Tag Archives: impeachment

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.

Two Paths to Impeachment

More and more, it looks like impeachment hearings are going to happen eventually. The main question is when, not whether.

The news media is presenting this as an internal struggle among Democrats, with Speaker Pelosi being against impeachment and an increasing portion of her caucus being for it. But I’m reading those tea leaves a little differently: I think Pelosi wants to get to impeachment by a less direct route — appearing less eager, but gathering evidence and building public support in hearings resembling more ordinary Congressional oversight. Her plan, if all goes well, is to arrive in the same place at more-or-less the same time.

Channeling the Speaker. I think her reasoning is correct as far as it goes: While the Democratic base is strongly in favor of impeachment, the party did not run on impeachment when it won its decisive victory in 2018. [1] Pelosi knows that her majority rests on swing districts where voters are not yet convinced that impeachment is necessary.

In Pelosi’s vision (as I channel it), the investigations currently underway in a variety of House committees will eventually produce stunning revelations from subpoenaed documents (like Trump’s tax returns) and riveting public testimony from witnesses (like Robert Mueller and Don McGahn). This will turn public opinion in favor of impeachment, and Democrats can then claim to be following the public rather than leading it somewhere it doesn’t want to go. Conversely, if the public sees the evidence and doesn’t care, a Democratic push to impeach could be a Charge of the Light Brigade — courageous, but ultimately suicidal. [2]

This week, though, Pelosi has barely managed to keep down a revolt in her ranks, from Democrats who want the Judiciary Committee to start impeachment hearings immediately. Their argument is also correct as far as it goes, and Pelosi does not really dispute it: The Mueller Report shows (but does not conclude) that Trump committed obstruction of justice on numerous occasions. [3]

Grounds. More than 900 former federal prosecutors (400 when the linked article was written) have signed a statement including the following:

Each of us believes that the conduct of President Trump described in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report would, in the case of any other person not covered by the Office of Legal Counsel policy against indicting a sitting President, result in multiple felony charges for obstruction of justice.

The seven obstructions of justice are in addition to a number of other possible offenses, such as violations of the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause and the violations of campaign finance law involved in the payoff to Stormy Daniels. [4]

Abuse of power can also be impeachable, even if the laws have not been technically broken. [5] Now that Trump is making a regular practice out of abusing the national-emergency laws to usurp Congress’ constitutional powers, and denying that Congress has any role in overseeing the Executive Branch, impeachment may be the only way for Congress to defend its status as an equal branch of government. [6]

And in spite of the President’s “no collusion” mantra, the Mueller Report did not completely settle that issue either. At least one of Trump’s obstructions may have succeeded in preventing Mueller from getting to the bottom of things: We know that Paul Manafort gave campaign data to Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska and Russian intelligence operative Konstantin Kilimnik, but we don’t know precisely what or why — possibly because Trump’s witness tampering kept Manafort from cooperating with Mueller’s investigation.

Why not now? The impeachment-now argument has two pieces:

  • Regardless of any political calculations, Congress has a constitutional duty to defend the Republic from presidential criminality. Doing nothing doesn’t just leave Trump in office until the voters (we hope) remove him in 2020; it changes the rules for all future presidents.
  • At crucial moments, Congress has a responsibility to lead the public rather than just follow it. So the Democratic House majority shouldn’t just sit tight and hope that the public catches on to the danger of leaving Trump in office. It needs to go to the public and make that case. By leaving open the possibility that it might not proceed to impeachment, the House is signalling to the American people that what Trump has done and continues to do is not that bad.

What has pushed Democrats towards revolt recently has been Trump’s brazen stonewalling of the various House investigations. More and more, he seems to be claiming an absolute supremacy for the presidency, without checks-and-balances from Congress or the courts. [7]

If his effort succeeds, Congress will not be an equal branch of government any more. Republicans who doubt this should try to imagine their own reaction if President Obama had simply denied that Benghazi was any of the Republican Congress’ concern, and refused to let any executive-branch officials testify to congressional committees.

