their concerns with the White House Counsel’s office about Trump’s Ukraine call, some even before it happened. Career officials at OMB protested that it was illegal to hold up aid Congress had appropriated, and were overruled by a political appointee.

Rudy Giuliani, who has no government job at all and is just Trump’s personal attorney (at least for now), was running a shadow foreign policy, and working with some shady characters to implement it. Two of them were arrested Thursday for funneling foreign money into American political campaigns, including giving $325K to America First Action, a pro-Trump PAC. Rudy himself is reported to be under investigation by the office he used to head: the US Attorney’s office of the Southern District of New York. A goal of that scheme (which apparently pulled in Energy Secretary Rick Perry — wittingly or not — as well as various Republican donors) was to try to get their people installed in the management of Ukraine’s state gas company, in order to “steer lucrative contracts to companies controlled by Trump allies”.

At this point, it’s hard to say just how far the wrongdoing goes. And it raises a question: If you drilled this deep anywhere in the Trump administration, would you strike a similar gusher of corruption?

The difficult task of the House Intelligence Committee, as it works towards preparing at least one article of impeachment for the Judiciary Committee, is to give the American people a sense of the depth of the cesspool it has found, while not losing the simplicity of the original story: We have the rough transcript (from the White House itself) of Trump pressuring a foreign leader to interfere in the 2020 elections.

That’s not right, and something needs to be done about it. But it’s also not all.

Backstabbing the Kurds is Just Trump Being Trump

Who could have predicted that the founder of Trump University would betray people who had faith in him?
Just about anybody who’s been paying attention.

Ever since he came down the escalator and announced his crusade to protect American womenfolk from Mexican rapists, the Donald’s Republican defenders have been singing the same song: You’ve got to let Trump be Trump.

If he says or does something racist, stands up for the poor mistreated Nazis of Charlottesville, slanders federal law enforcement institutions, sides with Putin over US intelligence services, says dozens of things each week that have no basis in reality, is nicer to enemy dictators than to our democratic allies, calls members of Congress traitors or says that they should go back where they came from … well, that’s just who he is. You need to roll with it.

But strangely, they forgot their own advice this week after Trump ordered our troops in Syria to stand aside and let Turkey attack the Kurds. Kurdish troops bore the majority of the burden in the war against ISIS in Syria, whose success Trump has often crowed about. [1] They lost something like 11,000 soldiers while we lost six fighters and two civilians.

But now that Trump believes the battle against ISIS is won [2], what good are they? Turkey’s authoritarian ruler Recep Tayyip Erdoğan — one of those dictators Trump admires — wants to clear them away from his border, where they give hope to his own oppressed Kurdish minority. And Erdoğan doesn’t just have the second-largest army in NATO going for him, he also has Trump Tower Istanbul, and countless future opportunities for ambitious businessmen who play ball. What’s loyalty to our brothers-in-arms compared to that?

Trump Tower Istanbul

But for some reason, Republicans are upset this time. Lindsey Graham, who has been Trump’s biggest sycophant through all his other betrayals, found this one shocking. The Kurds, he said in outrage, had been “shamelessly abandoned”, as if he thinks Trump’s shamelessness is a new development. Liz Cheney found it “impossible to understand why [Trump] is leaving America’s allies to be slaughtered.”

Well, Liz, I can explain it for you: This is who Trump is and who he’s always been. Betraying people who have trusted him is just Trump being Trump.

A trust-is-for-suckers theme runs through Trump’s entire life. Look at Trump University: People who admired his business acumen believed him when he said he could teach them his secrets. He took advantage of their admiration with a fraud that he needed $25 million to settle. In addition to that betrayal of trust, there’s his long history of stiffing the contractors who build his buildings, scamming the taxman, profiting from buildings that never got built, cooking the books at his hotels, refusing to repay bank loans, cheating on all three of his wives, and on and on.

Why would anyone expect him to stand by people who (in his view) have already done everything for him that they’re going to do? In his eyes, that’s a loser move. He’s never shown that kind of loyalty before, so why would he start now?

So here’s what I have to say to Lindsey, Liz, and all the other Republicans who are shocked by Trump’s faithlessness, as if it came out of the blue: One of Trump’s favorite ways to bash immigrants is to recite part of a poem in which a woman saves a poisonous snake, who then bites her. When she asks why, the snake explains:

Oh, shut up, silly woman, said the reptile with a grin.
You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in.

Maybe when you heard that recitation, you thought he was warning you about MS-13 gangsters. You should have realized that he was telling you about himself.

[1] One of the many good things Trump inherited from President Obama was a strategy for beating the Islamic State. Obama saw that the American people had no appetite for another ground war in the Middle East, and yet the spread of the Islamic State not only destabilized Syria, but threatened everything the US had tried to accomplish in Iraq.

So the Obama administration came up with a plan (announced September 20, 2014) in which we would provide air power, material support, and a relatively small number of troops on the ground, while local groups — most prominently the Kurds — would do the bulk of the killing and dying. The public might not like the idea of having troops in harm’s way in yet another Middle Eastern nation, but as long as not too many of them came home in body bags, the war would stay off the front pages and most of the country would forget it was happening.

By the time Trump started measuring drapes for the Oval Office, three things were clear:

  • Obama’s strategy was working.
  • Trump was going to continue what Obama started, because Obama’s reasoning was still sound: Americans didn’t want a major new war, but they also didn’t want to turn large chunks of Iraq and Syria over to an Islamist caliphate.
  • When Obama’s strategy eventually succeeded, Trump was going to hog all the credit.

Here’s what I wrote two weeks after the 2016 election:

ISIS has been losing territory for some while now. Mosul, its last stronghold in Iraq, is cut off and likely to fall in the next few months. Its de facto capital of Raqqa is under attack in Syria. If events continue on their current path, sometime in 2017 President Trump will be able to declare victory in the territorial struggle, though ISIS will continue to be a significant underground movement. That victory will be the result of Obama’s strategy, but I expect Trump to crow about how “America is winning again.”

It took a little longer than I expected, but played out exactly that way. Here’s what our resident stable genius tweeted in January of this year:

When I became President, ISIS was out of control in Syria & running rampant. Since then tremendous progress made, especially over last 5 weeks. Caliphate will soon be destroyed, unthinkable two years ago.

I know this outcome was not “unthinkable” when Trump took office, because I was thinking it and so were a lot of other people.

[2] It isn’t. The Islamic State has lost its territory, but it still continues as the “significant underground movement” that I and everybody else predicted.

