Tag Archives: impeachment

If Obama …

A series of thought experiments Democrats have been running for the last three years is the “What if Obama did this?” genre. It most recently showed up Wednesday, when House Manager Adam Schiff created a fantasy about Obama’s race against Mitt Romney in 2012. (Romney, of course, is now a senator and was sitting in the room.)

[Schiff] suggested the hypothetical example of Obama telling [the Russian president at the time Dmitry] Medvedev, “I know you don’t want me to send this money to Ukraine cause they’re fighting and killing your people. I want you to do me a favor though,” Schiff said, echoing wording in Trump’s July call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in which he allegedly asked him to investigate the Bidens.

“I want you to do an investigation of Mitt Romney and I want you to announce you found dirt on Mitt Romney,” Schiff continued with his hypothetical. “And if you’re willing to do that quid pro quo, I won’t give Ukraine the money to fight you on the front line. “

Schiff then asked senators if there is any question Obama would have been impeached for that kind of conduct.

“That’s the parallel here,” he said.

At times I wonder about the usefulness of if-Obama thought experiments, because they’re based on the assumption that the same moral rules ought to apply to everyone. In recent years, though, more and more Republicans have adopted a purely tribal point of view which rejects any reciprocity between Our Side and Their Side. Of course it would be wrong if Obama had done the same thing that is right when Trump does it, because by definition Obama is wrong and Trump is right. [1] Republicans seem to be losing the capacity to feel shame about this kind of hypocrisy. [2]

Even recognizing that, though, I can’t resist one more if-Obama thought experiment, because I don’t think Schiff’s fantasy goes quite far enough. Instead of 2012, let’s think about 2016, and suppose that Obama believed — as he undoubtedly did believe — that Trump’s election would be a disaster for the country.

Let’s take one further step and imagine that Obama understood what Vladimir Putin was capable of. Already in July of 2015, Trump is telling Russian agent Maria Butina that he would revoke the sanctions Obama had placed on Russia after its invasion of Crimea. [3] So Putin has good reasons to want Trump elected. But what if Obama goes to Putin and puts in a higher bid for his support?

Maybe he says something like: “During the transition period after the election but before the new president takes office, I’ll be in a position to help you out in Ukraine — at least if the election turns out the way I hope it does. We’ll forget about sanctions, and if you want to take over the rest of Ukraine, that would be OK too; we wouldn’t do anything. Of course, we’d expect something in return. But anyway, I just wanted you to know that you should be rooting for Clinton, the same way I am.”

Obama doesn’t want to be guilty of a criminal conspiracy, so he doesn’t spell out what he wants, other than for Putin to “root”. But let’s say Obama’s personal lawyer — just to make it specific, let’s choose Greg Craig, a Democrat who was indicted in a Mueller-related case, but found not guilty — talks to some of Putin’s people and lets them know that Putin should do for Clinton all the stuff he had been planning to do for Trump. Again, nothing specific — just do it.

So Putin does: His people hack Republican computers and Trump campaign computers, then pick out the most embarrassing stuff and release it (drip, drip, drip) via WikiLeaks. They use their social media resources to push hundreds of anti-Trump fake news stories to exactly the kinds of wavering voters Trump needs. And all that stuff doesn’t happen to Clinton.

When Clinton wins, Obama does exactly what he said he would. He cancels the Russia sanctions, and stands by idly while Putin carves up the rest of Ukraine.

On the one hand, this is all reprehensible: My fantasy of Evil Obama has torpedoed an ally, put the rest of eastern Europe at risk of Russian expansion, and invited foreign interference in a US election. But by the standards put forward by Trump’s current defenders Obama has done nothing wrong.

