What Republicans Would Have You Believe About Impeachment
The impeachment inquiry currently in progress in Washington is about learning the full truth of what went on between President Trump and Ukraine, but it’s also a contest between two narratives. The Democrats want to convince the public that what the president did warrants his removal from office, and the Republicans want to convince the public that what he did was perfectly fine and therefore impeachment is inappropriate and unnecessary.
The case the Democrats make is fairly straightforward: Trump pressured Ukraine to mount an investigation of his potential 2020 opponent Joe Biden, using military aid and the prospect of an Oval Office meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as inducements. Their task is made significantly easier by the fact that nearly every piece of information that has emerged suggests that this is exactly what happened.
Republicans, on the other hand, face a more daunting challenge. In fact, their case for Trump’s innocence relies on a series of utterly preposterous ideas, ideas incapable of withstanding even a moment of examination. But try they must.
Donald Trump is deeply concerned about corruption. When asked why Trump was so eager for Ukraine to mount an investigation of Joe and Hunter Biden (and do so in the most public way possible), Republicans have had to insist that it had nothing to do with the possibility that Trump might face Biden in the 2020 election. It just happened to focus in on Biden, but in truth it was simply Trump’s heartfelt belief that the children of influential politicians should not get jobs they aren’t qualified for, and that any system that would allow such a thing has a fundamental corruption problem that must be addressed. “The president has a deep-rooted concern about corruption,” said Representative Mark Meadows, a close Trump ally, apparently without giggling. “I don’t care about Biden’s campaign, but I do care about corruption,” Trump himself said. In the same way that El Chapo Guzman cared about drug trafficking, and O.J. Simpson cared about domestic violence.
It’s perfectly fine for the president’s lawyer to be making foreign policy. While there has yet to be a full accounting of Rudy Giuliani’s activities with regard to Ukraine, it is clear that he was running what amounted to a shadow foreign policy meant to pressure Ukraine on the matter of the Bidens. Whenever the subject of Ukraine came up, the president’s response was that whoever he was talking to should deal not with the American officials actually tasked with overseeing Ukraine policy, but with Giuliani. “He just kept saying: Talk to Rudy, talk to Rudy,” testified Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland; the transcript of the call between Trump and Zelensky shows the president telling Zelensky to talk to Rudy as well.
To Republicans, this is not a problem at all. If the president runs some portion of his foreign policy through a private citizen who is subject to none of the requirements that impose accountability on the government—and incidentally, may be running his own side scams with his goons—that’s the president’s right.
The career professionals who were disturbed by this scandal are all part of an anti-Trump cabal. People like William Taylor, George Kent, Alexander Vindman, and Marie Yovanovitch may appear to have devoted a lifetime to service in the military, the foreign service, or other parts of the federal government. They may have served under both Democratic and Republican presidents. But the fact that they became alarmed at how policy toward Ukraine was being made shows that they are in fact deep state operatives committed not to the interests of the United States but to the destruction of Donald Trump. As Representative Steve Scalise told Fox News on Sunday, “Those were Schiff’s witnesses,” meaning they’re obviously out to get Trump and therefore need not be believed.
If an attempt at bribery or extortion is discovered before it comes to fruition, no harm no foul. Republicans have put a great deal of stock into the fact that the military aid Trump held up while he was pressuring Ukraine was eventually delivered without the promised investigation of the Bidens. That aid, however, was finally released on September 11 of this year, just after the whistleblower lodged his complaint and two days after congressional Democrats announced an investigation into whether Trump and Giuliani had inappropriately pressured Ukraine to help his re-election campaign. In other words, Trump released the aid once he got caught.
The attempt to claim that Trump’s attempt to extort Ukraine isn’t a problem because it was exposed before it could be completed has been termed the “Sideshow Bob defense” in honor of the Simpsons character who complained of his conviction for attempted murder by saying, “Attempted murder? Now honestly, what is that? Do they give a Nobel Prize for attempted chemistry? Do they?”
Congress barely has any right to investigate the president, let alone to impeach him. “It would be unconstitutional to impeach the president on these grounds,” said alleged law professor Alan Dershowitz on Fox Business recently, reflecting the essential view of the entire Republican Party. Though the Constitution makes clear that the House can impeach the president for pretty much any reason it wants, the GOP’s position is that impeachment would be illegitimate, therefore the inquiry itself is illegitimate, and therefore the administration and anyone else need not comply with subpoenas or cooperate with it in any way. “Given that your inquiry lacks any legitimate constitutional foundation, any pretense of fairness, or even the most elementary due process protections, the Executive Branch cannot be expected to participate in it,” the White House wrote to Congress, leaving to itself the right to decide the scope of Congress’s power. So not only is the White House refusing to respond, but people like Rudy Giuliani have simply thrown their subpoenas in the trash.
There are other subsidiary claims Republicans are making, ones just as ludicrous: Private depositions are bad because they’re private, but public hearings are bad because they’re public; Gordon Sondland was probably just “freelancing” when he carried out Trump’s orders; George Soros is behind all this; we shouldn’t listen to hearsay witnesses, but people who spoke directly to Trump shouldn’t testify either; “abuse of power is not a crime”; the Trump administration was too inept for there to have been impeachable acts; Russia did not intervene in the 2016 election to help elect Donald Trump, but rather Ukraine intervened to help Hillary Clinton; and many others.
Donald Trump is a harsh master; he demands not only absolute devotion and humiliating public displays of lickspittlery but a limitless moral and rhetorical flexibility. If you’re going to stand behind him, you’ll have no choice but to repeat arguments so absurd that only the truly deranged could find them persuasive. Republicans have shown they’re more than up to the task.