The Atlantic’s national security correspondent Mike Giglio summarizes:

For much of America’s war against the so-called ISIS caliphate, it was clear that the extremist proto-state that ISIS created across Syria and Iraq didn’t stand much chance of lasting. The militants had no way to counter the relentless U.S. air-strike campaign and faced a committed enemy in the U.S.-backed local soldiers who did the bulk of the ground fighting. ISIS, a successor to the al-Qaeda militants who battled U.S. troops during the Iraq War, would one day return to its insurgent roots and go underground. It would ultimately be left to America’s local partners to keep up the pressure and ensure the group’s lasting defeat.

These local soldiers—the Kurds in Syria, the Iraqi military, and various other forces—have already suffered many thousands of casualties. Once the territorial caliphate was defeated, America could have focused on rebuilding them as well as the heavily bombed areas where they are now charged with keeping the peace. As The New York Times reported this summer, ISIS still has as many as 18,000 fighters across Iraq and Syria, many of them organized into sleeper cells and hit teams who carry out ambushes, kidnappings, and assassinations across both countries.

Remember: Al Qaeda never did control territory, but managed to be a quite a nuisance anyway.

More Answers to Impeachment Objections

This post is a follow-up to a similar one last week. As the available information has changed, Trump’s defenses have shifted, and some of the points I made last week have more support now.

But before we get into the excuses and responses, I think it’s important never to lose sight of the heart of the case against Trump. It’s a simple case, which is why his supporters work so hard to obscure it: He’s cheating again.

One thing the Mueller Report made absolutely clear was that Russia cheated for Trump in 2016. Mueller couldn’t prove that the Trump campaign itself was part of the Russians’ criminal conspiracy, but what Russia did is pretty well established at this point. Tucker Carlson and Jared Kushner may try to minimize it as “a few Russian Facebook ads”, but serious crimes were committed: In addition to the illegal social-media campaign help, Russian operatives broke into the DNC’s computers and conspired with WikiLeaks to distribute what they found. That drip-drip-drip of email revelations consistently disrupted the news cycle for the Clinton campaign, and (in such a close election) was almost certainly decisive.

It’s a very real possibility that Trump owes his presidency to Vladimir Putin’s criminal conspiracy.

The essence of the Ukraine and China stories is that Trump is looking for a country to cheat for him in 2020, the way Russia did in 2016. And this time he has more to work with than just a wink-and-nod about sanctions. As president, he can distort all of US foreign policy to bribe or threaten foreign leaders into doing him “favors”.

So the question to be answered in this impeachment is: Are we going to let presidents cheat their way to re-election? And there are only three possible answers.

  • Yes. We’re going to become the kind of banana republic where the full power of the government is devoted to making elections come out the right way.
  • No. We’re going to take the power of the presidency away from Trump so that he can’t use it to cheat his way to a second term.
  • No. We’re not going to remove Trump from office, but we have some other way to stop his cheating and to make sure future presidents don’t follow his example.

I included that third bullet for logical completeness, but I’m still waiting to hear what such an “other way” might be. If someone makes the case that what Trump is doing is wrong but not impeachable, I think the burden is on them to explain how exactly the US is going to avoid the banana-republic scenario.

Anyway, let’s get to what Trump supporters are saying.

Trump is just being Trump. The point of standing on the White House grounds and publicly asking China to investigate the Bidens — coincidentally at a time when Chinese negotiators are about to arrive for trade talks and might be looking for a cheap way to curry favor with him — was to normalize the situation: This isn’t a crime committed in secret (although it was; that’s why Trump’s staff inappropriately locked the transcript down in a computer system meant for secrets about covert operations), it’s just how I roll.

During the 2016 campaign, Trump claimed that he could shoot somebody on 5th Avenue and not only get away with it, but “not lose any voters”. Now we know how he would accomplish that feat: The day after he shot the first guy, he’d shoot somebody else. The day after that he’d shoot two people. And by the end of the week Fox News and Lindsey Graham would be saying: “That’s who Trump is. He shoots people. The country knew that when it elected him.”

But crimes are crimes and abuses of power are abuses of power, no matter where or how often they happen. If “being Trump” means abusing the power of the presidency, then he shouldn’t have that power. Let him go be Trump in private life, or in prison.

Trump just said a bad thing. This related defense is one that Trump’s supporters use a lot: His heart is in the right place, but because he’s not a career politician, he occasionally says things that break protocol. It’s no big deal.

We’ve heard this defense many times. For example, after the Access Hollywood tape came out: You may think you heard Trump confessing to a pattern of sexual assaults, but no; it was just “locker room talk“. And he shouldn’t have used the word pussy. So he said a bad thing, but that’s all there was to the scandal. (And when dozens of women accused him of the same kinds of sexual assaults he had bragged about, they were all lying. Most of them were too ugly to assault anyway.)

Tucker Carlson adapts the he-said-a-bad-thing argument to Ukraine:

Donald Trump should not have been on the phone with a foreign head of state encouraging another country to investigate his political opponent, Joe Biden. Some Republicans are trying, but there’s no way to spin this as a good idea. Like a lot of things Trump does, it was pretty over-the-top. … The key question with Trump’s Ukraine call, though, is whether the president’s actions, advisable or not, rise to the level of an impeachable offense. It’s hard to argue they do.

But as I pointed out above, Carlson does not offer any way out of the banana-republic scenario. He doesn’t propose any consequence that would discourage Trump from doing this again, or doing worse things. Maybe a president shouldn’t abuse his power this way, but … let him.

It was a joke. Remember when the writers of Dallas painted themselves into a corner, and then got out by claiming that the whole previous season was a dream? That’s what “It’s a joke” is for Trump. It’s how he calls backsies. We’d all love to have the power to do that: Imagine if anytime somebody brought up something you shouldn’t have said, you could respond with, “Oh, that was a joke. Where’s your sense of humor?” I’m sure Henry II would have loved to claim that “Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?” was a joke. But Pope Alexander wasn’t buying it.

Getting back to Trump, he claimed it was a joke in 2016 when he said:

Russia, if you are listening, I hope that you are able to find the 30,000 e-mails that are missing. I think that you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press. Let’s see if that happens.

And here’s the real punch line: It did happen, or at least Russia tried to make it happen.

Russian spies began trying to hack Hillary Clinton’s personal email server on the very day Donald Trump urged the Russian government to find emails Clinton had erased, prosecutors said on Friday.

Putin’s people didn’t get the joke, so they went out and tried to do more illegal hacking. Those effing ex-KGB guys! No sense of humor, any of them.