  • He never specified what Putin should do, so there was no deal. He hinted and Putin understood what he meant, possibly due to more roundabout channels of communication, but that doesn’t matter. As Jim Jordan said about Trump’s Zelensky phonecall: “Tell me where the quid pro quo was.” If it’s not spelled out, it doesn’t count.
  • Laws were broken — anti-hacking laws, campaign finance laws, etc. — but because Putin broke them without Obama’s direct instructions, that’s crime doesn’t count against Obama. There may have been all kinds of collusion between Obama’s people and Putin’s people, but (as the Mueller Report says) “Although the investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts, the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” If there’s not enough evidence to establish a criminal conspiracy, there’s no problem.
  • Whether or not to defend Ukraine is a policy decision that is within the president’s power. He can’t be officially called to account for exercising his legitimate prerogatives, no matter how destructive to the national interest those decisions turn out to be. “Maladministration,” Alan Dershowitz tells us, “is not a ground for impeachment.”
  • But what about his corrupt intent in making this deal-that-wasn’t-a-deal? His party may have gotten political advantage from it, and national security may have suffered, but that doesn’t make it corrupt because Obama honestly believed Clinton’s election was in the public interest. Serving his party’s partisan interest above the national interest is not an abuse of power, because in the President’s mind, his party’s partisan interest is the national interest. As Dershowitz put it: “If a president does something which he believes will help him get elected in the public interest, that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment.” It would be even less of a problem if he thought somebody else’s election was in the public interest.

So: trading Ukraine to the Russians to get Hillary Clinton into the White House — you may not like it, but it’s just one of those things. “Get over it,” Mick Mulvaney would say.


[1] This shows up most clearly in the Republicans whose beliefs about impeachment have made a 180-reversal since Bill Clinton’s impeachment in 1998 and his trial in 1999. Lindsey Graham is the most obvious example; he proposed a very expansive definition of “high crimes and misdemeanors” for Clinton then but a very restricted one for Trump now. Mitch McConnell looks just as bad. In 1998 he asked the question: “Will we pursue the search for truth, or will we dodge, weave, and evade?” This time around, he’s on the side of dodge, weave, and evade.

Lawyers who testified for the Republicans have also reversed themselves since Clinton. Then, Alan Dershowitz said “you don’t need a technical crime” to impeach Clinton. But as he watched these last two decades from his seat in the Afterlife, James Madison must have changed his mind. Because for Trump “the Framers intended that the criteria be, high crimes and misdemeanors — that is, existing criminal statutes.”

Jonathan Turley likewise didn’t think Republicans needed to prove that Clinton violated any specific law. “While there’s a high bar for what constitutes grounds for impeachment, an offense does not have to be indictable. Serious misconduct or a violation of public trust is enough.” But it’s not enough now that Democrats have impeached a Republican. “This would be the first impeachment in history where there would be considerable debate, and in my view, not compelling evidence, of the commission of a crime.”

Given this context, I’m not surprised that Republican senators don’t worry about the precedent they’re setting for a future Democratic administration. The precedent is that the rules are looser for Republicans than for Democrats. I expect them to uphold that precedent in any future impeachment.

In case you’re wondering, I laid out my criteria for impeachment before I knew what Robert Mueller would report, and long before the Ukraine scandal erupted. The current articles of impeachment fit them perfectly:

(1) Loyalty to self has eclipsed loyalty to the country. … (2) The president’s actions threaten the integrity of the election process. … (3) The president’s actions prevent investigations of (1) or (2).

[2] I wonder how much this tribal perspective is related to the increasing identification between the GOP and evangelical Christianity. Evangelicals see no similarity between their own sins (which God forgives) and other people’s sins (for which they will burn in Hell). So Trump is forgiven and Clinton is not — end of story.

[3] The 2015 video of Trump responding to Butina is worth watching for another reason: It demonstrates how much mental deterioration Trump has suffered in the last five years. In this video, he is asked a question and he answers it. He stays on topic for two whole minutes and speaks coherently the whole time. How long has it been since you’ve seen him do that?

Articles of Impeachment: Broad or Narrow?

Should Democrats throw the kitchen sink at Trump, or keep the impeachment case short and simple?


Thursday, Speaker Pelosi announced that the House would go ahead with drafting articles of impeachment. The main debate at this point is how broad or narrow those articles should be.

Obviously, there will be an article about the Ukraine scheme, and almost certainly an article about Trump’s efforts to obstruct Congress’ investigation of the Ukraine scheme. The most obvious additional article could be built around the obstruction-of-justice evidence in the Mueller Report.

