The president has so thoroughly annexed the GOP that it’s going to be hard for its leaders to cut their losses—even as he flails.
Donald Trump is, eventually, going down. He has committed an impeachable abuse of power in demanding that Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky investigate the family of Democratic political rival Joe Biden, and it looks like he tied that request to the release of military aid already authorized by Congress. All day Wednesday, Republicans clung to the talking point that there was no “quid pro quo”—even though immediately after Zelensky mentioned needing new defense support from the United States, Trump asked him for the “favor” of investigating Biden (having earlier complained that the support his administration has provided to Ukraine was not “reciprocal,” which is English for “quid pro quo”).
On Thursday morning, the initial whistle-blower complaint about Trump’s pressure on Zelensky was released. It confirmed everything previously reported, and added the detail that White House officials were ordered to “lock down”—translation: “hide”—all records of the conversations. (It also reveals “this was ‘not the first time’ under this administration that a presidential transcript was placed into this codeword-level system solely for the purpose of protecting politically sensitive…information.”) It describes how administration officials traveled to Kyiv to help locals “navigate” Trump’s directives to the new president after the July call.
So many Trump factotums have been implicated here, even before the whistle-blower’s complaint was released. His deeply creepy personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, who is all over the newly released document, says Mike Pompeo’s State Department sent him to talk to Ukrainian leaders about investigating Biden. Office of Management and Budget director Mick Mulvaney apparently held back the Ukrainian aid. And Attorney General William Barr’s fingerprints are all over this mess—not only did Trump press Zelensky to work with Barr, at least four times in one phone call; Barr’s Justice Department rejected the Inspector General’s recommendation to investigate a whistle-blower’s report about the president’s demands of Zelensky. Now that the New York Times has reported that Trump first asked Zelensky to investigate “corruption” after his April election, Barr’s tongue-tied response to Senator Kamala Harris’s May 1 question—“Has the president or anyone at the White House ever asked you to open an investigation of anyone?”—looks increasingly dodgy.
Remarkably, but not unbelievably, most Republicans continue to defend Trump. Sad former maverick Senator Lindsey Graham rushed out after the transcript of the July Trump-Zelensky call was released to insist: “To impeach any president over a phone call like this would be insane.” House minority leader Kevin McCarthy, infamous for telling a group of GOP friends he thinks “[Vladimir] Putin pays [Trump],” introduced a resolution he sloppily described on Twitter: “The House of Reps disapproves of the actions of Speaker Pelosi to initiate an impeachment inquiry against the duly elected President of the US.” Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell called it “laughable to think this is anywhere close to an impeachable offense.”
There have been a few signs of fracture. Human weathervane Mitt Romney, now the senator from Utah, called the transcript “extremely troubling,” but stopped short of saying what that meant. Wednesday night, patriot poseur Senator Ben Sasse insisted that “Republicans ought not to be rushing to circle the wagons to say there’s no there there when there’s obviously lots that’s very troubling there.” “Troubling” is emerging as the safe word for Republicans, though, to be fair, Senator Pat Toomey also called the president’s behavior “inappropriate.” I’m waiting for Maine Senator Susan Collins to find it “disappointing,” her trademark, but she hasn’t yet.
Still, on a morning when the whistle-blower complaint has been released and acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire has just begun to testify, should we stand by for more defections? Democrats who read the whistle-blower report Wednesday evening emerged from the room visibly disturbed as they walked past cable TV cameras. Representative Jackie Speier described it as “nothing short of explosive,” adding, “I was stunned.”
So I have to assume we’ll see more GOP equivocation. But don’t expect a wholesale collapse. This is Donald Trump’s Republican Party. In 2012, with his anti-Obama birther racism as a political calling card, he made Mitt Romney grovel for his presidential endorsement; in 2016, he humiliated all of his rivals for the nomination. And look at what he’s done to everyone who’s served him: Former attorney general Jeff Sessions, who once held a safe Alabama Senate seat, resigned in shame. Military leaders like Jim Mattis, H.R. McMaster, and John Kelly had to slink away. This scandal alone, as I noted above, implicates Pompeo, Mulvaney, and Barr (as well as former “America’s Mayor” Giuliani, but he disgraced himself long ago). All were formerly, in their own ways, pillars of the modern GOP.
And notice what Trump did in his otherwise incoherent Wednesday press conference: Quite coherently, he implicated his vice president, Mike Pence, in the Ukraine mess. “I think you should ask for VP Pence’s conversation because he had a couple of conversations also.” Ouch. Message to Republicans: Don’t think impeachment gets you out of this. The whistle-blower’s complaint also reveals that Trump told Pence to cancel a trip to Zelensky’s inauguration. Trump is right about one thing: Pence is complicit in his corruption here.
I’ve often observed that Trump talks and acts like a Mafia boss. After reading the transcript of Trump’s July call with Zelensky, House Intelligence Committee chair Adam Schiff called it “a classic Mafia-style shakedown.” But that’s also Trump’s approach to his own party. I’ve always welcomed Never Trumpers to the resistance; we need them to revive democracy, so we can go back to arguing about tax rates and the virtues of single-payer health care. But the Vichy GOP is a different story. I mean, I’d welcome them too—but I don’t expect them. They are afraid, of Trump as well as his voters. They will not leave him easily, because he won’t let them.
I have never been more anxious to be proven wrong.