Even better than being able to claim backsies yourself is having other people do it for you, so your position can remain ambiguous. Whatever you said is either a joke or not a joke, depending on what’s convenient. Right now, Republicans in Congress know they can’t defend what Trump says, so it’s-a-joke has become convenient for them. Marco Rubio started it, saying that Trump’s suggestion that China investigate Biden wasn’t real.

I don’t know if that’s a real request or him just needling the press knowing that you guys are going to get outraged by it. He’s pretty good at getting everybody fired up and he’s been doing that for a while and the media responded right on task.

On yesterday’s talk shows, Senator Roy Blount and Rep. Jim Jordan repeated that excuse. Blount said:

Well I doubt if the China comment was serious to tell you the truth

The important question this time is whether China got the joke. China’s foreign minister did not appear to be laughing when he said:

China will not interfere in the internal affairs of the US, and we trust that the American people will be able to sort out their own problems.

I think Congress should react like the TSA does when you “joke” about having a bomb in your luggage. Unless he’s in an obviously comic setting, like the White House Correspondents Dinner, when the President of the United States says something, the world should take it seriously. If Trump can’t adjust to that situation, he shouldn’t be president.

And BTW: Is there any evidence that Trump even has a real sense of humor? Has anyone ever seen him laugh — except possibly at someone else’s pain or disability?

No quid pro quo. Last week, I answered this by saying that the quid pro quo in Trump’s conversation with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky was implicit:

It’s impossible to read the transcript of the Ukraine call without immediately recognizing the quid (money for Ukraine’s defense against Russian invaders) and the quo (manufacturing dirt on Joe Biden).

The case for that interpretation got much stronger Thursday when former Special Envoy for Ukraine Kurt Volker testified to Congress, and provided text messages related to the case. For example, Bill Taylor, the acting US ambassador to Ukraine, asked U.S. Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland about what he perceived as a quid pro quo:

Taylor asks for further direction: “Are we now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?” Sondland replies: “Call me.”

A few days later Taylor texts:

As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.

And Sondland replies with the White House spin that will turn into its cover story, while again trying to stop Taylor from leaving an evidence trail:

The President has been crystal clear no quid pro quo’s of any kind. The President is trying to evaluate whether Ukraine is truly going to adopt the transparency and reforms that President Zelensky promised during his campaign[.] I suggest we stop the back and forth by text[.]

However, in conversation with Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI), Sondland also expressed his belief that there was a quid pro quo. So Johnson talked to Trump:

Johnson claims he heard from Sondland that this was in fact the policy. However, Johnson adds that he became disturbed by this, and followed up with President Trump himself — who denied any such linkage. “He said—expletive deleted—‘No way. I would never do that. Who told you that?” Johnson told Journal reporters Siobhan Hughes and Rebecca Ballhaus.

But the story doesn’t end there. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Molly Beck, Patrick Marley, and Eric Litke, Johnson said in a separate interview that Trump did say he was considering withholding the aid because he wanted to find out “what happened in 2016.”

Johnson said he asked Trump whether he could tell Ukraine’s president the aid was on the way anyway, to dispel the government’s fears, but “I didn’t succeed.”

Chris Hayes sums up:

The thing that is so damning about these texts is the consciousness of guilt that hangs over them. … They knew what they were doing was wrong, and they were trying to keep it secret. … Not only did they know it was wrong, but they worked on their cover story.

BTW, the format Hayes is experimenting with, of doing his show before a live audience, works really well here. The real editorializing comes from the audience, which laughs at Trump supporters’ ridiculous excuses.

Trump is draining the swamp. His push to investigate Biden is part of his anti-corruption mandate. The Trump campaign makes this point in a TV ad you may have seen.

But Mitt Romney nails him on this:

When the only American citizen President Trump singles out for China’s investigation is his political opponent in the midst of the Democratic nomination process, it strains credulity to suggest that it is anything other than politically motivated.

Other observers have noted that there is at least one other example of Trump caring about corruption: He wanted Hillary Clinton investigated also. CNBC’s Eamon Javers asked the obvious question:

Have you asked foreign leaders for any corruption investigations that don’t involve your political opponents?

Trump bloviated for a while, but could not name any other instances. Trump has picked this trick up from the autocrats he most admires: Putin and Mohammad bin Salman. They both like to manufacture “corruption” cases to take down their rivals.

In general, the drain-the-swamp argument is a joke at this point. Trump’s cabinet is full of lobbyists. He has stood behind obviously corrupt officials like EPA Director Scott Pruitt and Wilbur Ross. He channels public dollars into his private businesses. And in spite of Trump’s claim that his tax plan would “cost me a fortune”, Trump himself is one of the law’s prime beneficiaries. That’s one reason why his tax returns are such tightly held secrets.

To conclude: Washington has gotten much, much swampier since Trump came to town. If you want to drain the swamp, support impeachment.

Democrats are pushing impeachment because they know they can’t defeat Trump in 2020. That’s the case made in that Trump ad. However, all the current polling indicates that the major Democratic candidates — especially Biden — are ahead of Trump by wide margins.

This point makes more sense if you turn it around: Trump is trying to cheat because he knows he can’t win a fair election.

But if Trump is allowed to use the full power of his office to cheat — then yes, Democrats are worried that he’ll win in 2020.

Answers to Impeachment Objections

You might think there’s no role for us in the impeachment process. But our role may be the most important one. Here’s what you need to know to start doing your part.

So it’s on: There’s a serious impeachment inquiry, and in all likelihood it will lead to a vote in the House on articles of impeachment. Then it will be the Senate’s turn to look at the evidence and decide.

In a literal, constitutional sense, that’s where the important stuff will happen: in Congress. Witnesses will be called, subpoenas issued, questions asked and answered, votes held, and in the end the President either will or won’t continue in office.

To lesser extent, stuff will happen in the courts. What subpoenas are valid? What documents have to be produced? What witnesses have to testify? What privileges can they claim to avoid answering?

Put that way, it sounds like there is no role for the rest of us. But in fact there is a role, and collectively our role is the most important one. Because whatever the evidence says, Congress isn’t going to move without public support. So at every point, they’re going to wondering about us: Are we paying attention? Are engaged or bored? Angry with the President or with his accusers? Convinced by the case against him or befuddled?

So yes, it’s about witnesses, documents, and votes. But it’s also about TV ratings, public demonstrations, letters to the editor, and what’s trending on Twitter. While we’re watching Congress and the courts, they’re going to be watching us.