Beyond that, Democrats could throw the kitchen sink at him. NYT columnist David Leonhardt consulted legal experts and came up with eight articles of impeachment:

  1. Obstruction of justice. This count would include the obstructions laid out in Part II of the Mueller Report, as well as hiding evidence by improperly classifying the call notes on the Ukraine call.
  2. Contempt of Congress. This refers to Trump’s blanket refusal to cooperate with Congressional oversight.
  3. Abuse of power. This is where the bulk of the Ukraine scheme fits.
  4. Impairing the administration of justice. Attempting to use the power of the executive branch to hound his political opponents.
  5. Acceptance of emoluments. “Trump continues to own his hotels, allowing politicians, lobbyists and foreigners to enrich him and curry favor with him by staying there.”
  6. Corruption of elections. Michael Cohen is already in jail for campaign finance violations related to the Stormy Daniels payoff. He claimed to have been carrying out Trump’s orders.
  7. Abuse of pardons. “He has encouraged people to break the law (or impede investigations) with a promise of future pardons.” The Mueller Report discusses how hints at a pardon may have encouraged Paul Manafort not to cooperate (which is a big reason Mueller never got to the bottom of the Trump/Russia connection). But he also has told border enforcement officials not to worry about breaking the law.
  8. Conduct grossly incompatible with the Presidency. “He lies constantly, eroding the credibility of the office. He tries to undermine any independent information that he does not like, which weakens our system of checks and balances. He once went so far as to say that federal law-enforcement agents and prosecutors regularly fabricated evidence — a claim that damages the credibility of every criminal investigation.”

I have no trouble believing that Republicans would have impeached Obama if they could have mustered a charge as strong as any of those eight. Who can forget Rep. Blake Farenthold discussing the possibility of impeaching Obama over the totally phony birth-certificate issue? Or Rep. Kerry Bentivolio telling his constituents that it would be “a dream come true” to impeach Obama, but that unfortunately “you’ve got to have the evidence”. Rep. Mark Gaetz of Florida is still  talking about impeaching Obama, nearly three years after his term ended.

The danger in the broad approach is that the short-and-simple story of the Ukraine extortion scheme — something that is easy to grasp, clearly proven, and obviously wrong — can get lost. It gives credence to Trump’s talking point that Democrats have just been looking for anything they can possibly find to hang an impeachment on. “Conduct grossly incompatible” happens every day, but does it really call for impeachment?

On the other hand, if Trump is impeached just for Ukraine, does that send the message to future presidents that all the other stuff is OK? Does it tell 2020 voters that the other examples of corruption aren’t really serious?

Meanwhile, Lawrence Tribe argues that broad/narrow is a false choice:

The impeachment and removal of this president is necessary because Trump has been revealed as a serial abuser of power, whose pattern of behavior — and “pattern” is the key word, as Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (D-Pa.) and House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) emphasized during Wednesday’s hearing — makes clear he will repeat the same sequence again and again.

And Josh Marshall says something similar:

You can’t take any of the Ukraine stuff in isolation. Trump wasn’t a more or less normal President and then suddenly he did something totally bonkers. Both in soliciting foreign assistance in his election campaigns and obstructing the administration of justice, Trump has done all of this before. This is not only critical to establishing a pattern of conduct, which speaks to the question of guilt. It also provides powerful evidence that this is what he does and that he will unquestionably do it again.

This relates to the conclusion I came to in “What is Impeachment For?“, an article I wrote in June 2018 for the purpose of setting my impeachment standards before I knew what conclusions the Mueller investigation would reach. Impeachment shouldn’t be about punishing past wrong-doing; it should be about heading off a continuing threat to the Republic. If Trump’s abuse of power is over and done with, let the voters (and future prosecutors) deal with it. But if it’s ongoing, Congress should take that power away from him as soon as possible.

This argument points to a short list of articles, each of which includes multiple examples that establish a pattern of misbehavior. “Do us a favor, though” is an example of seeking foreign interference in our elections, but it’s also part of a pattern of seeking foreign interference that goes back to “Russia, if you’re listening” in 2016.

Then we run into the question of whether the less egregious articles of impeachment could pass the House, and what it would mean if they didn’t. On the one hand, debating a long list of articles, but passing only two or three, might show the public that Democrats are taking their constitutional responsibilities seriously. (Republicans wrote four articles of impeachment against Clinton, but passed only two.) Democrats representing purple districts could tell their constituents, “I voted for some articles and against others”, and sound like moderates rather than Trump-haters. But is it a good look if the Democrats are split on some counts, or should they try to stay united throughout the process?