Appeal to the courts. Trump’s resistance underlines a weakness in our constitutional system: Congress has a great deal of power on paper, but using it largely relies on the good faith of the executive branch. A bad-faith president has many ways to stymie Congress, which has no police force, army, or jail of its own.

And so the House committees have had to go to the third branch of government, the courts, in an effort to enforce their subpoenas. This is necessarily a slow process, and leaves open the possibility that Trump’s lawlessness may lead him to defy court orders the same way that he has been defying congressional subpoenas, moving us near the point of a coup. If it comes to that, the courts command no more guns than Congress does. [8]

The slowness of the legal process, and the possibility that neither Trump’s taxes nor Don McGahn’s testimony will ever become public, has caused Democrats’ frustration to boil over into impeachment talk, in spite of Pelosi.

But Pelosi’s allies raise this point: What problem does an impeachment inquiry solve? An impeachment subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee would subpoena the same documents and witnesses as the other committees have. Trump would likewise refuse to cooperate with those subpoenas, and the subcommittee would file the same lawsuits the other committees have already filed. So where’s the win?

An impeachment subcommittee would be on somewhat more solid legal ground, because it would be addressing an issue that the Constitution delegates to the House specifically. But so far, the House’s position has not lacked for legal strength.

This week, two judges rejected out of hand the Trump administration’s contention that Congress’ investigative power is tightly constrained. They did not suspend their rulings pending appeal, indicating their opinion that Trump’s arguments are baseless. Trump’s lawyers will undoubtedly appeal, but will be forced to appeal quickly before the documents are turned over, rather than using the legal process to stall.

Where the conflict goes. If you believe, as I do, that both paths ultimately go to the same place, ultimately this is all going to come down to three questions:

  • Is the Supreme Court (and its two Trump appointees) as partisan as it sometimes appears, or will it reject Trump’s baseless objections and enforce legal subpoenas?
  • If the Supreme Court rules against him, will Trump comply, or will he defy the united opinion of the legislative and judicial branches of government? This would amount to proclaiming the complete supremacy of the executive branch, and set the stage for dictatorship. [9]
  • If Trump’s disregard of constitutional government becomes that blatant, will Senate Republicans finally turn against him and vote to remove him from office?

I can only hope that by 2021 these scenarios will look hysterical. But given the once-unthinkable actions we’ve seen these last two years, they don’t seem hysterical to me now. I don’t expect events to go this way, but it seems likely enough that we need to be prepared.

If things do go that far, America will face a fourth question, one that comes up frequently in fragile democracies, but has never been raised in the 232 years since the ratification of the Constitution: If Trump would refuse to accept removal from office, what would the armed forces do? My firm belief is that they would back the law rather than the removed president. But let’s hope we never need to find out.


[1] It’s worth noting that, unlike President Trump, Speaker Pelosi represents a majority of the American people.

Democratic candidates for the House got nearly 10 million more votes in 2018 than Republican candidates, winning a 53%-45% popular vote victory. That victory was larger in both raw votes and percentage than the Republicans’ 2010 rout. However, gerrymandering held Pelosi’s majority down to 235-199, compared to the 2010 Republicans’ 242-193 margin.

[2] I often see reference to the public’s reaction against the Clinton impeachment. But Democrats’ shouldn’t read that as a rejection of impeachment in general. The public supported Clinton because they came to believe he was being impeached for what was essentially a private matter. Hillary should have been furious about Monica Lewinsky, but it really wasn’t Congress’ business.

The challenge for the Democrats is to make it clear that a Trump impeachment is about protecting democracy, not just partisan pique.

[3] I counted seven when I read the report. Many people say ten, but that’s not quite right. Mueller examined ten incidents that had some appearance of obstruction, but found all three elements of obstruction in only seven.

I don’t think that makes a significant difference. It’s not like the first seven obstructions of justice are free, but an eighth puts you over the limit.

[4] Michael Cohen has already gone to prison for this.