Yes, Congress will eventually make up its mind. But they will also be following us as we make up our minds. And that will happen not in televised hearings, but over coffee and in social media. We’ll think things out on our own, or discuss them one-on-one or in small gatherings. And what we decide will matter.

Trump’s supporters seem to understand this, so they have been out in force spreading — let’s be blunt about this — bullshit. Wild charges, baseless conspiracy theories, lies about evidence that has already come out, threats, pseudo-legal mumbo-jumbo, and anything else will throw sand in the gears of the public thought process. You can see this happening on the TV talk shows, where Trump defenders like Jim Jordan and Rudy Giuliani shout, talk over their interviewers, change their story from moment to moment, and refuse to answer questions — because they know that if the public has a rational conversation about evidence and law, Trump will lose. They can’t engage your mind, they have to overpower you.

The same thing is happening on the smaller scales as well. Trumpists distract, misdirect, make things up, repeat slogans, insult, spread conspiracy theories without worrying that they contradict each other, and in general create a fog rather than shining a light. Because if the American people just get confused, nothing will happen. And that’s what they want.

So it’s important that lots and lots of us refuse to be confused or distracted, and that (to the extent we can) we commit to be shapers of the opinions around us rather than wallflowers.

With that in mind, I have assembled a list of the most popular objections to impeachment that I have heard, and have tried to cut through the fog with sharp answers you can use in your own discussions.

What about the Bidens? This isn’t really a defense of Trump at all; it’s an attempt to distract attention from his wrongdoing and unfitness for office.

I discussed the general tactic of whataboutism back in August. Its purpose is to draw you into defending Biden against a ridiculous attack, which keeps the spotlight off of Trump and the reasons to remove him from office. The important thing to understand here is that a whataboutist can win by losing: Even if you shred all of his arguments, and impress all physical or social-media bystanders with the baselessness of his charges, all that time and energy has been diverted from the case against Trump. As I wrote in August:

Since the point of whataboutism is to derail a criticism rather than refute it, a false assertion often works even better than a true one, because the discussion then careens off into evidence that the assertion is false. Suddenly we’re rehashing the details of what Obama or Clinton did or didn’t do, while the original criticism of Trump scrolls off the page.

The opposite horn of the dilemma is to leave people with the general impression that there is something slimy about Biden, even if they can’t say exactly what it is. (To a large extent, this kind of shapeless smear is what sunk Hillary Clinton.)

What to do? Two things:

  • Call out the whataboutism for what it is: a confession that Trump’s actions can’t be defended on their own terms. All his defenders have is distraction: Look here! Look there! Look anyplace but at the criminal in the White House!
  • Don’t go through the details of defending Biden — that’s taking the whataboutist bait — but do have a detailed reference you can link to or point to. Say something like “This has been checked out in detail and it’s all bullshit.” (Or maybe substitute some more polite word for bullshit, depending on the forum.) This response has the advantage of being completely true.

I recommend two links: “The Swiftboating of Joe Biden” from the Just Security blog, and “I Wrote About the Bidens and Ukraine Years Ago. Then the Right-Wing Spin Machine Turned the Story Upside-Down” in The Intercept.

The whistleblower report is all hearsay. Lindsey Graham went wild with this talking point on Face the Nation Sunday, repeating “hearsay” 11 times. The kernel of truth is that the whistleblower complaint assembles information from unnamed “White House officials”, many of whom saw or heard things the whistleblower himself/herself did not witness.

But that kind of misses the point: The evidence that is really damning is the transcript of Trump’s call with the Ukrainian president, which the White House released itself. That’s not hearsay. (It also matches the whistleblower’s description pretty well, which argues for his/her credibility.)

The whistleblower’s complaint is a roadmap for investigation, and not the substance of the case against Trump. By the time an impeachment vote is held, the House will have assembled more direct sources that either will or won’t corroborate what the complaint says. I expect the White House to try to stop those sources from testifying, because that’s what guilty people do.

There was no quid pro quo. This is just a lie, and a pretty obvious one at that. It’s impossible to read the transcript of the Ukraine call without immediately recognizing the quid (money for Ukraine’s defense against Russian invaders) and the quo (manufacturing dirt on Joe Biden).

It’s true that Don Trump never spells it out in so many words, but Don Corleone never did either. When the Godfather said, “I’m going to make you an offer you can’t refuse”, he never elaborated “because if you do, something bad will happen to you.” He didn’t have to.

Where’s the crime? As you read the Ukraine transcript or the whistleblower complaint, and then listen to legal analysts debate it, one striking thing is that the laws they discuss don’t really capture what’s wrong here. It’s sort of like extortion. It’s sort of like bribery. It’s definitely a campaign violation, but that seems like a comparatively minor charge.

What’s wrong is that the President is treating the powers of his office as if they were his private possessions, rather than as a trust he holds for the People. He is trading a public good — aid to defend Ukraine from a Russian invasion — for a personal advantage over a rival in the 2020 election. If that kind of thing is acceptable presidential behavior, then we can pretty much give up on having fair elections from now on. Foreign governments will try to curry favor with future presidents by doing things that would be illegal for the president to do himself — like hacking DNC emails the way the Russians did in 2016 — and expect to receive future favors like foreign aid or readmission to the G-7.

Trump wriggled out of that bit of cheating by claiming that he didn’t directly conspire with the Russians in their crimes. (That’s the “no collusion” part of the Mueller report: Mueller established that Trump was the beneficiary of Russia’s crimes, but was unable to prove Trump’s involvement in the criminal conspiracy.) But in the Ukraine case, Trump is personally involved in an attempt to strong-arm the Ukrainian president into helping him cheat in 2020.

If that’s OK from now on, then the Republic is sunk. Future elections will be meaningless.

Abuses of power that “subvert the Constitution, the integrity of government, or the rule of law” are precisely what the Founders had in mind when they put impeachment into the Constitution, and it doesn’t matter whether the details precisely match some criminal statute. Congress should not get lost in legalisms, but needs to focus on defending the integrity of our elections.