Finally there’s this: A subpoena for the Senate impeachment trial would be hard to ignore, so that’s probably the quickest way to get testimony from people like Don McGahn. If there are key witnesses we’re not likely to hear from any other way, it might be worth including a related article of impeachment just to get them on the stand.

Personally, I’d go for three articles: Ukraine, obstruction of Congress’ Ukraine investigation, and obstruction of the Mueller investigation. Wavering Democrats could vote against the Mueller article, if they think they must, to give themselves cover back home.

An Impeachment Hearing Wrap-Up

Unless Democrats are able to break through the Trump blockade on key witnesses, the Ukraine part of the impeachment hearings ended this week. The Intelligence Committee is preparing its report for the Judiciary Committee, which is responsible for writing articles of impeachment.

Judiciary will almost certainly offer an impeachment resolution with an article on Ukraine. Whether that resolution will be narrowly focused or include additional articles like obstruction of justice (based on Part II of the Mueller Report) or obstruction of Congress (based on the administration’s withholding of evidence and refusal to let officials testify) is still up in the air.

As many people have noted, this investigation has reversed the usual detective story: We knew whodunnit from the beginning. As soon as the White House released the call notes from President Trump’s July 25th phone conversation with Ukrainian President Zelensky, it was obvious that Trump had used the threat of withholding American military aid to pressure Zelensky to announce investigations of “Crowdstrike” (the wacky conspiracy theory that Ukraine and the Democrats framed Russia for interfering in the 2016 election on Trump’s behalf) and “Biden’s son” .

The testimony we’ve heard the last two weeks has mainly done three things:

  • Educated the public on how important US military aid and the public appearance of US support was to Ukraine, which is fighting a war with Russia. Trump really did have Zelensky over a barrel.
  • Detailed just how wide and deep the effort to pressure Ukraine was, and how extremely it differed from the US policy towards Ukraine supported by a large bipartisan majority in Congress. Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani had no official government position, but for months ran a “shadow foreign policy” directly at odds with official US policy. (Fiona Hill put it like this: “[Gordon Sondland] was being involved in a domestic political errand. And we were being involved in national security foreign policy. And those two things had just diverged.”) Official policy wholeheartedly supported Ukraine in its war with Russia; the shadow policy threatened that support in order to create pressure on Ukraine to help Trump’s re-election campaign.
  • Shot down the wide range of unlikely claims by which Trump defenders urged us to ignore what we could see with our own eyes in the call notes. Trump may have spoken in a Mafia-don manner that only hinted at what he wanted, but the Ukrainians and the US personnel involved in the process understood the corrupt bargain Trump was offering. Ambassador Gordon Sondland’s testimony was the most explicit: “Members of this Committee have frequently framed these complicated issues in the form of a simple question: Was there a quid pro quo? As I testified previously, with regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes. … Everyone was in the loop. It was no secret.”

The fourth key point is what the hearings have not done: challenged the basic narrative of Trump shaking down Zelensky. Republicans weren’t allowed to turn the hearings into a circus by calling witnesses against the Bidens or Crowdstrike, but none of the witnesses they were denied had anything to offer relevant to the shakedown narrative. Similarly, Republican questioning of the witnesses offered distractions from the narrative and denigrated either the witnesses themselves or their knowledge, but offered no exculpatory facts.


It’s really kind of amazing just how crazy the “Crowdstrike” conspiracy theory is.

Most conspiracy theories are built on some real coincidence that the theory baselessly casts in a sinister light, but the most basic element of the Crowdstrike theory is just false: Crowdstrike is a California company that has no Ukrainian connection at all. The “suspicious” founder (Dmitri Alperovitch) is an American citizen who was born in Russia, not Ukraine, and has lived in the US since he was a teen-ager. The other founders are George Kurtz (born in New Jersey) and Gregg Marston (whose biography I haven’t been able to google up, but who is never mentioned as an immigrant in articles about the company’s founding).

