Thursday, October 10, 2019

This Week in Impeachment: Trump Lets Democrats Off the Hook, Puts the Squeeze on GOP Instead

The impeachment of President Trump was already a likely event by the end of last week. It became even more likely this week.

Three sets of developments each acted to push the probability of impeachment higher over the past few days. First, the Trump White House made it clear that it was adopting a maximally combative approach, refusing cooperation with Congress and even imposing a last-minute veto on Tuesday's scheduled deposition of Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the EU who was directly involved in policy toward Ukraine. This response seemed certain to strike Democrats of all ideological persuasions as unacceptably dismissive of the constitutional legitimacy of congressional oversight.

Second, a series of news stories filling in additional details and opening up more angles on the Ukraine affair kept momentum alive and suggested that future investigations, whether by Congress or the media, would potentially uncover even more impeachment fodder over time. New facts are still emerging on a daily basis, and it seems likely that the true scope of the story is not yet understood.

Third, a series of public opinion surveys confirmed that most Americans support the impeachment inquiry—and a Fox News poll released on Wednesday even found a slim majority already favoring Trump's removal from office. A Washington community that is ordinarily fond of cautioning Democrats that they are risking "overreach" by engaging in any politically assertive behavior temporarily ceased its usual litany of warnings, as the previously sizable bloc of citizens in the "dislike Trump but oppose impeachment" camp turned out to be easily convinced to jump aboard once Democratic leaders made the case for it.

Some pundits have interpreted the White House's flouting of Congress, including the sudden yanking of Sondland's congressional appearance on Tuesday, as the strategic playing of a weak hand. Why else would the president take steps that virtually ensure his impeachment, if not to desperately head off testimony and other evidence that would be at least equally damaging?

But it's likely that the stonewalling, at least in this case, was driven by presidential psychology more than any kind of justifiable calculation. Sondlund doesn't really fit the profile of a devastating witness against Trump—whom he continues to serve as ambassador—and it would have been easy enough for him to alternate rhetorical defenses of the president with claims of ignorance or lapsed memory when it came to any inconvenient details. Blocking his deposition with blanket assertions of executive supremacy alienated Democrats while signaling "coverup in progress" to the media and other attentive political elites. Even congressional Republicans seemed to believe that Sondlund would be more likely to help than hurt the president's case, apparently convincing the White House by Thursday night to permit him to testify after all next week.

Trump's risk-taking approach is not limited to the procedural warfare that seems ultimately destined to provoke additional counts of impeachment against him. He also continues to insist that he has done "nothing wrong" and therefore deserves no criticism from any direction. This behavior, too, has the effect of boxing in other Republicans while taking pressure off the more cautious members of the Democratic opposition.

When White House scandals arise, fellow partisans often perceive the safest political ground for themselves to be a middle position between conviction and exoneration: the president did something he shouldn't have, but the offense isn't serious enough to justify removal from office. This was the approach many Democrats adopted when Bill Clinton was impeached in 1998. Though aspects of Clinton's behavior were indefensible, they argued, his transgressions did not meet the constitutional standard of high crimes and misdemeanors. Once Clinton (eventually) acknowledged the impropriety of his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, expressing criticism of his actions did not require other Democrats to break with the White House's own party line.

Trump will have none of that. The events of the week signaled that no contrition will be expressed—not even a sentiment in the vein of "I'm sorry that foreign governments apparently misinterpreted my innocent remarks"—and no disloyalty will be tolerated. Blocking off this escape route puts congressional Republicans in an uncomfortable position. Any criticism of Trump from within the GOP, however gentle, will attract national media attention and potentially provoke a presidential counterattack on Twitter. But openly defending Trump's behavior has its own risks: according to this week's Fox News poll, 66 percent of Americans think that it was wrong for the president to ask foreign leaders to investigate his political rivals, and only 17 percent agree that Trump's comments on the call with Ukrainian president Zelensky were appropriate.

So far, a common Republican response to this dilemma is to publicly oppose impeachment as an unjustified partisan exercise led by Nancy Pelosi and Adam Schiff, but to also avoid directly answering the question of whether the president acted properly or whether soliciting foreign assistance in an electoral campaign (potentially a federal crime) is permissible behavior. This strategem may turn out to be a successful solution to Republicans' conundrum, but it carries an inevitable awkwardness that may not be sustainable as the story continues to progress over subsequent weeks and months.

Trump is wagering that he can hold Republicans in line by the mere threat of intra-partisan reprisal. He may well be right about this; if most Republicans aren't even willing to criticize Trump in public, they're certainly a long way from voting to impeach him or remove him from office. But for now, the president is likely to find fewer vocal defenders than he would have if he were willing to give an inch of ground by acknowledging the possibility that he might have made a mistake or two. So far, Trump's insistence that his communication with Ukraine was "perfect" has succeeded at creating more discomfort within the ranks of his own party than among his political opponents.