The Senate will never remove Trump from office, so what’s the point? Three things are wrong with this one:

  • Not impeaching Trump will be costly. First, it would back up Trump’s claim that all the Democratic talk about Trump’s crimes is just politics; if the charges were serious, Pelosi would have impeached him, wouldn’t she? And second, it is in Trump’s nature to keep pushing until he meets resistance. If pressuring foreign countries to manufacture dirt on his rivals is OK, what other ways will he find to cheat in the 2020 elections? If you want to beat Trump in 2020, you can’t just stand there and watch him cheat.
  • Impeachment puts Republican senators on the spot. When you don’t do your job because you assume the next guy won’t do his, you take the pressure off the next guy. “I would have done my job,” he can claim later, “but nobody asked me.” Republican senators, especially the ones vulnerable in 2020 like Susan Collins and Cory Gardner, will try to distance themselves from Trump’s crimes without doing anything to upset his base. (“Deeply troubling,” Mitt Romney says, and he’s the brave one.) Democrats should assemble the case against Trump as clearly as possible and make senators vote yes or no. Do you approve of this behavior or not?
  • You never know. The Nixon impeachment seemed absurd until suddenly it wasn’t. Trump’s support in the Senate is held together by fear, not by love or unity of purpose. Coalitions of fear sometimes dissolve suddenly, as in “The Emperor’s New Clothes“. If Trump starts going down, not many senators will want to go down with him.

Impeachment will make it impossible to accomplish anything else. Frank Bruni makes the argument like this:

Where’s the infrastructure plan that we’re — oh — a quarter-century late in implementing? Where are the fixes to a health care system whose problems go far beyond the tens of millions of Americans still uninsured? What about education?

This argument would be a lot more persuasive if Mitch McConnell’s Senate hadn’t bottled up everything before impeachment. Republicans in Congress may use impeachment as an excuse to do nothing; but they weren’t doing anything anyway.

The Democratic House has actually been quite busy passing legislation, which the Senate just ignores. Of course you wouldn’t expect a Republican Senate to simply rubber-stamp whatever comes out of a Democratic House. But nothing stops the Senate from passing its own version of, say, background checks or lowering drug prices or helping people save for retirement. Then there could be a House/Senate conference committee to work out the differences, the way Congress used to get things done.

As for Trump, it’s absurd to claim that impeachment prevents him from working with Democrats on infrastructure, or any other common purpose he claims he wants. Both Nixon and Clinton took some pride in being able to keep doing their jobs in spite of distractions. (Much of what Clinton did to balance the budget was happening while he was under investigation or being impeached.) Trump alone thinks it makes sense to take his ball and go home until Nancy treats him better.

Impeachment will rile up Trump’s base. I wish Democrats would stop thinking about Trump and his base the way some battered women think about their abusers: If dinner is on the table when he comes home and the house is ship-shape, maybe he won’t hit me tonight.

You know what? Trump’s base is going to be riled up from now on. Get used to it, because no matter what Democrats do, Trump will spin a story in which he is the most unfairly persecuted man in the history of politics. His idolaters will believe it, and they’ll be hopping mad. It’s already happening, and it’s going to get worse. The Trumpist minority can threaten violence and even civil war if we don’t do what they want. But if we’re letting ourselves be ruled by a violent minority, if we are terrorized out of doing what is right and what the country needs, then there’s already been a civil war and we lost.

Democrats should wait for the election. David Brooks makes this case, saying that impeachment is “elitist”.

Elections give millions and millions of Americans a voice in selecting the president. This [impeachment] process gives 100 mostly millionaire senators a voice in selecting the president.

It’s true that elections are the Constitution’s primary method for getting rid of bad presidents. But what makes the Ukraine scandal stand out as impeachment material is that it’s an attempt to cheat in the 2020 election. We can’t just wait for the election if in the meantime we’re doing nothing to stop Trump from cheating in that election.

So yes, Democrats should keep talking about healthcare and climate change and all the other important issues of America’s future. But at the same time we have to do our best to make sure that a fair election is held at all. The only way we have to do that is to call attention to Trump’s cheating and appeal to the American people’s sense of fair play. That’s what this whole process is about.

Wouldn’t Pence be harder to beat in 2020? Trump, from this view, is an unpopular, damaged candidate. But Pence, being more like a typical Republican presidential candidate, could win back the never-Trumpers and the professional-class suburbanites, reunite the Republican coalition, and be a more formidable candidate in 2020.

I don’t share this concern. If Trump is removed from office, or damaged to the point that he doesn’t seek re-election, Pence will face the same problems Gore did in 2000: Does he embrace Trump or distance himself? Does he let Trump speak at the convention? Does he campaign with Trump? Should his rhetoric inflame the resentments resulting from the impeachment or try to move on? If he stays too close to Trump, he won’t win back the people Trump alienated, and may risk being stained by whatever brought Trump down. But if he is too distant, Trump’s base will resent his disloyalty.

Gore at least could run on Clinton’s policies, which were fairly popular. (In The Onion, President-elect Bush assured America: “Our long national nightmare of peace and prosperity is finally over.“) But Trump’s policies have never been popular: the border wall, standing with the NRA, making climate change worse, race baiting, gutting ObamaCare, shutting down immigration, palling around with Putin, the farm-destroying trade war with China, and so on. In addition, the issue Pence is most identified with personally is bigotry against gays and lesbians, which is also not popular.

True, Pence would not have to answer for Trump’s long series of outrageous tweets. He could make his own version of Biden’s case that the adults were in charge again. But Trump’s base loves those tweets and doesn’t want adults to be in charge. They identify with Trump because he insults all the people they wish they had the courage to insult, and defies the experts who make them feel stupid. If Pence tries to be an adult, or (even worse) a gentleman, they won’t like him.

Picture 30,000 people showing up to hear Pence, hoping to be revved up the way Trump revved them up. Won’t they leave disappointed?

So no: If Trump is removed, Pence is not a formidable candidate.

He’s not going to stop on his own

If Democrats put off impeachment until Trump does something worse, he’ll do something worse.

This week’s biggest news story unfolded slowly, and we still don’t have it all.

Flouting the law. Early in the week, the story centered on yet another example of the Trump administration flouting the law: On August 12, a whistleblower in the intelligence community filed an official complaint, which the the IC’s inspector general (Trump appointee Michael Atkinson) found to be “a credible urgent concern” on August 26. Invoking that phrase legally requires the Director of National Intelligence (acting DNI Joseph Maguire, who got the job after Dan Coats was let go; on July 28 Trump tweeted that Coats would leave on August 15) to pass the complaint on to the House and Senate Intelligence Committees. But he did not do so.

House Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff wrote to Maguire on September 10:

In an unprecedented departure from past practice, you have not transmitted the disclosure to the Committee, nor have you notified the Committee of the fact of the disclosure or your decision not to transmit it to the Committee. Instead, in a manner neither permitted nor contemplated under the statute, you have taken the extraordinary step of overruling the independent determination of the [Intelligence Community Inspector General] and preventing the disclosure from reaching the Committee.