In his recent Fox & Friends phone call, Trump referred to Crowdstrike as “a company owned by a very wealthy Ukrainian.” Wikipedia lists Crowdstrike’s major non-founder investors: Google, Telstra, March Capital Partners, Rackspace, Accel Partners, and Warburg Pincus. So Trump’s claim appears to be a pure invention. When challenged by F&F co-host Steve Doocy whether he was “sure” that the mythical DNC email server was in Ukraine, Trump said only “That’s what the word is.”


The weakness of the hearings has been the lack of star witnesses that the public already knows. Unlike the Clinton and Nixon impeachment hearings, Trump has successfully blocked his top officials from testifying. Republicans involved in the hearings have repeatedly denigrated witness testimony as “hearsay”, while supporting Trump in blocking the testimony of witnesses who had more direct contact with the President.

The public deserves to hear from administration officials like acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, former National Security Adviser John Bolton, and Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, just to name a few. But they have defied subpoenas under Trump’s instructions.

TPM floats an interesting theory about why Democrats are not pushing the courts to enforce these subpoenas. Everyone agrees that if the cases go to the Supreme Court, they might not be resolved until the Court’s term ends in June, when the 2020 conventions will be looming. But an impeachment trial in the Senate might offer a quicker path to the desired testimony.

Under the Senate’s impeachment rules, the House managers will be able to issue subpoenas whose validity will be adjudicated directly by Chief Justice Roberts, who will preside over the trial. Roberts is the swing vote on the Supreme Court anyway, so going straight to a Senate trial will force him to decide in January rather than June.

There are two major objections to this plan, but both seem answerable. First, by majority vote, the Senate could overrule Roberts’ decisions to issue subpoenas. But that would be a very public vote to suppress evidence, and only a few Republican senators would need to defect to uphold Roberts’ decision. Second, Democrats will have no chance to interview the witnesses before they testify. That may produce some false starts and dead ends, but it will also increase the drama of the televised hearings: No one knows what these witnesses will say.

Yesterday, Adam Schiff was asked about this theory by NBC’s Chuck Todd:

I do think that when it comes to documents and witnesses, that if it comes to a trial, and again we’re getting far down the road here, that the Chief Justice will have to make a decision on requests for witnesses and documents.


Gordon Sondland corroborated David Holmes’ account of a phone call Sondland had with Trump while Sondland and Holmes were in a restaurant in Kyiv, but Trump told Fox & Friends “I guarantee you that never took place.” Holmes and Sondland were under oath. Maybe Trump should go under oath before he contradicts them.

Another tantalizing Sondland revelation: Zelensky “had to announce the investigations. He didn’t actually have to do them, as I understood it.”

This blows up the already far-fetched idea that Trump had a legitimate concern for corruption in Ukraine. (Holmes reports Sondland agreeing with the statement that Trump “doesn’t give a shit about Ukraine“. I know no example anywhere of Trump opposing corruption, unless it involved his political opponents.) Trump wanted Ukrainian investigations as a touchstone for lock-him-up chants against Biden, and was not counting on them finding any actual malfeasance.


According to 538’s polling analysis, support for impeachment has been slowly eroding during the hearings. A small plurality 46%-45% currently supports impeachment. Polls that specify removing the president from office are a virtual tie.


At least the hearings changed one person’s mind: Bret Stephens, the conservative columnist of the NYT, who now thinks Trump should be removed from office even though “This isn’t what I thought two months ago, when the impeachment inquiry began.”

What persuaded him isn’t what Trump did to Ukraine, but to politics in the United States.

we’ve been living in a country undergoing its own dismal process of Ukrainianization: of treating fictions as facts; and propaganda as journalism; and political opponents as criminals; and political offices as business ventures; and personal relatives as diplomatic representatives; and legal fixers as shadow cabinet members; and extortion as foreign policy; and toadyism as patriotism; and fellow citizens as “human scum”; and mortal enemies as long-lost friends — and then acting as if all this is perfectly normal. This is more than a high crime. It’s a clear and present danger to our security, institutions, and moral hygiene.


If people aren’t changing their minds about Trump during these hearings, I hope they are changing their minds about Republicans in general. Because it’s been really clear that the Republicans in the room are acting in bad faith. All the patriotism in the room is coming from the witnesses, because the Republicans, one and all, have chosen Trump over America. Again and again, they make ridiculous arguments that they can’t possibly believe themselves.