[5] We have this on the authority of no less an expert than Lindsey Graham.

The point I’m trying to make is you don’t even have to be convicted of a crime to lose your job in this constitutional republic. Impeachment is not about punishment. Impeachment is about cleansing the office.

[6] Defending the status of Congress was what pushed me over to the impeachment camp a week after writing that I didn’t think the Mueller Report justified it.

[7] I’ve tended to shy away from psychoanalyzing Trump, but here it seems relevant: Throughout his life, Trump has taken a sociopathic view of rules, in which they are simply obstacles to overcome on the way to getting what he wants. By contrast, a properly socialized person sees rules as defining a game we play together. We obey rules not just because we will be punished for breaking them, but because we want the game to continue. (Marriage — another institution whose rules Trump has repeatedly flouted — is a good example here. In a healthy marriage, neither spouse examines the wedding vows for loopholes. Instead, each asks what effect an action has on the relationship, rather than whether it is technically permissible.)

Trump’s attitude occasionally seemed abnormal even in the rough world of New York real estate, where he would honor only as much of a contract as the other party was willing and able to enforce in court. But no previous president — not even Nixon — has ever approached the presidency in such a way. In any conflict, Trump looks at a move and asks “Will it get me what I want?” without regard to whether he is breaking American democracy.

[8] As Stalin is supposed to have asked in regard to the moral force of the Catholic Church, “How many divisions does the Pope have?” John Roberts has the same number.

[9] If he got away with this, Trump might subsequently go along with the forms of democracy, in the same way that Caesar Augustus allowed the forms of the Roman Republic to continue. But like Augustus, he will have shown that no one can stop him from doing whatever he wants.

The Scoop That Wasn’t

For a day or so, it looked like impeachment would start happening right away. Then the Special Counsel’s Office doused the flames. Now what?


Thursday, BuzzFeed electrified the country with this claim:

President Donald Trump directed his longtime attorney Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about negotiations to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, according to two federal law enforcement officials involved in an investigation of the matter.

The accusation seemed especially strong, because it supposedly rested on much more than just Cohen’s word.

The special counsel’s office learned about Trump’s directive for Cohen to lie to Congress through interviews with multiple witnesses from the Trump Organization and internal company emails, text messages, and a cache of other documents. Cohen then acknowledged those instructions during his interviews with that office.

For most of Friday, the media buzzed with the implications. The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent compared this moment to the appearance of the tapes that brought down Richard Nixon.

if BuzzFeed’s stunning new report is true, we could be looking at a real inflection point in this whole story

Others referred to the report as a “game-changer”, the first easily-grasped-by-the-public evidence that Trump had committed a significant crime. Former Watergate prosecutor Jill Wine-Banks told Lawrence O’Donnell:

This is exactly the Watergate model. … This should be enough. … Even the Republican Senate is going to have to say, “We’ve been had.”

And then Friday night the Special Counsel’s office, which hardly ever comments on any news report, released this statement:

BuzzFeed’s description of specific statements to the Special Counsel’s Office, and characterization of documents and testimony obtained by this office, regarding Michael Cohen’s Congressional testimony are not accurate

That’s not the money quote from a longer statement; that’s the whole thing. But what does it mean? It asserts the existence of inaccuracies, but doesn’t say what they are. And it doesn’t even hint at what the actual truth might be. As best I can tell, it does two things:

  • It monkey-wrenches the drive to a quick impeachment.
  • It keeps us all in suspense about what Bob Mueller’s office will eventually report.

Reading the tea leaves. For its part, BuzzFeed rechecked its sources and didn’t back down. Editor Ben Smith responded:

We stand by our reporting and the sources who informed it, and we urge the Special Counsel to make clear what he’s disputing,

That’s the big question: Is the whole story “inaccurate”, or just some small detail? And what was it about this story that made Mueller’s office decide it needed to comment?