He followed this up with a September 13 letter, which appears to be a response to the DNI’s refusal to produce the complaint. This letter accuses the DNI’s office of

a radical distortion of the statute that completely subverts the letter and spirit of the law, as well as arrogates to the Director of National Intelligence authority and discretion he does not possess.

The DNI’s action

raises grave concerns that your office, together with the Department of Justice and possibly the White House, are engaged in an unlawful effort to protect the President and conceal from the Committee information related to his possible “serious or flagrant” misconduct, abuse of power, or violation of law.

The letter concludes with a subpoena to deliver the complaint by September 17, or to appear before the committee to explain why on September 19. Maguire refused to do either one.

Mr. Schiff told CBS that Mr. Maguire had told him he was not providing the complaint “because he is being instructed not to, that this involved a higher authority, someone above” the director of national intelligence, a cabinet position.

That “higher authority” can only be the President.

What the complaint is about. Up to that point, no one — including Schiff or any other members of Congress — knew anything about the substance of the complaint, or why it was worth breaking the law to suppress. But then details began to leak out.

Wednesday the Washington Post reported that the complaint involved a conversation Trump had with a foreign leader.

Trump’s interaction with the foreign leader included a “promise” that was regarded as so troubling that it prompted an official in the U.S. intelligence community to file a formal whistleblower complaint

Naturally, pundits speculated about Vladimir Putin, but Thursday the New York Times reported that the complaint involved Ukraine, and included “other actions” beyond just a phone conversation.

Thursday night, Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani let the cat out of the bag in an interview with CNN’s Chris Cuomo. It kind of has to be seen to be believed. Rudy claimed CNN won’t cover Obama/Biden scandals in Ukraine, but when Cuomo asked for the proof Giuliani says he’s assembled, he yelled, “I’m not going to give you proof!” Later in the interview he repeated that refusal and explained “You’re the enemy!” Giuliani kept on yelling:

You won’t cover it! But you want to cover some ridiculous charge that I urged the Ukrainian government to investigate corruption! Well I did, and I’m proud of it!

Just that fast, it goes from a “ridiculous charge” to something he’s proud to have done.

Friday, the Wall Street Journal reported

President Trump in a July phone call repeatedly pressured the president of Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden’s son, according to people familiar with the matter, urging Volodymyr Zelensky about eight times to work with Rudy Giuliani on a probe that could hamper Mr. Trump’s potential 2020 opponent.

Yesterday, Trump admitted he talked to Zelensky about Biden and his son, but insisted there was nothing improper in the call. However, so far he has refused to release the transcript. (As he so often does when he’s trying to deflect criticism, he says he’s “considering” releasing it. He considers a lot of things that never happen — sitting down with Robert Mueller, for example.)

By now we seem to know this much: On July 25, Trump talked to new Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, pressuring him to investigate a story (largely unsupported by facts, as Chris Cuomo lays out) that as Vice President, Biden pressured Ukraine to fire a prosecutor who had investigated his son. [2]

On August 30, Trump was reported to be considering withholding $250 million in military aid that Congress had appropriated for the Ukraine (which badly needs the aid because it is under persistent attack from Russia, which has already taken Crimea from Ukraine). On September 1, Mike Pence met with Zelensky in Warsaw. Schiff’s letter demanding the whistleblower complaint is September 10, and aid to Ukraine is released on September 12.

We still don’t know what “other actions” the complaint talks about.

Now let’s connect the dots. Those are all just facts; now I start to speculate. It appears that Trump tried to coerce Ukraine into taking action that would help his re-election campaign.

This would be an unprecedented abuse of power. Constitutionally, presidents have sweeping power over American foreign policy, but using that power to extort partisan political favors from foreign countries is an enormous breach of trust.

However, this also would be entirely consistent with everything we know about Trump. One character trait that has been consistent all through his administration is that he can’t compartmentalize. He can’t keep his government trips separate from his campaign rallies. His people can’t keep their political campaigning separate from their taxpayer-supported jobs. He can’t separate his business from his administration, or his family from his government. He can’t keep from blurting out secrets when he talks to the Russian ambassador.

Each previous president has understood the distinction between his person and the office he held. Each has understood that the power of the presidency is a trust from the People of the United States, to be used for the benefit of the nation. Sometimes presidents have crossed that line — for example, by bringing a foreign issue to a head when they needed a distraction from a domestic issue that was going badly for them — but they all knew the line was there.

Trump simply doesn’t grasp this. He is the President, so the power of the presidency is his, to do with as he likes. Sometimes that might be for the benefit of the nation (as he understands it), but he may also use that power to enrich himself and his family, cover up his mistakes, reward his friends, or strike at his enemies. And if, as in this case, the opportunity to get a partisan advantage from a foreign power presented itself, I doubt he would see anything wrong with pursuing it. One purpose of foreign aid is to make other countries do what the president wants, and this president wants Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden.

What should be done? First, no one should give Trump the benefit of the doubt on this, because he’s the one withholding information. If the whistleblower complaint [1] is as laughable as he says, he could just instruct DNI Maguire to release it so we can all enjoy the joke. If his conversation with Zelensky is as “perfect” as he says, he can release the transcript for us all to admire.

But if he won’t reveal those pieces of evidence, it’s probably because they don’t support his version of events. We all know this from childhood: If somebody stole the candy, and there’s one boy who won’t take his hands out of his pockets, you can bet that those hands are chocolate-stained.

Second, Politico’s legal affairs columnist Renato Mariotti makes an excellent point: It’s important not to try to shoehorn this abuse of power into the definitions of more typical crimes.

If what Trump is accused of doing is true, it is a kind of corrupt conduct that the criminal system is not equipped to handle. Labeling his behavior with criminal terms such as bribery and extortion not only misunderstands the statutory language, it gives Trump and his supporters ammunition with which to defend themselves, making impeachment—the proper constitutional remedy for presidential corruption—harder to achieve.

We have seen this happen already with the Russia investigation: Criminal conspiracy became the standard of judgment, and when Mueller didn’t find proof beyond reasonable doubt of Trump’s participation in that conspiracy (perhaps because his obstruction of justice worked), Trump could crow about “no collusion”. What Mueller did establish — that Trump knew about and welcomed an attempt by an enemy nation to get him elected — would have sunk any previous administration. But because winking at a foreign dictator’s attack on our democracy is not an indictable crime, Trump could claim “total exoneration“.