While complaining about the lack of witnesses who spoke to Trump directly, not one of them has asked Trump to let more witnesses testify. Thursday, Fiona Hill called them out for repeating talking points that originate in the Russian security services, and have been refuted by all American intelligence agencies.

Based on questions and statements I have heard, some of you on this committee appear to believe that Russia and its security services did not conduct a campaign against our country — and that perhaps, somehow, for some reason, Ukraine did. This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetuated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves. … Right now, Russia’s security services and their proxies have geared up to repeat their interference in the 2020 election. We are running out of time to stop them. In the course of this investigation, I would ask that you please not promote politically driven falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interests.

They didn’t care. Devin Nunes in particular just kept repeating those same Russian talking points. So did Trump himself: “Don’t forget. Ukraine hated me. They were after me in the election.” (That was part of a long interview that included “at least 18 false statements“.) And here’s Senator Kennedy of Louisiana yesterday on Fox News Sunday:

CHRIS WALLACE: Senator Kennedy, who do you believe was responsible for hacking the DNC & Clinton campaign? Russia or Ukraine?

KENNEDY: I don’t know. Nor do you.

W: The entire intel community says it was Russia.

K: Right. But it could be Ukraine. Fiona Hill is entitled to her opinion

 

The goal of the Republican leadership is to make impeachment a party-line vote, with no Republicans crossing over. But I wonder if that might not rebound against them in 2020. That willingness to ignore all the evidence will underline that there are no “reasonable” Republicans. Whatever the candidate in your district might sound like, when push comes to shove, all Republicans are Trump.

Why Can’t I Watch This?

I’ve been waiting for Congress to start the process of impeaching Trump. So why is it so hard to watch?


Fundamentally, the whole point of the Weekly Sift is that I dive deeply into the news so that people with busier lives don’t have to. So I read things like the Mueller Report or Supreme Court’s marriage-equality decisions or the transcripts of presidential debates. I check out neo-Nazi websites to see what they’re up to. I review polls, and examine enough of them to warn everybody not to get too excited about some surprising result that no other pollster can replicate. I keep track of books about the death patterns of democracies or the structure of the American news media.

And then once a week I report back. That schedule is a small revolt against the 24-hour news cycle. If an active shooter is still at large somewhere, you should probably get your updates somewhere else. But an awful lot of the news makes more sense if you take it in week-long chunks rather than five-minute blips. And it often turns out that something seems terribly important for an hour or two, but is not really worth your time at all.

So the impeachment hearings should be right up my alley. I’ve been keeping track of the story ever since the whistleblower report came out, so I know the characters, the basic outline of events, the range of arguments available to both sides, and a bunch of the legal and procedural nuances. The length of the hearings (ten hours Wednesday and eight Friday) makes it unreasonable for most of my readers to watch, so I should watch it for them.

More than that, it’s history. In the two-centuries-and-counting history of the United States, this is only the fourth serious attempt to impeach a president. And rather than some tawdry sex story like the last impeachment, this one is about war and intrigue and world leaders trying to bully each other. It’s about the rule of law, the separation of powers, and whether or not we’ll have a fair election in 2020 (or ever again). This impeachment matters in a way that the Clinton impeachment never really did.

So why can’t I watch this?

I try. I tune in for opening statements and maybe a little of the questioning by counsel. Maybe later in the day I try again and watch five or ten minutes. And then maybe again once more. But I’m making myself do it. I want to turn it off.

To be more specific, I can’t watch these Republicans. This is a problem I have never had before. I disagreed with President Reagan and his followers, but I could watch them. I was pretty sure George W. Bush’s people were lying to me a lot of the time, but I mostly understood where they were coming from, and why they thought they were the good guys. Some of them, I’m pretty sure, were trying to do the best they could with a bad situation (though some weren’t). There was something human in there, something I could empathize with.

I’m not seeing that now.

It seems perfectly clear at this point that Trump did what he is accused of: He withheld aid that Congress had appropriated for Ukraine, for the purpose of pressuring President Zelensky to launch a pretty clearly bogus investigation into Joe Biden, which would do nothing at all to help either Ukraine or the United States, but would work to Trump’s personal political benefit. Withholding the aid would have sabotaged Ukraine in its war against Russia, and even hinting at withholding the aid has harmed Ukraine’s negotiating position with Russia. So Trump has done public harm in an attempt to get private benefit.