On Rachel Maddow’s show Friday night, several good insights pointed in opposite directions. Rachel herself related the would-be scoop to an earlier puzzle: Why was Michael Cohen charged with lying to Congress to begin with? He had already pleaded guilty to multiple felonies, and the Special Counsel didn’t ask for any additional jail time for Cohen. So why was that worth everybody’s time?

The Buzzfeed story, Maddow observed, offered an answer to that question: The charge against Cohen sets up a later charge against someone else, presumably Trump. If you’re going to accuse Trump of suborning perjury, it helps if you’ve already established that there was a perjury.

She then talked to Michael Isikoff, one of the top reporters on this beat. Isikoff said the original BuzzFeed article was full of “red flags” that should have made us all cautious. It contained no details about when or how Trump gave Cohen his instructions. What texts and emails could the article have been referring to, when Trump himself doesn’t write texts or emails? Cohen’s guilty plea had offered him a perfect opportunity to implicate Trump, and he didn’t.

Former U.S. Attorney Chuck Rosenberg, who has worked with Mueller, tried to read the tea leaves of the Special Counsel statement, and came up with a very narrow interpretation:

The Mueller team is pushing back on aspects of the Buzzfeed story. But I think in the main, what you can glean from their December 7 sentencing [of Michael Cohen] memorandum is that the core of the Buzzfeed story is accurate.

But the Washington Post’s anonymous sources come to the opposite conclusion.

People familiar with the matter said the special counsel’s office meant the statement to be a denial of the central theses of the BuzzFeed story — particularly those that referenced what Cohen had told the special counsel, and what evidence the special counsel had gathered.

The New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow offers an in-between perspective. First, BuzzFeed took a bigger chance on its reporting than he was willing to take.

I can’t speak to Buzzfeed’s sourcing, but, for what it’s worth, I declined to run with parts of the narrative they conveyed based on a source central to the story repeatedly disputing the idea that Trump directly issued orders of that kind.

But Farrow mostly agrees with the story.

Note that the general thrust of Cohen lying to Congress “in accordance with” or “to support and advance” Trump’s agenda (per Cohen’s legal memo) is not in dispute. The source disputed the further, more specific idea that Trump issued—and memorialized—repeated direct instructions.

This is consistent with numerous reports that The Trump Organization works like a Mafia family: The Boss indicates what he wants to happen without leaving specific instructions that can be quoted in court. (Not “Kill that guy”, but “Take care of the situation” or “I think you know what to do”.) Cohen may well have known what Trump wanted done without being able to point to any specific instructions. There might well be “supporting documents”, but of an indirect sort (i.e., Trump Organization people trying to coordinate their stories) rather than written directives from Trump himself.

One of the more interesting speculations is that the conflicting sources are in rival offices: the SCO on the one hand and the Southern District of New York US Attorney on the other.

Impeachment. To me, this whole incident underlines a point that Yoni Appelbaum makes in the current issue of The Atlantic, in an article written before the BuzzFeed article: America needs a formal, dignified, judicious impeachment process, rather than what’s happening now.

The investigation of Trump’s possible crimes, and the corresponding destructive effects on our democracy, should be happening in public view, not behind closed doors at the Special Counsel’s Office, or through anonymous sources in the press.

For decades, we have been talking about the expanding power of the Imperial Presidency, and what should be done about it, if anything. But just as important is the Shrinking Congress.

The fight over whether Trump should be removed from office is already raging, and distorting everything it touches. Activists are radicalizing in opposition to a president they regard as dangerous. Within the government, unelected bureaucrats who believe the president is acting unlawfully are disregarding his orders, or working to subvert his agenda. By denying the debate its proper outlet, Congress has succeeded only in intensifying its pressures. And by declining to tackle the question head-on, it has deprived itself of its primary means of reining in the chief executive.

Is the continuance of the Trump administration dangerous to democracy? That question needs an open debate, with the relevant information made public and the relevant witnesses questioned where everyone can hear them. We shouldn’t be waiting for Bob Mueller to save us, and in the meantime debating over whose anonymous sources really know what they’re talking about.