Trump and his defenders are already trying to spin things the same way in this case, by claiming that no explicit quid-pro-quo came up in the Zelensky conversation. (Trump’s near-simultaneous blocking of military aid Ukraine desperately needs was just a coincidence.) Quid-pro-quo would be a key element of a bribery or extortion charge, but it misses the point here. Mariotti continues:

Labeling Trump’s alleged conduct as “bribery” or “extortion” cheapens what is alleged to have occurred and does not capture what makes it wrongful. It’s not a crime—it’s a breach of the president’s duty to not use the powers of the presidency to benefit himself.

That kind of breach is what impeachment is for, and “No one should expect law enforcement to act if our elected representatives are unwilling to do so.”

Impeachment politics. It’s important to recognize that this is just another in a long series of impeachable offenses. If the evidence turns out to be what as it seems now, this may be the most flagrant violation yet, but it’s far from the only one.

  • The Mueller Report collected evidence of seven instances of obstruction of justice. (It examined ten possible obstructions, but found that three of them failed to include all three elements in the definition of obstruction.) Mueller himself refused (because of DoJ policy) to conclude that the president had committed a crime, but literally hundreds of former federal prosecutors have signed a statement saying that the evidence in the Mueller Report would be enough to indict Trump if DoJ policy did not forbid indicting a sitting president.
  • Trump’s business relationships with foreign countries and foreign governments violate the Constitution’s Emolument Clause. (Again, the reason we don’t have more complete information about this is that Trump is withholding it. Until he releases his tax returns and other relevant documents, he doesn’t deserve any benefit of the doubt.) So far, Democrats have left this violation to the courts, but that is not the proper jurisdiction. Oversight of the Executive Branch is a fundamental congressional responsibility. The primary issue is abuse of power, which is a political judgment, not a legal one.
  • Trump’s self-dealing — using presidential power to channel public money into his businesses, as well as getting government entities to do PR for his properties — is another abuse of power.
  • His stonewalling of Congress’ legitimate oversight authority — claiming ridiculous privileges, refusing subpoenas, and flouting laws requiring the administration to turn over documents — threatens the constitutional separation of powers.
  • His declaration of a phony emergency and subsequent pilfering of money to build his wall threatens the constitutional separation of powers.

As I’ve explained before, impeachment is not just about crimes, it can also be Congress’ only way to defend our system of government and maintain its status as an equal branch, if the President refuses to respect that equality. We’re at that point now.

The objection to impeachment among House Democrats isn’t that there is no case, it’s that the politics are wrong: The majority of voters aren’t there yet; some purple-district Democratic congresspeople might lose their seats if they vote to impeach; bringing impeachment to a vote and failing might be worse than doing nothing; likewise, impeaching Trump only to see the Senate acquit him might be counter-productive.

Nate Silver sums up this point of view:

I don’t understand how impeachment serves as more effective deterrent against impeachable conduct when the opposition impeaches even when it would politically benefit the president to do so (& he’d remain in office). That actually incentivizes impeachable conduct, in fact.

But Elizabeth Warren sees it differently:

A president is sitting in the Oval Office, right now, who continues to commit crimes. He continues because he knows his Justice Department won’t act and believes Congress won’t either. Today’s news confirmed he thinks he’s above the law. If we do nothing, he’ll be right.

What tips me over to Warren’s point of view is that this is not going to stop. Trump will push until he finds the line that Congress will defend. If that line hasn’t been reached yet, then he’ll push further.

Up until now, I have argued against those who worry that he’ll lose the election and refuse to leave office. And if the election happened today, I still think the system would stand against that usurpation. But if standards are allowed to continue eroding, who can say where they will be by November 2020 or January 2021?

Even Nancy Pelosi seems to recognize the seriousness of this moment:

I am calling on Republicans to join us in insisting that the Acting DNI obey the law as we seek the truth to protect the American people and our Constitution.

This violation is about our national security. The Inspector General determined that the matter is “urgent” and therefore we face an emergency that must be addressed immediately.

If the Administration persists in blocking this whistleblower from disclosing to Congress a serious possible breach of constitutional duties by the President, they will be entering a grave new chapter of lawlessness which will take us into a whole new stage of investigation.

Republicans. Democrats hesitate to pursue impeachment because they expect Republicans to refuse to defend the Republic and the Constitution against a president of their own party.

So far, for example, Mitt Romney is the only Republican in Congress who has expressed even a slight concern about either the flouting of the whistleblower law or the abuse of power allegedly described by the suppressed complaint. And his mildly expressed tweet is unlikely to make the White House quiver in fear.

If the President asked or pressured Ukraine’s president to investigate his political rival, either directly or through his personal attorney, it would be troubling in the extreme. Critical for the facts to come out.

My attention is focused on North Carolina Senator Richard Burr, the Republican who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee. DNI Maguire’s refusal to release the whistleblower complaint is snubbing Burr in the same way that it snubs House Intelligence Chair Schiff. Will he roll over and accept that diminishment of his authority? Up until now, the Senate committee has been less partisan than the House committee. His Democratic counterpart, Senator Warner of Virginia, seems to express bipartisan confidence:

Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate intelligence panel, said on Thursday that he and the committee’s Republican chairman, Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina, also expected both the inspector general and acting director to brief them early next week and “clear this issue up.”

We’ll soon see if that confidence is justified. If Burr demands to see the complaint, then things get interesting.

But in any case, if the Democratic majority in the House won’t move forward with impeachment, Senate Republicans will never be put on the spot. It may be true that they will respond in a corrupt and cowardly way. But if the question is never put to them, they don’t have to expose their corruption and cowardice.

Above all, Democrats need to ask themselves: If the abuse doesn’t stop here, with Trump pressuring a foreign leader to dig up dirt on his major rival, where will it stop?

[1] One important point is often getting shuffled aside: When government officials leak information to the press, critics ask why they didn’t do things “the right way”, by going through the official whistleblowing process. By all accounts, this whistleblower has done everything according to the proper legal process, and so far it is not going well: The complaint has not reached Congress, and it appears that the DNI has not protected his identity. The Justice Department (which has no role in the official process) has been consulted, and quite possibly the White House as well.

People throughout the government are watching. What many of them are learning, I suspect, is that if they know about wrongdoing, their only effective choices are to keep quiet or go to the press. I’m sure the Washington Post would be doing a better job of getting the complaint heard while protecting the whistleblower’s identity.

[2] The short version of the context is that Biden was one of many people pressuring Ukraine to get rid of the corrupt prosecutor, for a variety of reasons unconnected to Biden’s son. The dismissed prosecutor also claims that his Biden investigation had already concluded (without charges) before he was fired.