It almost worked. Zelensky was within days of announcing the investigations in a CNN interview, but the whistleblower report and Congress’ resulting curiosity about what was going on caused Trump to release the aid, after which Zelensky cancelled the interview.

That’s bad enough, but it looks like there’s even shadier stuff going on in the background. With the President’s blessing, Rudy Giuliani has been running some scam of his own in Ukraine, one we don’t even begin to understand yet. But even without that, we’re looking at a corrupt style of governing, the kind that’s typical in kleptocratic regimes. If all this is OK, then the president should be able to skim personal favors off of all of our foreign aid.

Sad as all that is for America, so far it’s just the story of a simple mistake: The Electoral College elevated a scam artist to the presidency (against the will of the voters, I should point out) and he’s scamming us. It’s an unfortunate state of affairs, but by itself it doesn’t implicate our society or our system of government. In fact, the Founders anticipated stuff like this would happen from time to time. (That’s the nation-sized version of “Momma told me there would be days like this.”) That’s why they built impeachment into the Constitution.

But then the Republicans involved in the current impeachment hearings start to talk, and it’s crystal clear that they have no interest at all in finding out whether Trump has committed crimes, or how bad they are. They just want to make sure that he gets away with them.

That’s what I can’t stand listening to.

I’m old enough to remember the Nixon impeachment, and it wasn’t like this. The iconic Watergate question “What did the President know and when did he know it?” was asked by a Republican, Senator Howard Baker. He wanted to know. By and large, Republicans in Congress wanted to believe the best about Nixon and tried to frame the evidence against him in the best possible light. But they were not accomplices. If the President was guilty, they wanted to know.

These Republicans don’t want to know.

Once you acknowledge the facts of the case, there’s still a debate to be had about how bad this is, and whether it justifies removal from office. There is room to acknowledge that the president did something wrong, something that should never be repeated, without supporting removal. This is the position nearly all Democrats came to in the Clinton impeachment. (The liberal group Move On originated in an online petition saying: “Congress must Immediately Censure President Clinton and Move On to pressing issues facing the country.”) No one argued then that presidents have an absolute right to blow jobs from interns, or that DNA testing is not really a science, or that presidential ejaculations are covered by executive privilege. No one did a Lindsey Graham and just refused to pay attention. (“I’ve written the whole process off. I think this is a bunch of BS.”)

There is a thoughtful way to receive bad news about the leader of your party, and to consider what should be done about it. These Republicans are not doing that.

Instead, they’re ginning up fake controversies to keep their base outraged. They’re asking to call witnesses like Hunter Biden, who has no knowledge of Trump’s Ukraine extortion scheme, and no connection to it at all other than as an intended victim. (The point here is purely to claim some kind of our-scandal/your-scandal equivalence. It’s as if Democrats called Newt Gingrich as a witness in the Clinton impeachment, so that he could be questioned about his own infidelities.) They threaten to violate the laws protecting whistleblowers, and paint Democrats as Stalinists for not allowing them to do so.

In lockstep, these Republicans accept and promote the circular logic of the Trump defense: Testimony from people who didn’t deal with the President directly can’t be taken seriously, but anyone who did deal with the President directly can’t testify. Whether to remove the President for his crimes should be left to the voters, but the voters should not be allowed to learn what those crimes are. Any witnesses who testify against the President (or simply testify to facts the President finds inconvenient) must be opposed to him politically, and so their testimony can be written off as biased.

These Republicans charge that the impeachment process is a sham, but it is they who are making it a sham. By showing no interest in the facts of the case, they are sending a blunt message to the American people: “Nothing the President did matters. We have power and we’re keeping it.”

That’s what I find so hard to watch. I had thought I had prepared myself for this. I had thought I had lost all my illusions about the state of American democracy. But to see so immediately just how far one of America’s two great political parties has fallen, to bear witness to this degradation for hours at a time … it’s sad beyond my ability to process.

So this week, I have failed to adequately sift the news for you. I’ll try again next week, but I don’t know what I can promise.

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.

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.

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.