The Democratic Healthcare Debate

The differences are less stark and less consequential than either the candidates or the pundits would have you believe.

If you listened to the opening segment of Thursday’s Democratic debate, or the media discussion of it that followed, you might imagine that the ten candidates are sharply divided on healthcare. It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the Democrats’ disagreements branch out from a fundamental agreement on two principles, both of which are wildly popular with the general public.

  • When Americans get sick, they should get the care they need.
  • Paying for needed care shouldn’t drive families into bankruptcy.

Republicans, by contrast, focus on cost rather than coverage, and plan to control costs by inducing money-conscious Americans to forego care. They envision a nation filled with people who over-use the healthcare system, and would do so even more if it weren’t so expensive (as if we all viewed a night in the ER as entertainment, and would happily schedule unnecessary colonoscopies just for kicks). And if those expenses result in hypertension patients trying to save money by doing without their prescriptions, or diabetics getting priced out of the insulin market … well, those are the sad-but-necessary results of keeping taxes low and profits high.

So the debate the Democrats are having, about how to achieve the twin goals of care without bankruptcy, just isn’t happening on the Republican side. [1] If you believe that sick Americans should get care that doesn’t bankrupt them, you should be a Democrat.

The debate. As you listen to the arguments among Democratic candidates, you need to bear that fundamental agreement in mind. The disagreements are all about how to achieve those goals: Go straight there with a massive expansion of Medicare to cover everyone, or move more gradually by adding a public option to ObamaCare? Replace the current private-insurance system (with its familiarity as well as its profiteering and inefficiency), or build on top of it?

The Trump administration, meanwhile, is backing a lawsuit that would declare ObamaCare unconstitutional and make all its provisions void. Insurance companies would once again be able drop coverage for people with preexisting conditions. [2]

Why the tax gotcha? One fundamental difference between Medicare-for-All and our current healthcare system is how it’s paid for: Many treatments that are currently paid for through premiums and co-pays would be paid by the government, i.e., through taxes. The taxes would be progressive, so the burden of payment would shift towards the wealthy.

I don’t fully understand why, but for some reason both the media and the candidates are treating this like a gotcha question: Interviewers are asking it in a challenging way and candidates are dodging it. I’m not sure why it’s so hard to say, “Payments you used to make through premiums and co-pays, you’ll now make through taxes, and unless you’re very rich you’ll probably pay a lot less.” If I were an MfA candidate, I’d back that up with a pledge: “By the time Congress has to vote on a package, independent analysts will have weighed in on the costs. And if it doesn’t save middle class households a substantial amount of money, we won’t do it.”

That said, there is one group of people who will pay more: Those who could afford to buy health insurance, but have been successfully betting that they won’t get sick. They’ll have to pay something in taxes rather than the nothing in premiums that they’re paying now.

How it will play out. The MfA vs. public-option debate comes down to two points.

  • The Medicare-for-All candidates (mainly Sanders and Warren) are right about efficiency. A universal healthcare system that covered everybody for everything would deliver better healthcare at a lower price than we’re paying now. That price would fall entirely on the government, so government spending would go up even as total healthcare spending went down.
  • The public-option candidates, who want to let the private health insurance industry keep running, but give people the option of a Medicare-like system, are right about the politics. Rightly or wrongly, large swathes of the public don’t trust the federal government enough to bet everything on a big government program with no alternatives.

Warren was right to point out that no one loves their insurance company. (Mine is Aetna right now, and no, I don’t love it.) But I think a lot of people like the idea of having another choice if MfA turns out not to be as great as advertised.

The problem is that some of the gains a universal MfA would produce depend on the universality: Doctors would only need to know one system. Public health programs with diffuse benefits could be instituted without worrying exactly who is going to pay what when. The public option would still be more efficient than private insurance, but not as good as it could be.

In the end, though, this debate is not going to make a difference, at least in the short run. Even if Sanders or Warren get elected, together with a Democratic House and Senate, the new president will still find that the votes aren’t there for Medicare for All. As we saw with ObamaCare, the program will be whatever it needs to be to get the last few votes. In other words, even with Democratic majorities and the elimination of the Senate filibuster, it is the 50th Democratic senator and the 220th Democratic representative who will call the tune. They will be moderates from swing districts.

So one way or the other, the program will get scaled back to a public option. If that program is allowed to go forward without sabotage (as Trump has been sabotaging ObamaCare), the public option will gradually gain public trust, setting up an eventual universal program that may well resemble Medicare for All.

[1] Given the wide popularity of the two fundamental Democratic points — sick people should get care without going bankrupt — Republicans generally avoid detailed discussions of healthcare. Block whatever the Democrats want to do and repeal ObamaCare, and then something will happen that solves everybody’s problems.

That came clear in the repeal-and-replace debate in 2017. The replace part was always vaporware whose details could only emerge after repeal.

That scam is still going on. WaPo’s Paige Winfield Cunningham reports that the White House has given up on the health care plan it said it was writing, to be released only after the 2020 election. “The Republican Party will become the Party of Great Healthcare!” Trump tweeted back in March. He promised “a really great HealthCare Plan with far lower premiums (cost) & deductibles than ObamaCare. In other words it will be far less expensive & much more usable than ObamaCare.”

Cunningham notes that there is no sign anyone is working on this. Groups that you’d expect to lead the charge for a Republican plan, like FreedomWorks, say they haven’t been told anything about it.

The problem is that there’s no Republican consensus for a plan to implement. RomneyCare was the only healthcare plan the GOP had, and their idea-pantry has been empty ever since Obama used Romney’s plan as the basis for his proposal.

The usual Republican answer, the free market, is a non-starter here. Private health insurance companies make money by insuring people who don’t get sick. Given its freedom, no company would insure sick people.

[2] Trump claims to want coverage for preexisting conditions, but has put forward no plan for how that would happen. BuzzFeed summarizes:

The GOP argument is that Obamacare disappearing would be so catastrophic — regulated markets would collapse, millions of low-income people would lose Medicaid, insurers could once again deny coverage to people with preexisting conditions — that Congress would have no choice but to set aside their differences and pass a replacement.

We saw something similar play out with the Budget Control Act of 2011. Supposedly, the automatic budget cuts (the “sequester”) that would set in if Congress couldn’t come to an agreement were so onerous that of course Congress would come to an agreement. We’ve been dealing with the sequester ever since.

In general, if somebody’s plan is so onerous that it can only be announced in the face of an emergency, I want no part of it.